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Thursday, June 23, 2011

My amazing friend, Tom Armstrong

My dear friend, Tom Armstrong, passed away last Monday, June 20.

Very simply Tom was the most exciting director of any Philadelphia Museum in the 20th century.  He lead the spectacular renovation of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, charmed everyone in the city and brought joy to all that he met with his style, humor and alluring empathy.

When my parents would return from some event at the Academy, my mother would still be glowing from the fun that Tom had provided everyone that evening.   Philadelphia can be a very tough town on boring Museum Directors cutting them up into little pieces and flinging them into the Schuylkill River.  But that was NEVER the case with Tom Armstrong.  Everyone adored him.

My father, who was on the board, would say that Tom's ability it engage Bonnie Winterstein, Lois McNeil, Dodo Hamilton and Lenore Annenberg was something that no one else could have done.  Those four elegant, fiercely independent women supported his dream of bringing the Pennsylvania Academy back to the original 1876 vision of Frank Furness. 

My father, then Secretary of Commerce of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, inspired by Tom found a way to get the State to contribute $2,000,000 to finish the project.   One day he saw the Governor's wife, Muriel, blithely walking down Broad Street, saw an opportunity and ushered her into the Academy to be given a precipitously organized tour.  She fell in love with the project and would not let the Governor go to sleep that night until he promised her that he would find the money from the state's Bicentennial funds.

Without question it is the most beautiful and significant 19th century Museum building in the Western Hemisphere.

And then the dark day occurred in 1976.   My mother was broken hearted, devastated at the news that Tom was leaving to become the director of the Whitney Museum in New York City.  No one in Philadelphia could believe it.  We had taken him to our bosom and now he was leaving for that money grubbing city to the North.

It was painful for everyone because Tom's love of life brought happiness to everyone.  His sense of what was truly important and what was pompous was perfect.  We loved him for that.

New Yorkers have been taking from Philadelphians ever since the Erie Canal opened in 1825 and Andrew Jackson took the Bank from Nicholas Biddle in 1832.   Even in my field of cartography, many Philadelphia masters moved to New York at the height of their careers.  It's horrible AND RELENTLESS.   Very simply New Yorkers on the whole elect better Mayors and that makes a profound difference over time.

Even the writer of this blog left at the age of 44 abandoning his amazing home and grounds in Villanova designed by Frederick Law Olmstead and a follower of Edwin Luytens. 

In New York Tom did a spectacular job at the Whitney and turned it into a national museum.  He quickly realized that the Met was going to get the majority of rich New Yorkers and found a way to bring in collectors from all over the United States to support his vision of American Art. 

Then one amazing day about 25 years ago, Tom decided to start collecting from me the works of art that were my passion - John James Audubon, Mark Catesby, Basil Besler and even a map or two.  As word got out it added immeasurably to the allure and stature of my business giving it true legitimacy.  As with everything, he collected with humor and genius.   The end product was brilliant in every instance.

And, as always, the women working with me at the time, including my first wife, LIVED for the thrill of being with Tom and watching him collect.  He just knew how to listen and make them laugh.  He was perfect.

Then one day Tom decided to help me join a Club here in New York City that was far, far beyond my station.  Somehow he and another close friend found a way to get me right up to the stage of an interview with the admissions committee. 

With only ten minutes to go, it was time for me to find the one suit from my Yale days still in my closet that had not been worn in years.

HORRORS!!!!

Moths had eaten quarter size holes in my pants so that the skin of my legs clearly showed through in 30 places.  It was like a clown's costume.  My days of moving up in the world came crashing to an end. 

THEN

FURIOUSLY

A MAGIC MARKER

was found and my legs were painted black so that the effect of being a complete ass was somewhat muted.

At the meeting everyone had no interest in me at all and wanted only to laugh with my sponsor, Tom.  The camouflage of his glowing persona subtly swept me into membership.

Thank you Tom for being who you were and for all the happiness that you brought everyone during your spectacular life.  You will be sorely missed.

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