The Armenian Women behind Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective


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.

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When Alabilikian was approached by the Philadelphia Museum of Art to be part of the organizing committee for the Arshile Gorky exhibit, she was thrilled. “It was especially enriching to have been asked to do research on Armenian architecture to inform the design of the space for the two paintings of ‘The Artist and His Mother.’ It has not only been an engaging and stimulating experience but also for the first time to have had the opportunity to view both these paintings together, has rendered my family, and I dare say, most Armenians breathless. His sorrow and depth of understanding of the human condition, expressed through his art, gives hope to all Armenians. For me personally, as a child of a survivor whose mother was so brutally massacred, Gorky has given vision to my imagined grandmother. What an amazing gift he has given us all.”

Beamesderfer is the associate director for collections and project support at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She has worked at the museum for the last 23 years, during which time she organized exhibitions and coordinated major projects, such as the reinstallation of the museum’s European galleries. Her most recent exhibition was “Gifts in Honor of the 125th Anniversary of the Museum.” Beamesderfer has also worked closely with the museum’s director and curators on collections-related issues such as acquisitions, loans to special exhibitions and collections management and documentation. From June 2008 until September 2009, following the untimely death of the museum’s director, Anne d’Harnocourt, she was interim head of curatorial affairs and had responsibility for all of the museum’s curatorial activities, including the Gorky exhibition.

“As an Armenian-American, I have always responded to Gorky’s work in a deeply emotional way, but working on this exhibition with our supremely talented curator, Michael Taylor, enabled me to see the entire trajectory of Gorky’s career through the more objective lens of art history while completely validating my sense of Gorky’s genius. It was a great pleasure for me to reconnect with many old friends, and to make many new friends in the Armenian community through this exhibition, and especially to work with Nancy, Alma and Joan on our outreach efforts.”

Hovnanian is a weekday guide at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and an active member of the local community, having served as a Sunday School superintendent and teacher, in various positions in her local school district, as a member of Art Goes to School of the Delaware Valley and presently co-chair of the Women’s Guild of her parish, Holy Trinity Armenian Church in Cheltenham, Penn.

Married for 34 years to Stephen Hovnanian, Nancy Hovnanian is the mother of four children and grandmother of four. An artist who works with clay, Hovnanian has a degree in fine arts from the Philadelphia College of Art (now the University of the Arts in Philadelphia). She has always loved art and an art museum is always the first stop in any city she visits.

With respect to the Gorky exhibit, Hovnanian is one of the guide coordinators whose duties include setting up training sessions for the interested guides. Training sessions for the Gorky exhibit started in June and continued through September, just prior to the opening of the exhibit. Her other responsibilities in connection with the exhibit include scheduling the guides for all of the Gorky tours. As a Friends of Gorky member, she also helped the museum reach out to the various musicians who participated in the Art After 5 events, in educating the other guides about Armenian music and art, and assisting the chef with menu options for the opening gala in mid-October.

“As a guide, I wanted to do the exhibit because he was Armenian, but the more I learned about his life and approach to his art, the more I fell in love with his work. He is an inspiration on many levels. His story of survival, not only of the Genocide, but also throughout his everyday life as an artist, and the problems in his later years, touched me. He needed to paint and create in order to survive until he could no longer function. And what he creates — the colors and images blow me away every time I walk through the show.”

Momjian is a graduate of Centenary College and is married to Set Momjian. She has two sons, Bruce and Christopher (both married) and six grandchildren ranging in age from 8 to 17 years. She is the vice president of the Board of Fairmount Park Preservation Trust and is a board member of the Acorn Club and The Friends of The Berman Museum at Ursinus College. She volunteered at Independence National Historic Park (INHP) for over 16 years and served as president of The Friends of INHP for two years. She is currently a member of the Ladies Committee at The Union League of Philadelphia working on projects to raise funds for scholarships.
Joan Momjian’s affiliation with the museum began in the early 1980s when she trained to become a Park House Guide for the historic houses in Fairmount Park and served as chair of a group of over 50 women for two years. She is still an active guide in this program and is also a member of the Women’s Committee of the museum, having served as president for two years.

When she was asked by Taylor, the enthusiastic curator of the Gorky Exhibit, to help raise awareness and funding for the Gorky exhibit, she was thrilled. Momjian was excited about many new exhibits, but this one was special because it focused on an Armenian-American artist. She had seen various exhibitions of Gorky’s works in other cities but to have it here in Philadelphia was momentous, and she felt honored to play a part in it, she said.

Noted Momjian:  “Working on this exhibit has made my pride in being an Armenian-American even stronger and I am grateful it has helped to make the public aware of the talent of this artist while learning the history of the Armenian Genocide and the impact on its survivors. And I was also proud that the museum was forthright in exploring the subject so honestly. I feel anyone who came to see the Gorky exhibit, or has heard or read about it without experiencing a museum visit, probably knows more about Armenians now than they ever did before. I am grateful to the museum and its staff for making this exhibition a reality. This exhibit should be a must see for everyone, but especially for every Armenian-American who will experience a tremendous surge of pride as they walk through the galleries. It’s a walk you won’t forget!”

One point that all of these women agree on is their ability to share their Armenian heritage, both within the museum, and with the general public. As Nancy says, “It is amazing to find so many people who had no idea about the Genocide. I think that seeing the effects of horror on Gorky, and how it stays with him his whole life, makes people think. All Armenians around the world should be so proud to know that Gorky is considered one of the great American artists of the 20th century.”

“Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective,” began at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on October 20, and continues through January 10. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. On Fridays, the museum remains open until 8:45 p.m. For additional information visit The exhibit will then move to London’s Tate Modern from February 10, 2010 through May 3, 2010 and then on to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in the summer.

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