Evan H. Turner (born 1927), an art historian and scholar, was the Director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) from 1964 to 1978, leading the Museum through a period of significant growth and transformation. He created new art departments for American and 20th Century Art, and the innovative Department of Urban Outreach (DUO) to promote art across the City of Philadelphia. These progressive activities were matched by a groundbreaking exhibition in 1973, the Marcel Duchamp retrospective, which drew upon significant scholarship and assembled virtually the entire oeuvre of one of the most important artists represented in the Museum. In 1975, Turner led the Museum in a major construction project to install a new climate control system in the building, and in 1976, he helped plan the United States’ Bicentennial and the PMA’s Centennial celebrations.
Turner was born in 1927 in Orono, Maine. He attended Harvard University, where he received his BA (1949), MA (1950) and PhD (1954) in art history. From 1950 to 1951, he managed the Fogg Museum’s docent program, and from 1951 to 1952, completed a Harvard teaching fellowship. From 1953 to 1956, Turner worked as a lecturer and research assistant at the Frick Collection in New York City. He was appointed general curator at the Wadsworth Athenaeum in 1955, where he remained until 1959, when he was hired as the Director of the Montreal Museum of Art. He stayed there until 1964, when he was brought on as director of PMA.
Turner’s tenure at the PMA was very productive. He established departments in 20th century and American Art, and the Alfred Stieglitz Center for Photography. Under his leadership, yearly donations to the Museum increased to $500,000 and membership grew to 18,000. Turner was also committed to expanding the Museum’s patronage, especially gaining the support of people living in Philadelphia’s inner city neighborhoods. To this end, he created the Department of Urban Outreach (DUO). The DUO brought art into the neighborhoods, especially through its mural painting program, and from 1971 to 1977, two affiliated institutions were coordinated by DUO, the Fleisher Art Memorial in South Philadelphia and the Thomas Eakins House in the Fairmount neighborhood.
In 1975, Turner embarked on a major City construction project to install climate control throughout the Museum’s 1928 building. This project required removal of works of art from galleries and temporarily closing the Museum to the public. After the project’s completion, Turner led the Museum in a series of events to celebrate the country’s Bicentennial and the Museum’s Centennial, including a reception in honor of HRH Queen Elizabeth of England and the landmark exhibition, "Three Centuries of American Art."
1977 saw the arrival by bequest of the Carl Otto von Kienbusch Collection, one of the finest arms and armor collections in the United States. That year, unexpectedly, Turner tendered his resignation, stating in his letter of resignation, "I have come to feel increasingly that there are very real advantages to change in the direction of a distinguished art museum such as ours… I am proud to have had a part in the Museum’s preparations for its Centennial celebrations, but it is proper that someone else should undertake the challenges of the directorship and bring different energies to bear as the museum faces its second century."
From Philadelphia, Turner went on to be director of North Carolina's Ackland Art Museum, and from 1982 to 1993, he was the Director of the Cleveland Museum of Art. Turner was a leader nationally in the world of art museums. Throughout his career, he held various leadership roles within several professional and arts and culture organizations including, Federal Council on the Arts, Center for Museum Education, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Association of Art Museum Directors, American Association of Museums, American Federation of Arts, and International Advisory Committee on Fine Arts. While in Philadelphia, he was affiliated with the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, Fairmount Park Art Association, Old Philadelphia Development Corporation, Philadelphia 1976 Bicentennial Corporation, and the Institute of Contemporary Art. He also taught at the University of Pennsylvania.
Bibliography: PACSCL Survey record
“Turner, Evan.” Philadelphia Museum of Art, Archives, vertical file.