June 15, 2018
Walk into the Wayne Art Center and you get the feeling that you’ve entered a large, airy space where adults and children alike feel at home.
Over the last 30 years Nancy Campbell, the executive director, has shepherded the center from a tiny two-room school house, into the large, vibrant space it is now.
Campbell, 65, discovered she had a knack for developing educational programs when she was a student at the University of Northern Colorado and a professor recommended her for a part-time job at a small multi-art center. She was so successful that the center hired her after she graduated. Campbell, who grew up in Lower Merion, stayed in Greeley, Colo. for 10 years, where she worked at an antiques shop and learned about stained glass, eventually starting her own stained glass business. During that time, she married James Campbell, who also went to Harriton High School, but the pair had never met while in high school.
Campbell had decided to transfer from George Washington University after a year and was taking classes for a semester at Villanova, when she met her future husband when she was with friends at a convenience store in Bryn Mawr. It turned out they were taking the same Shakespeare class.
James Campbell later joined her in Colorado where he had a house building business and continues as a builder in this area today. When their son, Seamus, was a young child, the couple decided to come back east to be near their families, and Campbell said that she also missed living on the Main Line.
When Campbell, a Berwyn resident, returned to the area she took a job at the Timothy School. She was looking for a summer teaching job and came to the Wayne Art Center (WAC), which at that time was tiny and unpromising in appearance; she almost turned around and left without going in. When the former director left, she recommended Campbell for the position in 1987.
At her first board meeting, the board was discussing expansion. The board members had a small addition in mind but when she learned that due to zoning rules they would not be able to add on again, Campbell recommended that they think about what they might need in 10 years rather than going with a small addition.
“The first time, I had never read a plan before,” she said. “My whole time I learned by doing,” Campbell said.
She helped raise nearly $1 million after being told by consultants that the most they could hope for was $250,000, she said.
They ended up hiring a lawyer and getting a variance, she said. As WAC’s popularity continued apace they needed more space and they jumped at the chance to buy the neighboring Masonic Hall Association, which gave them a parking lot and a driveway onto Conestoga Road.
But the buildings needed to be combined and renovated. So that entailed another capital campaign, this time raising $5 million for the project, Campbell said. In retrospect, Campbell said that she was glad that the expansion occurred before the great recession because after that the 2008 recession occurred and “everything dried up.”
Nowadays, WAC has more than 6,000 square feet of contemporary exhibition space more than 20 shows run each year showcasing the work of local, regional, national and international artists in a variety of media.
Perhaps, the most famous show is the annual Plein Air Festival, now in its 12th year, where artists set up easels and create paintings outdoors. Campbell said that they learned about the Plein Concept and in 2005 visited the Sedona, Ariz. Plein Air Festival, which has become a “Mecca,” with its beautiful red rocks and the nearby Grand Canyon and colorful cowboy town of Jerome. Campbell said they wanted to bring Plein Air to Wayne because the countryside and buildings are also very attractive.
“We should try this in our area,” Campbell said. “It is so beautiful. There are so many painting opportunities.”
This year 32 artists came, some from as far away as California. The artists live in volunteers’ houses for five days, often leaving “at the crack of dawn,” and not coming back until dark, said Campbell. “This year there was not one rainy day.”
“The opening gala was amazing,” she said. The Plein Air paintings are on display at the Wayne Art Center through June 30 and WAC is offering a variety of classes and events in conjunction with the event.
In addition to the galleries, WAC has studios for art and music classes, a kitchen for culinary classes and seven lovely landscaped gardens.
There are 200 students enrolled in Suzuki violin lessons; and some 5,000 children and adults enrolled in various classes. More than 35,000 people come to WAC each year, whether for classes, lectures or special events. There are special art programs like Meet Me at WAC, for elderly dementia patients, and Broaden Your World for people with traumatic brain injury.
WAC also partners with the Timothy School for autistic children in Berwyn and St. Augustine’s Academy for Girls in Norristown. There is also an after school program for needy Wayne Elementary students at St. David’s Episcopal Church, Campbell said.
If that weren’t enough, WAC also offers corporate leadership and team building programs that area companies, including Vanguard take advantage of. And, WAC also has “great relationships” with area university’s art programs, she said.
“We’ve always been open to opportunities for programs that are beneficial to the community,” said Campbell. “We have a strong relationship with Radnor Township and Campbell is on the board of the Wayne Business Association.” WAC also offers a summer camp and enrolls about 1,600 kids in various classes from robotics to culinary arts.
There are about 20 exhibits at WAC each year, she said.
Campbell said her position is a “24/7” job. She has to be available if needed. While the kilns are now electric, before that she would often get late night calls because someone forgot to turn off a kiln.
Campbell traces her love of the arts from her childhood. She took piano lessons from the age of 5 and continued with piano in college.
Her father, Dr. William Whiteley, now 99, was a neurosurgeon at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, but his hobby was photography. Every summer he’d take the family on a vacation out west where he could photograph the scenery.
“He got me interested in photography,” Campbell said. He also played the organ and “he encouraged us to study music.” She also got interested in sewing while in high school and did an internship with special needs children then.
Also, her grandmother had a millinery business in Philadelphia. Campbell would spend time in the shop sewing, playing with mannequins and making hats. That grandmother was “also an oil painter and she used to let me paint with her in her kitchen. She introduced me to painting which I think was instrumental in developing my interest in art. She had all of her portraits and landscapes paintings displayed throughout her house and I used to stare at them endlessly. She was also very independent and entrepreneurial for the time and also that must have had some influence on me.”
After deciding to transfer from George Washington University, Campbell said that she was seeking a college out west where could combine her various interests, including special education, speech therapy and piano. Her dad forbade her from applying to the University of Colorado in Boulder because he’d heard there was a major drug problem there. So she opted for the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley and a profession recommended that she work at the art center. The first program that she developed was quilting for adults, she said. She had to go out in the community and find someone to teach it, she said.
James Michener taught at UNC and also wrote the book and television movie, “Centennial,” which was inspired by the area surrounding the college.
“I visited the site where they shot the movie and they basically transformed a remote town in the eastern plain about 30 miles east of Greeley that consisted of only a café and some gas pumps into a thriving western town,” she said. A neighbor was an extra and took Campbell out to see the film being made and “I always felt fortunate to have been exposed to that experience,” she said.
Villanova resident Jim Cobb, vice president of the WAC board, said, “Nancy and I have worked together for 20 years. I’ve seen her cry once. She laughs and smiles. She’s quite a lady.”
Campbell said that Cobb, a retired Arco vice president of government affairs, has been a big help with fundraising. Cobb is a WAC student as well, taking classes in sculpting and oil painting. One of his large abstract canvasses hangs in the lobby. His wife, Phyllis, is also sculptor, working in stone, he said.