Philadelphia Museum of Art Opens New Galleries and Public Spaces
Philadelphia Museum of ArtArchitectural Report

Philadelphia Museum of Art Opens New Galleries and Public Spaces

On May 7, 2021, the Philadelphia Museum of Art unveiled to the public the culmination of two decades of planning, design, and construction: a project by

On May 7, 2021, the Philadelphia Museum of Art unveiled to the public the culmination of two decades of planning, design, and construction: a project by the celebrated architect Frank Gehry that represents a major milestone in the renovation, reorganization, and interior expansion of the museum’s landmark 1928 building. Called the Core Project because it has focused on the renewal of the museum’s infrastructure and has opened up the very heart of the main building, its completion after four years of construction represents an enormous step forward for the museum. The scope of the Core Project comprises nearly 90,000 square feet of reimagined and newly created space within the main building, all of which is ADA compliant and energy efficient. It includes a rebuilt West Terrace, now the Robbi and Bruce Toll Terrace, with integrated ramps to facilitate access for all visitors; a renovated Lenfest Hall, which has long served as the principal entrance to the museum; a new public space, the Williams Forum, which will serve as the setting for a wide range of activities and will connect the ground floor of the museum to its upper levels; and the Vaulted Walkway, a grand 640-foot long corridor that spans the entire breadth of the building and has not been open to the public for nearly 50 years.

In addition, areas once devoted to offices, the museum’s restaurant, and retail operation have been converted into two new suites of galleries totaling 20,000 square feet of exhibition space. One of these, the Robert L. McNeil, Jr. Galleries, is devoted to telling a broader and more inclusive narrative of the development of early American art centered on the prominent role played by Philadelphia in this story. The other, the Daniel W. Dietrich II Galleries, focusing on the creative spirit of Philadelphia today, presents an exhibition of the work of 25 contemporary artists with ties to the city and speaks to many of the most pressing issues of our time. To celebrate the completion of the Core Project, the museum will welcome visitors on a special pay-what-you-wish basis, starting Friday, May 7, through Monday, May 10, the historic date when the museum first opened to the public in 1877. In addition, Senga Nengudi: Topologies, the first major special exhibition to be presented in the museum in more than a year, will be on view in the Dorrance Galleries, and the Rodin Museum will reopen to the public for the first time since March 2020.

The scope of work has fully preserved the building’s temple-like exterior and picturesque setting, taking place largely within. The museum’s uppermost public levels, the second floor with its galleries dedicated to Impressionism and modern and contemporary art; the Great Stair Hall, where the monumental bronze Diana arches her bow; and the third floor’s European and Asian collections, have remained largely untouched. Gehry and his team have focused downward, to the level of the streets surrounding the hill upon which the museum is built, called Fairmount. From this height, the building overlooks the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, lined by sycamore trees, to which thousands come each year to ascend the so-called “Rocky Steps” up to the East Terrace. Focusing on the lower levels of the museum, the Gehry team opened up long-closed or underutilized back-of-house spaces on the first floor and ground level, and returned them, fully restored and reenvisioned, to public use. An early result of this plan was revealed in 2019, when the Kelly Drive-facing North Entrance opened to much fanfare, for the first time in decades. The lower level, where the building’s electrical and mechanical systems are housed, has also been extensively renovated.

From the outset, Gehry and the museum were determined to honor the building’s original architectural language and materials; notably, they used throughout the same golden-hued Kasota limestone, sourced from the same quarries in a small town in southern Minnesota that supplied it for the construction of the 1928 building. As Gehry puts it: “The goal in all of our work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art has been to let the museum guide our hand. The brilliant architects who came before us created a strong and intelligent design that we have tried to respect, and in some cases accentuate. Our overarching goal has been to create spaces for art and for people.” So while the project renovations feature new galleries and a dramatic multistory “forum” space, they also reveal more of the work of the original architects: Horace Trumbauer and his chief designer, the African American architect Julian Abele; and their partner firm of Zantzinger, Borie, and Medary. For instance, this phase marks the reopening of the entire length of the original Vaulted Walkway, which will take visitors across the building’s entire length from north to south on the ground level.

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