Gilroy Roberts studio exhibit opens at Philadelphia college

Display on view in structure once housing third Philadelphia Mint
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Published : 08/15/13
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A 1,000-square-foot display exhibiting the works of former Chief U.S. Mint Engraver Gilroy Roberts is scheduled to open to the public for the first time at 3 p.m. Sept. 10 at Community College of Philadelphia.

The building that will hold the exhibit was once home to the third United States Mint.

The exhibit, Gilroy Roberts: Mastering a Craft, was developed and designed collaboratively by two Philadelphia-based firms, Habithèque Inc. and Metcalfe Architecture & Design. The project has been in the works for more than 16 months.

Many of the items in the exhibit are among those that were on public display from 1991 to 2000 at the American Numismatic Association Money Museum in Colorado Springs, Colo.

The Philadelphia exhibit has been developed as an outgrowth of the pledge of a $1.02 million donation from the Gilroy and Lillian P. Roberts Charitable Foundation to further educational outreach at the college.

The exhibit will include a diorama replication of Roberts’ artist’s studio that once was in the basement of his Newtown, Pa., home.

Roberts, the ninth chief engraver of the U.S. Mint, served in the presidentially appointed chief engraver’s post from 1948 to 1964, before leaving to direct design and production at the private Franklin Mint.

Victoria Prizzia, Habithèque Inc.’s founder and interpretive planner, said the exhibit at 1700 Spring Garden St. will include items from a number of sources, including examples of Roberts’ work that are in the collection of Roberts’ son, John Roberts.

The Spring Garden Street structure served as the third Philadelphia Mint from 1901 until the fourth Philadelphia Mint, the current Mint facility, opened in 1969. The college acquired the structure in 1971, and college classes were first held in the building two years later, in September 1973. The Mint Building also houses the studios and classrooms for the college’s Art Department.

Inaugural exhibition

The Roberts’ exhibition is the inaugural exhibition for the newly designed gallery space off the former Mint’s rotunda. The gallery space is actually part of a pedestrian corridor that will be open during public hours, but closed off and secured after hours, Prizzia said. All exhibit items will be in display cases behind glass, and the Roberts’ studio diorama, although visible to the public, will be physically inaccessible, she said.

Examples of Roberts’ work as chief engraver at the U.S. Mint, including his signature John F. Kennedy half dollar (introduced in 1964), as well as presidential and congressional medals, are accompanied by his work at the Franklin Mint. That latter work includes a silver version of an 11-inch by 19.5-inch sculpture called The Great American Eagle that was also produced in bronze.

The silver piece to be displayed is Gilroy Roberts’ proof sculpture.

The exhibit will also include three framed prints from steel engravings from the Famous Americans Commemorative Postage Series. The engravings from which the prints were made were executed by Roberts in 1940 for the Bureau of Engraving and Printing during his tenure there.

Tools of the trade

The Gilroy Roberts Collection includes many of Roberts’ sculpturing tools, including some homemade items; plaster models and galvanos for coins and medals, along with some of the coins and medals produced; sculptures and paintings; materials used for design inspiration; coin and medal drawings; photos of the third Philadelphia Mint from its days as a functioning production facility; and even an engine used for engine-turned engraving.

Roberts’ contributions to the coin and medallic arts are set in the context of his personal journey as a mechanic, engraver and artist, Prizzia said. Set against a backdrop of his reimagined studio, an audio tour and multimedia display tell the narrative of Roberts’ life, work and creative processes, she said.

Prizzia said the complete Roberts exhibit is expected to remain on display for at least a year, with the Roberts Foundation having the option to extend it longer. During the initial exhibition period, other Roberts works will be rotated into the exhibit, Prizzia said.

The Roberts artist studio will remain on permanent display, but after the initial exhibition period, items representing other subjects will be available for rotation into the remaining space not occupied by the studio, she said.

Prizzia said she served in a curatorial capacity, logging in each piece that was received for the exhibit at the Community College of Philadelphia. Once completed, she collaborated with Metcalfe Architecture & Design to design the best way to display select pieces from the collection.

Two other Philadelphia firms that worked on the exhibit development were Greenhouse Media and Blair Brothers Music.

Greenhouse Media worked with Habithèque on the three multimedia components included in the exhibition:

➤ The Anatomy of a Coin: 1964 Kennedy Half Dollar Interactive Station Experience: Visitors explore the design elements of the coin contextualized with historical information.

➤ An Introduction to Gilroy Roberts Video Experience: Visitors learn about the life and times of Gilroy Roberts in the artist’s own words.

➤ The Art of Coining Video Experience: A looping presentation will show a short historic video depicting the minting of U.S. coins at the Philadelphia Mint at 1700 Spring Garden St., followed by a short captioned sideshow of historic images from the same location. The circa 1940 video can be seen online at www.youtube.com/watch?v=mBjD9N1APsw.

Blair Brothers Music worked with Habithèque on the production of a companion audio tour that will eventually be available for download on-site at the exhibition and through CCP’s website (www.ccp.edu), Prizzia said. The audio tour provides additional commentary in Roberts’ own words as well as descriptions of specific aspects of the exhibition, she said.

Once at ANA

Before Roberts’ Jan. 26, 1992, death at age 86, the Gilroy and Lillian P. Roberts Charitable Foundation arranged for the ANA to receive on permanent loan for extended exhibit a re-creation of his studio containing personal sculpturing and related items. A series of traveling exhibits also were created using items from Roberts’ collection.

The Roberts exhibit at the ANA was dedicated on the opening day of the ANA Summer Seminar in July 1991. The ANA exhibit replicated what Roberts’ basement office and studio looked like at the time of his death.

The exhibit was taken down in late 2000 or early 2001 while ANA headquarters underwent extensive renovations, and was never reassembled.

Stanley Merves, a trustee for the Roberts Foundation, subsequently arranged for the Roberts material stored at the ANA to be moved to Temple University, intending eventual display at the Tyler School of Art, which was under construction on Temple’s campus. The university was presented a $500,000 gift by the Roberts Foundation in exchange for 500-square feet of permanent exhibit space and another 500 square feet of storage, from which items could be rotated in an out of the exhibit space.

However, by the time the Temple University building was completed after four years of construction, space for the exhibit had not been incorporated into the building’s design.

Merves was successful in 2011 in securing from Temple the return of the $500,000 gift. Those funds originally gifted to Temple University became the initial gift to the Community College of Philadelphia, with the remaining $502,000 forwarded from the Roberts Foundation to the college in multiple installments.

Since the Community College of Philadelphia’s acquisition of the Mint Building in 1971, the facility’s rotunda has primarily been used for receptions and art exhibitions. ■

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