Old friends in new surroundings. That was the image which almost immediately leapt to mind when my wife, Anne, and I paid our first visit to the newly renovated galleries and public spaces of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The immense redesign and construction project can be traced back to initial planning in the year 2000, with construction commencing in earnest in 2017 and opening to the public just a few weeks ago on May 7, 2021. Anne and I had been honored to attend the March 2017 groundbreaking which I discussed in Frank Gehry's Master Plan for the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Now, four years later, we were back to see how our "old friends" liked their new digs.
By "old friends" I mean the treasures of the Philly Museum's wonderful collection, which have been "reimagined" in the expanded gallery spaces.
High on the list of familiar and beloved art works is Charles Willson Peale's Staircase Group (Portrait of Raphaele Peale and Titian Ramsey Peale). This nearly life-sized portrait of two of Peale's sons, complete with tromp l'oeil steps, has been placed at the entrance of a newly designed suite of galleries dedicated to telling the story of art in early America.
The redesign of the Philadelphia Museum of Art was designated as the "Core Project" because of the decision to utilize internal space within the imposing building. Where other museums have "added-on" or "built-out" from their existing structures, the planning committee of the Philly Museum decided to "go deep."
As a result of this decision, the familiar "face" of the Philadelphia Museum of Art appears little affected by the momentous changes taking place inside.
"Going deep" was possible because of a complicated series of strategic moves beginning with the acquisition of an Art-Deco style building located near the Philly Museum in 2000. Renamed after generous donors, the Ruth and Raymond G. Perelman Building provided space for staff offices formerly housed in the museum. This now-vacated office space and other areas within the great building would provide room for the Core Project reconstruction without radically altering the distinctive facade of the museum.
Maintaining the exterior of the Philadelphia Museum of Art is more than a case of "keeping up appearances". Long before the steps of the museum's East Entrance entered Hollywood legend in the 1970's film Rocky, the Philadelphia Museum of Art occupied a huge place in Philly's cultural identity. Yet, the museum's history is marked by change and coping with adversity.
The Core Project represents the third major transformation experienced by the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
May 10,1877 was the opening day for the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Its first home was Memorial Hall, one of the buildings of the 1876 Centennial Exposition. Memorial Hall was totally inadequate as an exhibition space by the early years of the twentieth century. The present museum, a magnificent neo-classical structure built with honey-colored limestone, rose on the site of the historic Fairmount Waterworks. The iconic building greeted its first visitors in 1928 and the stage was set for a great future.
Never-the-less, the Philadelphia Museum of Art endured and thrived. By the turn of the twenty-first century, the collection had grown in quality and quantity to such an extent that many of the galleries were overwhelmed with masterpieces. Clearly a strategy for the Philly Museum was needed, one which would also provide space for the display of contemporary art, especially works by local artists.
In 2004, a long-range Facilities Master Plan was approved. Many dedicated people would play major roles in implementing this Master Plan but four deserve special recognition: Gail Harrity, President of the museum, Anne d’Harnoncourt, Director and CEO until her passing in 2008, Timothy Rub, Director and CEO since fall 2009, and Frank Gehry, who was selected as architect in 2006.
The "strong and intelligent design" of the original architects of the Philadelphia Museum of Art provided 90,000 square feet of internal space for Gehry and his team to "reimagine." Needless to say, an enormous amount of planning, fund-raising and hard work was part of the process.
Along with the vacated office space mentioned earlier there were two primary areas awaiting redevelopment. The most dramatic was a corridor, 640 feet long, sited on a north-south axis. Even before the construction crews started work, the Vaulted Walkway, as it is known, was a really imposing site. Yet, for almost half a century, it had been closed to the public.
Most museum patrons had no idea that the Vaulted Walkway existed. The second major space to be utilized to provide square footage was much more familiar. This was the Van Pelt Auditorium, the site for so many memorable lectures and classic film presentations. But with a replacement planned for the Perlman Center, this much-used locale was demolished to make way for the visionary Williams Forum.
While the construction work proceeded, a second key facet in the success of the Core Project commenced. This was to keep as much of the Philly Museum's collection visible and accessible to patrons during the long years of "pardon our dust" labor.
The strategic management skills of Timothy Rub, President and CEO of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, solved the problem. A succession of major exhibitions propelled the museum's public service mission as the structural changes of the Core Project gained momentum. Rather than attempt a breathless "recap" of all of the exhibits, a brief discussion of two will suffice.
That is exactly what I do now, after several visits to the "new" Philadelphia Museum of Art.
To Gail Harrity, Anne d’Harnoncourt, Frank Gehry, Timothy Rub, to the generous donors who provided the funding for the Core Project and to the curators, designers and construction workers who made it happen ... I tip my hat.
Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved. Original photos by Anne Lloyd, all rights reserved.
Introductory Image: Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2021) Charles Willson Peale's The Staircase Group (Portrait of Raphaele Peale and Titian Ramsey Peale), 1795. Oil on canvas: 89 1/2 x 39 3/8 inches (227.3 x 100 cm) Philadelphia Museum of Art. The George Elkins collection, E 1945-1-1
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2021) The Robert L. McNeil, Jr. Galleries, showing a sofa designed by Benjamin Latrobe (1808). The painting (center) is Washington Allston's Scenes from the Taming of the Shrew (1809)
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2021) Gallery view of the New Grit: Art & Philly Now exhibition in the Daniel W. Dietrich II Galleries of the Philadelphia Museum of Art
Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2021) Alex Da Corte's S.O.S. (Sam on Sill), 2020. Forman Family Collections.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2021) A dramatic view of the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Williams Forum, with cantilever steps leading down from the first floor.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2021) The Philadelphia Museum of Art's East Entrance & the "Rocky" steps.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Cutaway views of the architectural model of the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Core Project.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) The North pediment of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, showing Carl Paul Jennewein's ceramic-glazed terra cotta sculpture entitled Western Civilization, 1932.
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 (2021) The Philadelphia Museum of Art's Williams Forum, constructed on the site of the demolished Van Pelt Auditorium.
Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2021) Portrait of Hiram Charles Montier and Portrait of Elizabeth Brown Montier, 1841, by Franklin R. Street. Oil on canvas, 35 x 28 inches. On loan from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. William Pickens, III