By Lisa Manookian
PHILADELPHIA — “Magnificent” is one word describing the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s exhibit titled, “Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective.” Michael R. Taylor, the museum’s Muriel & Philip Berman Curator of Modern Art, has made an important contribution in bringing to life this celebrated artist, in creating the first exhibition that emphasizes Gorky’s Armenian heritage, and in exploring a life filled with tragedy yet succeeded by triumph.
In their efforts to bring this exhibit to light, the museum staff reached out to several individuals within the Armenian community. This article focuses on the four Armenian women behind the exhibit: Alma Alabilikian, Alice Ohanessian Beamesderfer, Nancy Hovnanian and Joan Momjian. These women were a formidable force in uniting the entire Armenian community in support of this exhibit, as members of the Friends of Gorky Organizing Committee. They not only succeeded in getting the word out, but also served as the backbone for a great deal of fundraising, which provided invaluable support for the exhibition.
Alabilikian is a design architect, educator and community and church activist. Her immediate success in all these realms earned her recognition in 1965 as “One of the Outstanding Young Women in America.” Throughout her career, Alabilikian has chosen to focus her efforts on socially-responsible projects, many of which have won awards for outstanding design solutions. After joining the Vitetta Group, a successful architectural and engineering firm, Alabilikian began working on historic restoration projects such as the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, the Philadelphia Academy of Music, the Franklin Institute, City Hall, the Curtis Institute of Music and Walt Disney’s corporate headquarters in New York. Her creative contributions were soon rewarded as she became the first woman in the firm to be elevated to the rank of associate.
In the 1960s, the Philadelphia Museum of Art initiated the volunteer guide program, which Alabilikian was asked to join. For 16 years, she volunteered two Saturdays a month and subsequently became a part of the Graduate Guide Group. Her commitment to the museum was enhanced when she married artist, Peter Paone, whose works are in the permanent collection.
Alabilikian taught part-time at Beaver College (now Arcadia University). She was the recipient of the inaugural Adjunct Faculty Teaching Award and her dedication to Arcadia and the community was recognized when she was awarded the Golden Disc Award for distinguished accomplishments and outstanding achievements. At the end of her tenure, she was named professor emerita.