After nearly four years of maddening construction that closed off swaths of the Philadelphia Museum of Art to visitors, a date to reopen and show off 22,000 square feet of new gallery space and the rest of the transformational changes to the once-clotted building has now been set: May 7.
On that day, the museum will throw open all of its doors and visitors will be able to enter and see the new galleries for American art up to 1850 and a new suite of spaces for exhibiting modern and contemporary art featuring a big show of Philadelphia artists today.
Among other changes, the museum’s new Forum, an open space that replaces the auditorium, will be on full view, allowing museumgoers to peer through the building and connect with the outdoors.
And the vaulted corridor that traverses the building from the Kelly Drive side to the Schuylkill side will be completely open for use by visitors for the first time since the 1970s. (Half of the corridor, on the building’s north side, opened in September 2019.) The museum will also institute a pay-what-you-wish admissions policy May 7-10.
“It is certainly a milestone for the art museum and, we believe, for our city,” said Timothy Rub, museum director and CEO. “As part of our opening plans, we will inaugurate two new sets of galleries with installations that will showcase the extraordinary creativity of Philadelphia’s artists, past and present. They will tell a wonderful and engaging story. ... This is just a start, with a season of programs to follow throughout the summer and a community celebration scheduled for late August.”
The precise date for the grand opening ceremony has not been set, due to the idiosyncrasies and uncertainties related to the coronavirus pandemic, officials said. Currently, the museum is open only Fridays through Mondays and restrictions on numbers of visitors and distancing are in effect. No one knows what the situation will be at the beginning of May, but the COVID situation could well be abating by the end of summer.
That said, museum officials are moving ahead and seeking to establish at least some semblance of normality sooner rather than later. It’s been awhile.
A Philly-centric splash
The new galleries — each comprising about 11,000 square feet carved from offices, restaurant, and the museum store — are done. And the museum is seeking to make a very Philadelphia-centric splash with its two exhibitions.
The modern and contemporary galleries will open with “New Grit: Art & Philly Now,” a major exhibition presenting the work of 25 Philadelphia artists.
Art in a variety of forms and media — ceramics, glass, painting, photography, sculpture, fiber, video, and installation — will be on view in the eight new galleries and the adjacent large corridor space.
Five works have been commissioned for the exhibition, which will represent a kind of meditation on events and issues of the recent past, including Black Lives Matter, immigration, and incarceration. Additional works will explore memory and cultural interactions, and depict street scenes.
Two of the five commissioned works will be presented in the exhibition’s Movement section: a mural by Odili Donald Odita and an interactive dance performance by Nichole Canuso.
Other commissioned works include a light box and video installation by Michelle Angela Ortiz, known for her art depicting immigrant communities, an installation by David Hartt, who examines historical subjects, and a large installation by Doug Bucci, consisting of a sterile interior that simultaneously reflects on the artist’s childhood hospital stay, his lifelong struggle with diabetes, and 18th-century dining rituals.
“As a catalyst for creativity, [Philadelphia] offers a network for artists, and a hub of contemporary arts that extends its influence from here to abroad,” said a statement by Erica Battle, the associate curator of contemporary art who led the cross-curatorial team that planned the exhibition.
“New Grit affirms that our city has been, and will continue to be, a site for the exchange of ideas, civic engagement, and boundless imagination,” she said. “It is truly a critical time to support artists of our city, and to amplify Philly itself as a source of resilience and inspiration.”
In the new galleries devoted to American art to 1850, Kathleen A. Foster, senior curator of American art, has completely rethought the collection and the story it tells, choosing to emphasize its multicultural origins and influences.
Here will be the famous 17th-century wampum belt given to William Penn by the Lenape people, two early 18th-century portraits of leaders of the Lenape by Swedish-born Gustavus Hesselius, ironwork made by enslaved Africans, and silver from a workshop where a silversmith was enslaved.
There will also be a mid-17th-century portrait, never exhibited, featuring an unknown Black adolescent, probably enslaved, clad in European finery, with a Brazilian parrot and an Indigenous North American bow and arrow. Perhaps painted by a Dutch artist, the painting is a product of the complex transatlantic networks of European colonization, Foster said.
Art in the Philadelphia region, which the American galleries focus on, grew from such complex roots, right down to the works of the Peale family and all of its many iterations, including Charles Willson Peale’s great portrait of the formerly enslaved Yarrow Mamout, and the silhouettes cut by Moses Williams, an artist enslaved and then freed by the Peales.
“We’ve been thinking about this for a long time,” Foster said. “What we’re doing actually is trying to bring in some new objects in order to just change the perspective on the familiar [gallery holdings]. The familiar is the story of Philadelphia, and its artists. That’s always been our long suit and our strong suit. But what we wanted to do was put Philadelphia in context, and also talk a bit more about all of the contributing strands to American art.
“We wanted to open up that perspective to include all of the cultural strands that would have contributed.”