Frank Gehry and the Core Project Renovations
at the Phildelphia Museum of Art
Reviewed by Ed Voves
March 30, 2017 was a cold spring morning in Philadelphia. But pure "sunshine" radiated throughout the Philadelphia Museum of Art on that day. An impressive ground breaking ceremony launched the Core Project, the decisive phase of a great renovation effort dating back to 2004.
My wife, Anne, and I were honored to be invited to the ceremony. A dazzling red carpet marked the path into the rather forbidding Vaulted Walkway on the museum's ground level. Symbolically at least, the light of a new era beamed into this grand museum, home to world-class masterpieces by Thomas Eakins, Paul Cezanne, Vincent van Gogh and the "Rocky" steps!
The Vaulted Passageway of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The ceremonial shovels used to launch the Core Project renovations are at the ready.
It is important to emphasize the word "throughout" in terms of the Philadelphia Museum rehab effort. This massive project is literally an "inside" job.
When the renovation project, known as the 2004 Facilities Master Plan, is completed in 2020, the Philadelphia Museum of Art will be dramatically transformed. The Core Project will reopen and reconfigure huge expanses of space within the honey-colored neoclassical building. These spaces have been blocked-off or under-utilized for many years.
The renovation of the Philadelphia Museum of Art has been placed in the capable hands of architect Frank Gehry. Famed for his innovative design of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, Gehry also handled an interior-focused renovation of the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California.
At the opening ceremony, Philadelphia's mayor, Jim Kenney (left), sits alongside Frank Gehry (center) and Timothy Rub, director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
In his remarks at the March 30 ceremony, Gehry made the ironic comment that when the Core Project is completed people looking at the museum exterior "won't even know that I've been here."
On the inside, there will be plenty of evidence of Gehry's presence - and expertise.
According to statistics released by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Core Project will open-up 90,000 sq. feet. to the public, of which 23,000 sq. feet will be used for new galleries to display the ever-growing collection of the museum.
The need for more exhibit space at the Philadelphia Museum of Art has been apparent for a long-time. The 2016 Embracing the Contemporary exhibit illustrated the dilemma of providing sufficient display space for the treasures of the Keith and Katherine Sachs Collection.
The vast array of Modern art in the exhibit - which Keith and Katherine Sachs have promised to give to the Philadelphia Museum of Art - overflowed the Dorrance Galleries where special exhibits are usually shown. Several galleries in the Modern wing had to re-hung to display the remainder of the Sachs Collection. Iconic works by the "Old Masters of Modern Art" like Modigliani's Blue Eyes (Portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne) had to find temporary homes elsewhere in the museum.
Amedeo Modigliani, Blue Eyes (Portrait of Madame Jeanne Hébuterne), 1917
With a space crunch like this at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Core Project comes not a moment too soon. Much of the newly available gallery space will be devoted to The museum's outstanding collection of Modern and Contemporary art.
The Van Pelt Auditorium under demolition, part of the initial phase of the Core Project renovation of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Artist's rendering of the planned Forum of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The view is looking West, as in the above photo of the demolished Van Pelt Auditorium.
Some familiar landmarks of the old museum have already been demolished as part of the project. We visited the vacated space of the Van Pelt Auditorium, scene of so many great lectures and classic film presentations. The auditorium had been torn down to provide access to the great central space that Gehry's plans will open-up.
This great public space is being styled as the Forum. The title from ancient Rome is well-chosen, even if the Philadelphia Museum is designed like a Greek temple. The Forum will provide better access routes throughout the rather cramped museum. It will also impart a sense of majesty to the interior of the museum to match that of its Greek temple facade.
Artist's view of of the planned Forum as seen from an overlook space.
A spectacular staircase will dominate the Forum, providing access from the renovated Vaulted Walkway - where the groundbreaking ceremony took place - to the exhibit floors. One of these new gallery areas will be designated for a reconfiguration of the museum's American art collection, one of the finest in the world. Of the new gallery space to be made available by the Core Project, 11,500 sq. feet will be dedicated to the display of American art.
What better way to honor the great artists from Philadelphia's past - and future ones too! During the 1876 Centennial Exposition,Thomas Eakins' Gross Clinic was banished to a display of hospital beds and medical equipment at this first world's fair held in the U.S. But now Eakins' masterpiece is going to hang in style in the new American art galleries!
A cutaway view of the model of the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Core Project. The Great Stair Hall with Calder Mobile is above the new Forum planned by Frank Gehry.
A fabulous scale model of the Philadelphia Museum of Art with cutaways of the Core Project renovations is currently on display at the museum. It is a work of art in its own right and it will be a pleasure to refer back to this model as construction moves forward.
There will be so much more in the "new" museum, beyond the majestic Forum. New restaurants and shops, state-of-the-art classrooms and a terrific art studio for school groups. There will better access for the physically-challenged and the elderly.
If all goes according to plan, the Core Project will add a total of 169,000 square feet to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
I hope that somewhere in all that bustling, creative space there will be a memorial of some kind to Anne d'Harnoncourt. This great lady was the long-time director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the person who brought Frank Gehry to the museum as the architect of the Facilities Master Plan.
Anne d'Harnoncourt in 1994
Photo courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art
I frequently saw Ms. d'Harnoncourt at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, though I did not know her personally. I never had the chance to interview her, as I occasionally do Mr.Timothy Rub, the dynamic director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art today. I did not begin reviewing art exhibitions until 2008, the year that Ms. d'Harnoncourt died, tragically, years before her time. The first great exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art that I reviewed was one of the last that she planned, the awesome Frida Kahlo exhibit in 2009.
Anne d'Harnoncourt positively exuded love of art and love for people. You just felt that love whenever you saw her. I still sense her spirit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and I have the feeling that she will be there at the grand opening ceremony of the Core Project renovations in 2020.
Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved Images Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Anne Lloyd
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Portrait of Frank Gehry at the Opening Ceremony of the Core Project Renovations at the Philadelphia Museum of Art
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), The Vaulted Passageway of the Philadelphia Museum of Art prior to the Opening Ceremony of the Core Project Renovations, March 30, 2017.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Jim Kenney, Frank Gehry and Timothy Rub the Opening Ceremony of the Core Project Renovations at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Amedeo Modigliani, Blue Eyes (Portrait of Madame Jeanne Hébuterne), 1917. Oil on Canvas, 21 1/2 x 16 7/8 inches (54.6 x 42.9 cm). Collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, # 1967-30-59.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), The Van Pelt Auditorium of the Philadelphia Museum of Art under demolition.
Artist's rendering of the planned Forum of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, looking West. Architectural rendering by Gehry Partners, LLP and KX-L. Photo courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art
Artist's view of of the planned Forum as seen from an overlook space. Architectural rendering by Gehry Partners, LLP and KX-L. Photo courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), A cutaway view of the model of the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Core Project.
Anne d'Harnoncourt in 1994, Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art