In May 2016, the rug was pulled out from under Danforth Art, a museum and studio art school in Framingham.
The organization was forced to leave the municipally owned Danforth Building because of issues with the building’s boiler. Debra Petke, who received the eviction notice on her one-year anniversary as executive director, had four months to relocate 3,500 art objects.
After almost three years of work, including the formation of a partnership with Framingham State University, the museum reopened to the public last month in the former Jonathan Maynard Building at 14 Vernon St.
The Danforth Art Museum at Framingham State is now home to the university’s sculpture and ceramics courses on the first floor, museum exhibits on the second floor, and community art classes on the third floor.
“The previous space was never designed to be a museum. This space was designed as a museum, the proper temperature for the work, the correct lighting system,” Petke said. “We have beautiful wood flooring. We have very high ceilings. Everything that adds to that experience of going to a museum, that comfort.”
The museum has six galleries — one for Danforth Art’s own American art collection, four dedicated to changing exhibits, and a final one permanently devoted to the work of Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller , one of the first well-known, African-American female sculptors. In the early 20th century, Fuller lived in Framingham with her family, and the museum has re-created her studio in the gallery dedicated to her.
Fuller is known best for her revolutionary depictions of the African and African-American experience. A native of Philadelphia, she studied at the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Art before continuing her sculpting studies in Paris.
She moved to Framingham in 1909 when she married her husband, Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller, who worked at Westborough State Hospital. Her husband was one of the first known African-American psychiatrists in the country, and Fuller Middle School in Framingham is named in honor of the couple.
The collection at the museum spans Fuller’s work, from her days in Paris to her later pieces celebrating African-American intelligentsia and the Harlem Renaissance. According to the Danforth website, it houses “the largest collection of work and ephemera” by Fuller.
The artfully curated space, however, gives no hint of how difficult the move was for Danforth Art.
The museum and school purchased the Jonathan Maynard Building on Framingham’s Centre Common in 2014, with the intention of one day moving there.
But once it partnered with Framingham State, Danforth Art needed Town Meeting’s permission to transfer the municipally owned property to the university. Community members, however, were concerned the university would instead turn the building into a residence hall.
“Over 100 people had to vote on this to happen. The first time, they voted it down, but the second time, it was overwhelmingly in favor,” Petke said. “The university was really trying to do the right thing for the town and for their students. It took a long time to get here, but, in the end, it was worth it. In truth, we would have closed the Danforth if this had not happened.”
Petke estimated it would have cost Danforth Art about $10 million to renovate the space itself. The university, on the other hand, has access to state resources and was able to do it for $6 million.
Museum and university leaders agree the addition of the Danforth is a source of pride on campus. It is unique for a state university to have its own dedicated museum, said Framingham State president Javier Cevallos, and he hopes it inspires students.
“I can’t quite stress how important it is for students to have access to art,” said Keri Straka, a ceramics professor who now holds her classes in the new space. “The accessibility is the number one thing. It won’t require long travel or a car.”
Straka used to teach her courses in the basement of an older building, May Hall. She said there was water damage and it was common for standing water to accumulate in the room after a rainstorm, leading to mold issues. Unsurprisingly, she prefers the new space, which she describes as “open and airy.”
There is also now a lounge space for students to network and pottery wheels that face each other to increase student connectivity.
“We have amazing students here and they have been so worthy of having a space that can match their intellectual curiosity and their ability to think creatively,” Straka said. “After 13 years [at Framingham State] in a space that might have held students back, I’m really excited.”
Ysabelle Kempe can be reached at email@example.com.