The Philadelphia Contemporary may be the most successful museum you've never visited.
Last spring, it drew crowds to the mansion on Lemon Hill with Jane Irish's history-subverting Antipodes. Some 5,000 people a day lined up last month to take turns on the lighted seesaw sculptures that the Contemporary installed for the opening of the Cherry Street Pier. The arts organization boasts a spoken-word curator on its staff.
Philadelphia Contemporary has managed to maintain that rich program of exhibits and performances despite having no physical museum and no address. Since its founding in 2016, director Harry Philbrick has run the operation out of cafés, changing locations to fit his meeting schedule and mood.
At a time when the range of what constitutes fine art is in constant flux, there's nothing unusual about a museum without walls. The approach stems from the belief that art can happen anywhere, boundaries are arbitrary, and culture should be accessible to all. The Contemporary earned its stripes by collaborating with other arts groups and organizing community-based pop-ups.
But the wandering life can get tiresome. Last week the Philadelphia Contemporary announced what many had long expected: It plans to finally settle down in a new building in West Philadelphia. The bigger news was that it has named an architect to design the space. And not just any architect. After a rigorous jury process, the Contemporary selected Johnston Marklee of Los Angeles, a boutique firm that is winning rave reviews for Houston's new Menil Drawing Center, the very embodiment of a traditional, bespoke museum.
There is just one hitch: The Contemporary does not have a site for the project, or the money to start construction. All that will come soon, Philbrick assured me.
While he wouldn't disclose the details, it's an open secret among Philadelphia's chatty art community that Drexel University is partnering with the Contemporary's new museum and that the building will be located in nearby Mantua or Powelton, if not on the university campus itself. Several moneyed backers and foundations are supporting the project, including Michael C. Foreman, who is chairman of FS Investments and a Drexel board member. Given all that, it's highly probable that Philadelphia could soon see new art museum.
A new venue, designed by a boundary-pushing architecture firm, would be a thrilling addition to Philadelphia. But the project has some local arts administrators scratching their heads. Does Philadelphia really need another building for contemporary art?
Depending on your definition of contemporary art, at least five groups currently maintain a physical presence in the city, including Penn's Institute of Contemporary Art, a mere two blocks from Drexel's campus. The Fabric Workshop, Fringe Arts and Vox Populi all have their own spaces, while Temple Contemporary is housed inside the Tyler School of Art. In recent years, both the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts have embraced edgy, socially conscious art and programming to attract a younger audience and serve the African American, Latino, Asian and queer communities.
A few arts organizations have been moving in the opposite direction, toward decentralization and collaboration, by divesting themselves of their real estate. The Painted Bride, whose programming often veers into contemporary art territory, has put its mosaic-covered arts center in Old City up for sale. Ironically, the Bride's new strategy sounds a lot like what the Philadelphia Contemporary does now, organizing art events and collaborating with other venues.
The Bride's decision has been met with extreme resistance, in part because of its storied past and its role as a community anchor. Because so much of contemporary art is conceptual and transient, property ownership can be a burden that distracts arts groups from their main mission. "If I could give up my space, I would," one arts administrator confided in an interview. "You're always feeding the monster."
Costs can eat into the budget for art projects. "Do you put $50 million into bricks and mortar or innovative programming?" another administrator wondered.
But Philbrick, who spent five years running PAFA's museum, is convinced the advantages of a physical presence outweigh the downsides. "There's still a gap in the cultural ecosystem here," he argues.
While the ICA has 10,000 square feet of gallery space at 36th and Sansom, its mind-set "is rooted in Penn's academic world," Philbrick said. By being embedded in a West Philadelphia neighborhood, he said, the Contemporary will have the opportunity to collaborate with local residents to create new art. "We want to make our building truly inviting and accessible." The plan calls for a street-facing cafe or restaurant, as well as a performance space that residents could use.
Interestingly, the ICA's director, Amy Sadao, said she welcomes the Contemporary as a neighbor. "If you create the right relationships," a new arts venue "just increases capacity for everyone," she said. "I don't believe in the pie as a model."
While some arts administrators see fixed space as an albatross, others in Philadelphia have long dreamed of a museum focused solely on exhibiting large-scale contemporary sculpture, video, and painting. The former PECO generating station at Penn Treaty Park and the District Health Center at Broad and Pine have both been suggested as possible locations.
The Contemporary chose West Philadelphia, Philbrick said, because it wants to attract people who would never think of climbing the Art Museum's grand steps.
Simply by the nature of a West Philadelphia location and the realities of fund-raising in Philadelphia, the museum's design will almost certainly have to lean toward the rough, rather than the polished. Philbrick wants the building to be able to take a beating.
Johnston Marklee has worked mainly on more high-end projects. The firm, which is run by the husband-and-wife team of Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee, started out designing elegant homes for well-heeled artists before winning institutional commissions. But it recently took on more low-budget projects at UCLA and the University of Chicago.
Philadelphia's MGA Partners, which is also known for its fine work, will serve as Johnston Marklee's local partner.
"This is going to be a lot different than working in L.A.," Johnston told me. "We envision a building that is more participatory, where artists might be making things."
That doesn't mean that the Contemporary won't be involved in presenting more traditional painting and sculpture exhibits. The new museum will include a 2,500-square-foot, climate-controlled gallery space, as well as multipurpose rooms that can accommodate a Richard Serra-size sculpture or a dance performance with equal ease.
Altogether the plan calls for 14,500 square feet of gallery space in a 45,000-square-foot building. The climate-controlled space would be half the size of the Barnes Foundation's special exhibition gallery. But with all that, Philbrick insists, there will still be no private offices.