Artworks that had hung for many years in public schools in Philadelphia were removed during Christmas break in 2003 by then-Superintendent Paul Vallas, on then grounds that the art was too valuable to hand in the schools. The art has been hidden away in storage these past years and was nearly sold off to help balance the budget.

The art will be returned to the public schools!

The art includes works by Thomas Eakins, N.C. Wyeth, noted African American artists Henry Ossawa Tanner and Dox Thrash, and late 19th- and early 20th-century Pennsylvania impressionists Walter Baum and Edward Redfield. At the time they were removed by the district, some works were proudly displayed with gallery lighting and signs; other pieces were found stuffed in closets or boiler rooms.

Officials had them removed from buildings, sometimes under cover of darkness, and said at the time that they would catalog and restore the art, if necessary, before figuring out how best to display the pieces.

The collection remained concealed, however, save for 15 of the works briefly exhibited at the Michener Museum in Bucks County in 2017. A group of advocates, led by former Philadelphia educators, spent years trying to figure out exactly what was in storage and how to get it back in front of children.

Other districts have wrestled with the same problem; some have formed nonprofits to handle their art, and others have partnered with museums to show it.

Arlene Holtz, retired principal of Woodrow Wilson Middle School, which once had 72 significant oil paintings carefully framed and hung in its hallways, cheered when the board formalized its new policy in December.

When the district removed the works from Wilson and other schools, “we lost not just a treasure, we lost an idea — that beautiful artwork belongs not just to the rich, it belongs to all our children regardless of where they live,” Holtz said.

Wilson’s art collection was amassed by Charles Dudley, the school’s first principal, who believed that exposing children to art would inspire good behavior and morals and make the school beautiful. He created a museum-like environment, directly appealing to such artists as Baum to sell him works at a good price. Dudley raised funds by charging a nickel to show visitors the collection.

Another school, Laura Wheeler Waring Elementary, in Fairmount, used to display a work by Waring herself, the African American artist and teacher for whom the school is named.

“These collections are inexhaustible and are to be preserved and used to benefit the students and citizens of Philadelphia,” the board policy declared. “The School District of Philadelphia’s collections of art shall be held for educational purposes, research, or public exhibition for the community to enjoy or to generate funds for their preservation and not for financial gain.”

The new board policy is a victory, but a first step, said Holtz. The art has been cataloged and accounted for, but it remains in storage.