Global Conversations with Bill Valerio

William Valerio, the Director and CEO of the Woodmere Art Museum, discusses the significance of the museum’s recent grand exhibition of world renowned painter, muralist, portraitist, architectural and industrial designer, writer, civic leader, and advocate for world peace: Violet Oakley. The Woodmere is dedicated to the art and artists of Philadelphia and is proud to showcase Oakley, whose global career trajectory radiated out from her home in Greater Philadelphia during the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries.

A first time visitor to the Woodmere Art Museum might mistake this gem of Greater Philadelphia’s niche collection of artwork for a stately home among other suburban manors in Chestnut Hill. That is, until one gleans the curves of iron sculptures recognizable on the expanse of green lawn in front—an homage to the Museum founder, Charles Knox Smith, who sought to highlight the beauty of art in nature.

The historic edifice is home to the galleries of numerous prominent Philadelphian artists, and many of them are female. I sat down with Mr. Bill Valero to discuss how he positions the Woodmere Museum’s significance in Philadelphia and beyond—especially with regard to the museum’s thorough examination of Violet Oakley, an artist whose work pulls on the common threads of humanity.

Could you tell me a little more about your role at The Woodmere?

Sure! I am the Director and CEO of the Woodmere Art Museum, a museum dedicated to telling the stories of the artists of Philadelphia. My role as Director and CEO is both to lead the curatorial program and the educational program of the museum, and as the CEO, to lead the museum as a not-for-profit organization and bring the best business practices that I can to the work of the museum.

The Woodmere itself has the job of telling the stories of local artists, many of whom are involved in international conversations.

How did you come to this role and when did you come to Philadelphia?

I was born in Italy. As a consequence I have also been aware of the fact that there are different parts of the world where culture is different, where people not only eat different foods, but they communicate differently, sometimes with wild gestures like in Italy. Where I was raised in Brooklyn, the norm was different from what I saw when I was a child in Italy.

I came to Philadelphia in 2002 to attend Wharton. I had been working in museums before as a curator with a PhD in Art History, and I was interested in moving into other parts of the museum world. In the two years of my education, I came to realize Philadelphia is a wonderful place to live, and I became involved through MBA internships with the Philadelphia Museum of Art. After many years here, I was offered a position at the Woodmere.

Can you tell me a bit about Violet Oakley and her work?

Violet Oakley is one of the great artists of the history of Philadelphia, and we consider her such because she is a unique voice. She is not only a great virtuoso in terms of the power of the actual works, and their ability to speak to us over time, but she’s a civic figure. She’s an artist who sees her role as public, as art being something that can lift the soul, and that can change people’s minds about how they feel about important subjects.

For Violet, her art is dedicated to important subjects like the equality of all people. She believed that the country took too long to get serious equality, that slavery should have been abolished much sooner in the United States. This is a remarkable thing in the work of an artist who lived from 1874 to 1961.  

How was Violet Oakley involved in the global conversation?

A fundamental concept about her art was that it tried to move the world to a place of peace. She was a activist artist in a way that I think has resonated with a lot of younger and older artists in Philadelphia today. She had this idea of nations needing to come together so that we don’t have world wars, and wars that are fought over colonialist interests. She believed strongly in a need for a government of nations, and she found the roots for this idea, of an international governmental organization, in the writings of William Penn and the principles that William Penn set down for the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. She studied his writings and even though he owned slaves, she read about this idea of the equality of all people, and observed this contradiction. She’s the kind of artist who sees the complexity of history, and the complexity of contemporary life, and wants to pose solutions.

For Violet, those solutions are truly international. They have their roots in the local, but the solutions have to do with the local coming together. She so believed in this, that she petitioned the government of Pennsylvania to get her entrée into the meetings of the League of Nations after the first World War. Violet Oakley disagreed with the United States’ decision not to participate in the League of Nations meetings, so she and her partner, Edith Emerson, moved to Geneva. She attended these meetings and made portraits of the men and women together. She later attended meetings of the United Nations, and painted portraits of those in attendance. These portraits appeared in the Philadelphia evening bulletin, and were eventually given to the Woodmere. She thought about her connection to the broader world, but always came back to her home in Philadelphia. As a result, she kept her apartment in Philadelphia and lived with her same-sex partner, Edith Emerson. They were a same-sex couple long before that was a normal thing, and they lived their lives in a manner that was straightforward among their large group of prominent Philadelphian friends.

How did the Woodmere acquire Violet Oakley’s work?

Before, I was talking about the relationship between Violet and her partner, Edith. Edith was an artist, a muralist, a painter, a portraitist, and also the director of this museum from the early 1940s to 1978. Thanks to Edith, we have a large collection of Violet’s work, and a large collection of other women’s artwork. This is a distinguishing feature of Woodmere’s, where Edith collected works by aspiring female artists when other museums were not taking that seriously, and that’s one of the things that’s so interesting in the history of Woodmere.

We have partnerships with more internationally-involved museums, such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has a few pieces of Violet Oakley’s work. However, it is the Woodmere’s job to flesh out the story of how her art developed.

What do you think attracts multinational firms and people to Philadelphia?

What makes Philadelphia an extraordinary place to live is that it has great museums, great music like jazz, contemporary experimental music, classical. We are a deeply historical city and we have not only historical architecture of the 18th century, 19th century, and 20th century, but also great contemporary architecture. Philadelphia is an English city, whereas New York City, for example is a Dutch City. The Englishness reflects in the garden culture of this city. Philadelphia is so unlike New York, in that you have Chestnut Hill, West Philadelphia—these wonderful green places—where there is a balance of urban and green environment. Or, you can choose to live in Old City or Northern Liberties, and live in a very urban, hip place.

A world-class aspect of Philadelphia is our Quaker heritage. This is something I’ve learned about through exhibits like the Violet Oakley exhibition. The Quaker idea of respect for all people, I believe that is something that has legs.

Additionally, my perception is that artists are very mutually supported in Philadelphia, whereas in New York, it seems to be more competitive. We have more and more artist collective galleries, experimental projects by artists working together to show their work, to be involved. This is also something that makes Philadelphia a great place to be, particularly as an artist.

While the Violet Oakley exhibit is no longer on display at the Woodmere, the museum continues to showcase notable Philadelphian artists. With each exhibition, the Woodmere reminds the world that Philadelphia has and always will be a city of rich art and artists. The museum preserves the message that this is a place of “brotherly love”, a place where people care about one another, and a place where they collaborate to illustrate this in their work. Like her Philadelphian founding fathers, Oakley was a visionary figure whose decidedly holistic, civic and humanitarian values permeate not only her work, but also the accomplished works of her descendant counterparts on display at the Woodmere.