The Penney Gallery and Resource Room
With the recent grand opening of the Penney Gallery, the Niagara County Historical Society (The History Center) has started writing a new chapter in its own 90-year history. The Penney Gallery is the new exhibition gallery located at the Erie Canal Discovery Center, a jewel-in-the-crown of the History Center’s three sites and seven buildings all located within walking distance of each other in Lockport. The History Center created the Discovery Center as an adaptive reuse for a 19th century Erie Canal stone church, which was facing possible demolition after nearly two hundred years of service. The Erie Canal Discovery Center, an award winning, state-of-the-art interpretive museum was completed in 2005 at a cost of over $1 million.
The Penney Gallery and Resource Room is the second phase of development at the Discovery Center. It is named in honor and memory of History Center friend, former board president and life member, Charles Rand Penney, who was recognized around the globe as one of the great American collectors of the twentieth century. Prior to his death in 2010, Dr. Penney was the recipient of many awards for his contributions in the field. From humble beginnings, Dr. Penney’s collecting interests grew to include over 100 different themes and 100,000 items, ranging from the art of Western New York to World’s Fair and Exposition souvenirs, from Staffordshire figures to coat hangers, and from quilts to Mr. Peanuts memorabilia. Dr. Penney not only enjoyed collecting, but became a major donor of art objects. His philanthropy culminated in the 1990s, with the donation of his Western New York art collection to the Burchfield Art Center at Buffalo State College. This donation included paintings, sculpture, craft art, Roycroft objects, and 184 works by painter Charles E. Burchfield. In recognition of this tremendous donation, the Burchfield Art Center was renamed the Burchfield-Penney Art Center in 1994.
Dr. Penney renewed old ties with The History Center in 2008 when he offered to gift his entire collection of Niagara County art, artifacts and research materials to the History Center. Penney’s Niagara collection of about 5,000 items contained paintings by many well known area artists like William Storrs, Joe Whalen, Olivia McConnell and Bernitha Melnick, and a large amount of commercial ephemera from the 19th and 20th century. These items include posters, notices and memorabilia related to the Erie Canal and numerous notebooks of items of interest from local businesses, as well as local post cards. Merchandising items of the Seven Sutherland Sisters, local plate collections, Harrison Radiator/ Delphi merchandising and artifacts from local businesses are also included. Many of the items are very unique and give a comprehensive overview of the local history subject matter.
After discussing several options with Dr. Penney, it was decided that the best solution to accomplish Mr. Penney’s desires and allow public access to his collection for the first time, would be to add additional exhibition, storage and research space at the Erie Canal Discovery Center. A local architectural firm was hired to create the plans to complete the project. The next two years were filled with “crossing the T’s and dotting the I’s” in terms of planning and fundraising for a new 1,000 square-foot mezzanine exhibition gallery, as well as repurposing a separate space within the building to create an industry-standard storage facility and resource center for books, maps, photographs and other archival items from Mr. Penney’s collection. The History Center raised over a quarter million dollars in financial support for this project and construction took place throughout the winter months of 2011.
While supervising construction for the new facilities, the History Center turned its attention to packing over 5,000 collection pieces from Mr. Penney’s storage and moving these priceless artifacts to our new facilities. To celebrate the completion of this huge accomplishment, a grand opening celebration, called the “Past, Penney & Future Gala,” was held August 20, 2011. This successful fundraising event included a ribbon-cutting ceremony, semi-formal outdoor fine dining experience catered by the Lockport Town & Country Club as well as a silent-auction of art and other collectibles.
The premier exhibit currently on display at the new Penney Gallery is designed to highlight the breadth and depth of the collection and provide a sampling of many different types of items. The exhibit includes iconic artwork that has traveled the United States appearing in premiere facilities nationwide. Future annual exhibits will include items that center around a single genre from among the many themes found in the collection.
The History Center believes that the opening of the Penney Gallery and Penney Resource Room will add several new dimensions to its Erie Canal Discover Center. It is hoped that the Penney Gallery with its world-class displays of art and artifacts will help the Center re-invent itself to a local audience, bringing friends to a new level of engagement. As exhibits are changed each year, the Penney Gallery will present a different educational experience through each subsequent visit. Over 30,000 tourists each year will enjoy the new displays as well as thousands of students and researchers who will benefit from the wealth of knowledge contained within the research materials in the new Penney Resource Room. The addition of the Penney Gallery and Resource Room has propelled the Erie Canal Discovery Center into a year around attraction, instead of being limited to the six month Erie Canal season.