Charles Dudley (1881-1957) began as principal of Woodrow Wilson Middle School in 1928 with many goals in mind, one of which was to build an art collection with which no other school could compare, and that would remain in the schools forever.

When Dudley took the job as Principal of this new school, he discovered that it was unpopular with parents. 90% of the students lived more than a mile from the school, there was no transportation, and Cottman Avenue was an unpaved dirt road. Once the school opened, this resentment disappeared, and the school grew a reputation for academic excellence, student leadership, musical productions, and community involvement.

Under Dudley’s leadership, the school put the arts – visual, music, literary and performing – at the forefront. Wilson Middle School’s collection became one of the finest in the Philadelphia school district. Much of the work was purchased between 1931 and 1946. Dudley built the collection with help from his friend, artist Walter Emerson Baum. Baum put Dudley in contact with other artists from the area, allowing him to purchase more work, and commission work by local artists. In addition, Dudley had staff traveling to galleries as far as New York City to obtain work and involved teachers in the selection of works by asking them to vote upon works that were being considered.

Dudley went to great lengths to get in touch with artists for his collection by writing to artists directly, visiting galleries and exhibitions in Philadelphia and New York, and asking for assistance by other artists. He wrote to one artist that the artwork would “always be not only an inspiration to the pupils who passed through our corridors daily, but also would be an object of permanent beauty to enhance the cold and austere walls of our building.” Dudley was a strict bargainer – he had a budget to stick to (usually no more than $300 dollars), along with requiring that objects be in the medium of oil, and of a certain size: “40×50 and nothing less than 32×40 inches.” Dudley also collaborated with Theodore Dillaway, then the Director of Art Education in Philadelphia, in collecting work. Dudley would often ask for Dillaway’s opinion about what artists to purchase and for his validation when a work was acquired.

Building the entire character was Dudley’s philosophy of education, and the arts were an integral part of it. A well-rounded education that exercised the mental and the physical was believed important for a child’s growth and moral development. Qualities such as dependability, thoroughness, sympathy, and courage were highly valued. Training in academics, physical and mental health, emotions, and religion, was necessary for the young student. He believed that the art experience was an essential part of this character building, and using real artworks to influence these qualities was very important. Through Dudley’s efforts, by 1950, the school assembled a collection of 72 works by noted Pennsylvania Impressionist artists that hung in the hallways for decades.

Dudley commissioned this portrait in 1948 by noted artist Alice Kent Stoddard. It was one of two works by Stoddard in the school’s collection. It hung in the school’s grand entrance known as “The Marble Hall” for decades. You can see this work in the exhibition, Decorated, Displayed Discovered: Celebrating the Region’s School Art Collections on view through January 7, 2018.

Download education materials on the exhibition by visiting the Classroom Connections page.

-Adrienne Neszmelyi-Romano, Director of Interpretation and Innovation