Walking along a hallway lined with paintings by professional artists, guide Amanda Seanor reminds members of her tour group that they are in neither an art gallery nor a museum.
“It’s definitely not boring here walking from class to class,” says Seanor, 18, describing the student-owned art collection at Greater Latrobe Senior High School near Latrobe, Pa. (pop. 8,338).
“Just look at the variety of subjects and styles,” the senior says as the school bell rings and other teenage students fill the art-adorned halls.
Every year since 1936, Latrobe’s student body has selected and purchased paintings by western Pennsylvania artists for its Special Art Collection, funded through concession sales at football games and other school events. Today, the collection includes more than 200 paintings on display throughout the school, which welcomes tours by community groups and students of all ages.
Spotlighted by more than a mile of museum-quality track lighting, the artwork has influenced thousands of students who have walked the school’s hallways during the last 75 years.
“Before I came to high school, I wanted to be a math teacher,” says Seanor, who plans to study art in college. “It’s inspiring to be surrounded every day by all these paintings.”
A greater appreciation for the arts was exactly what art teacher Mary Martha Himler had in mind during the Great Depression when she began borrowing paintings from the Associated Artists Show in nearby Pittsburgh to present to school assemblies at Latrobe High School.
“She was very concerned that her students were not experiencing original art,” says Barbara Nakles, 75, who studied with Himler as a member of the Class of 1952.
Within a few years, social studies teacher James Beatty, a fellow artist who served as student council adviser, proposed letting the student body vote on and purchase pieces for a student-owned collection, which the student council would manage.
“[Both teachers] were very interesting people, dynamic and stubborn,” recalls Nakles, who chairs the school’s Art Conservation Trust. “But it takes that kind of determination to start a project like this.”
Each year after viewing a variety of paintings during an assembly, students cast paper ballots in homeroom classes and, using money raised by selling hot dogs and soft drinks, authorized Beatty to negotiate with the artists to purchase their favorites.
Their first selections in 1936 foreshadowed how the collection would come to tell the students’ own story—Deserted Farm, which depicts the dark days of the Depression, and Blossom Time, featuring the dreamlike colors of how a happier time might look. Subsequent paintings continue to reflect the students’ consciousness, whether during World War II, the tumultuous 1960s, or the Digital Age.
With such artistic diversity, the collection has become a natural part of the school’s curriculum, not only for art classes, but to teach history, literature, language arts and even mathematics. The paintings also make the building feel more like a home than an institution and serve as a source of school pride that discourages graffiti.
“There’s no vandalism or anything that goes on with the paintings. It’s very cherished here,” says Alec Koluder, 18, last school year’s student council president.
The paintings are cherished by alumni, too. “It’s amazing how many people come back for tours, and they bring their family and say, ‘Here, look at this painting. This is the one that we bought when I was a senior,’” says Principal Steve LoCascio, 57.
To preserve the collection, the school board authorized formation of the Art Conservation Trust in 1991 to continue the legacy of Himler and Beatty. Through the trust, the community raises money to maintain the paintings with guidance from a professional conservator—demonstrating the town’s continued commitment to the arts.
“One might not think of having a beautiful art collection in a public high school in an industrial town in Pennsylvania,” says Jessica Golden, 34, director of the school’s Center for Student Creativity, “but it exists and it’s thriving.”