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Philadelphia Contemporary plans seafaring gallery on the Delaware River

A two-story floating gallery is planned to dock between Cherry and Arch Street piers. But it could travel up Cape May, up the Jersey coast, and even to New York.

An artist's rendition of the exterior of the Philadelphia Contemporary on Delaware River
An artist's rendition of the exterior of the Philadelphia Contemporary on Delaware RiverRead moreAtkin Olshin Schade Architects

It’s not so much that Harry Philbrick must go down to the seas again.

But when you’re landlocked and have no home, the siren song of the sea can beguile and mesmerize.

And so it is that Philadelphia Contemporary, the eclectic and nomadic arts organization founded by Philbrick about seven years ago, will do something virtually unprecedented in this city or anywhere else — it will build and float an arts gallery on a barge on the Delaware River.

Once there, the arts on the water may turn into mobile art that can move down the river and out to the sea — perhaps to Cape May or New York City. A little Philly coming soon to a port near you.

Most of the time, however, the two-story gallery will be docked north of Penn’s Landing between the Race Street and Cherry Street piers.

In Philbrick’s view, the waterfront is one of the city’s great democratic spaces. Plus a floating gallery is just cool, an idea that dovetails neatly with his organization’s philosophy.

“One of the goals of Philadelphia Contemporary is to be an institution whose audience reflects the diversity of Philadelphia,” Philbrick said on Tuesday. “Building a big new building on the edge of University City, we were not going to be able to live up to that ... we were likely to create an institution whose audience ended up looking just like everybody else’s.”

The organization has raised enough funds to complete conceptual planning and the engineering studies for the gallery, he says. That amounts to more than $1 million. To come: fund-raising for construction, which will be in the $20 to $25 million range.

Philbrick has been intrigued with the idea for a couple of years, ever since he heard about the floating water workshop that the Philadelphia Water Department is launching at the Fairmount Water Works.

» READ MORE: Philly Water Department gets $3 million to build floating classroom on Schuylkill at Fairmount Dam

“I thought, ‘My goodness, if you can have a floating classroom, why couldn’t you have a floating gallery?’” he said.

The seafaring Philadelphia Contemporary is being designed by the Philadelphia-based firm of Atkin Olshin Schade Architects. AOS is known for a variety of cultural projects, including renovation of Louis Kahn’s Richards Medical Research Laboratory building at Penn and design of the Anne d’Harnoncourt Sculpture Garden at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Their Philadelphia Contemporary design features a two-story gallery space atop a custom-built barge, all canopied by solar panels that will generate 100% of needed energy.

The design has already received an American Institute of Architects, Pennsylvania COTE Citation for environmental design excellence.

“The Floating Gallery’s immediate access to the river serves as an intellectual anchor for curatorial programs and allows local artists to use water as a medium,” the citation read in part. “In addition to its ability to provide a space for artists to share their work, the facility’s location on the river creates opportunities for visitors to learn about the ways their lives are connected to the waterway.”

Architect Sam Olshin said that the gallery is being designed with the expectation that it will move — perhaps over to Camden or Cape May or maybe “around the Jersey coast and go up to New York.”

But moving presents a whole new whirlpool of safety regulations to navigate, so it was decided that the gallery could only be pushed and pulled by tug boats. That said, even docking the barge between the Cherry and Arch Street piers presents environmental issues. What impact, for instance, would the shadow of the gallery have on life on the riverbed?

“We have had a whole long conversation with all the Delaware River people in New Jersey and Pennsylvania with regard to approvals and I think we’re in really good shape there,” said Olshin.

Much of the preliminary design work has been completed and the Delaware River Waterfront Corp. is fully behind the project.

The building will accommodate both performance and visual art, Olshin said, with the two-story structure atop the barge providing 14,000 square feet of gallery space.

The art barge does have some precedents, including architect Louis Kahn’s floating concert barge, which was created for the Bicentennial in 1976. It was rescued from destruction in a scrap yard a few years ago and may return to use, docked at the Peco power station at Penn Treaty Park, currently under renovation.

» READ MORE: Music barge designed by Louis Kahn could anchor in Philadelphia as a concert stage

Olshin said maybe another six to eight months of design work remain, plus six months to complete the permitting process, and then “probably 18 months to build it.”

Philbrick is prepared to wait until the fund-raising climate brightens. In the meantime “we continue to do our programming around the city,” he said.

“In the fullness of time, if we can pull this off, that would just be thrilling,” he said. “The vision is to create a space where we can do programming, but also where partner organizations can do programming. And that again, is very much part of our DNA..”