A little more than two decades after a Calder museum was first proposed for the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the long-dormant idea has blossomed again, funding has materialized, and backers say that, by spring 2021, construction should get underway between 21st and 22nd Streets across from the Barnes Foundation and the Rodin Museum.

Many details of the project, which would feature works by the endlessly inventive Alexander Calder, creator of the mobile, still have to be worked out, but supporters say they are committed for the long haul. Major funders include the Neubauer Family Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and the estate of H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest.

The works for display, which have not yet been selected, will be lent by the New York-based Calder Foundation for 99 years and would rotate through the Philadelphia facility, known informally as Calder Philadelphia. The art will be displayed in and around a building with a prominent garden.

Herzog & de Meuron, the Pritzker Prize-winning architects behind London’s Tate Modern, have signed on to the project, but no design renderings are yet available.

“We don’t know what we’re going to call it, but it’s not a museum,” said Alexander S.C. Rower, president of the Calder Foundation and grandson of the Philadelphia-raised artist, whose works have long been a notable presence in the city.

“This will involve a different way to engage art than what is usual with a museum,” he said. The idea, Rower said, is to create a more intimate experience for viewers and allow them to get closer to the artwork, free of the restrictions that normally dominate a museum setting.

“The experience is where the art happens,” he said. “This will not be a picture on a wall. This will be a place of introspection.”

He called the new structure and grounds a “sanctuary” as opposed to a museum.

Joseph Neubauer, trustee of the Neubauer Family Foundation and one of the prime movers for the project, said that Calder’s sculptures, his stabiles and mobiles, would most likely be the defining feature of the facility and grounds.

“You need to be able to walk around it and experience” the sculpture, Neubauer said. “This is all about the individual experience with individual pieces of art.”

Rower said the building and grounds, located on the same two-acre site as the earlier, never-built Calder museum, are envisioned to encourage contemplation. The building will include galleries of some sort.

Neubauer said the size of the structure will be “modest, maybe 15-, 17-, 20,000 square feet, plus the garden."

Alexander Calder in his New York City storefront studio, 1936.
Image by Herbert Matter
Alexander Calder in his New York City storefront studio, 1936.

The site will be leased from the city and must go through normal approvals, including a City Council review and approval of the lease agreement. Terms of the agreement have not been set as yet. No city funding is involved in the project. (The site is open space, part of Fairmount Park. PennDot is currently using it as staging for the Vine Street and Chestnut Street reconstructions, but that use is temporary, city officials said.)

“Gardens are very important; you can’t assume they are just simple," Neubauer continued, discussing the configuration of the two-acre site. "This will be very welcoming to the public. We are going to try to activate the block for the public.”

The project, according to Neubauer, will cost about $50 million.

“Most of the money is coming from philanthropy,” he said, including funds from an anonymous donor along with the Neubauer, Pew, and Lenfest contributions. Additional support will come from the state.

The money is almost completely raised, he said, "We’re fairly close.”

Edward G. Rendell, former mayor and governor, who pushed for the initial museum back in 1999, said he found the revival of the idea “very gratifying.”

“There’s no doubt in my mind that Philadelphia is the only place for it,” he said. “Calder’s influence is felt all over the city, particularly in City Hall. This may be the final piece of the puzzle for the Parkway."

Diane Dalto Woosnam, who was Rendell’s deputy city representative for arts and culture and the city’s point person on the first Calder museum plan, said that she believed the site and the city have “always been perfect," adding: "But in true Philly fashion, it took 25 years for everyone to agree.”

Calder with Giraffe (1941), Roxbury, Conn., 1941. Image by Herbert Matter
Courtesy Calder Foundation
Calder with Giraffe (1941), Roxbury, Conn., 1941. Image by Herbert Matter

The site of Calder Philadelphia underscores three generations of Calder family artwork along the Parkway as a defining factor on the Philadelphia cityscape. City Hall features the work of Calder’s grandfather Alexander Milne Calder, who created the major sculptures adorning the building, most prominently the statue of William Penn at the top.

Alexander Calder’s father, Alexander Stirling Calder, is famous for designing Swann Fountain on Logan Square a couple of blocks from what will be Calder Philadelphia. And one of Alexander Calder’s most intriguing mobiles, Ghost, hangs above the grand indoor entrance hall of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Works from Calder’s father and grandfather will also be featured in the new facility.

“This is a major accomplishment for Philadelphia,” said Rebecca W. Rimel, president and chief executive of the Pew Charitable Trusts. “The artistry of the Calder family is an important part of the fabric of our city. ... A home on the Parkway for some of Calder’s most consequential works will advance the city’s reputation as a world-class arts destination and enhance its appeal to national and international visitors.”

And there are other public works by Alexander Calder within shouting distance of the planned museum’s site.

Banners created by Alexander Calder in the 1970s, lost and out of view for most of the last 35 years, are installed at the Free Library of Philadelphia last month.
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Banners created by Alexander Calder in the 1970s, lost and out of view for most of the last 35 years, are installed at the Free Library of Philadelphia last month.

The Central Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia, for instance, just began hanging eight newly conserved banners the artist designed in 1975 for Centre Square across from City Hall. The banners vanished when the atrium in the building was renovated in the 1980s. They were found in a storage closet about 15 years later and are now going up again in the library’s Heim Center for Cultural and Civic Engagement.

Mayor Jim Kenney described the Calder family’s work as being literally "woven into the fabric of the city for more than a century.”

Alexander Calder was born in 1898 in Lawnton, Dauphin County, and spent his childhood in Philadelphia. Most of his artwork was created in New York City, France, and in Connecticut. He died in 1976.

Calder Philadelphia will be an independent nonprofit with its own board of directors. Backers of the project said they are working out a collaborative relationship with the Barnes Foundation for select administrative, curatorial, educational, and operational services.

None of those details have been firmed up, yet.

The Calder Foundation’s Rower said selection of the artworks, the number of artworks, how they will be displayed, and other physical details await design renderings.

“How many? We don’t know,” he said. “Yet it will be exactly the right number for the design.”

“Our program is diagonally across from the Rodin,” he said. “The greatest sculptor of the 19th century and the greatest sculptor of the 20th century. That’s the dialogue.”