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Art: Don't forget the whisper

Shortly after going to see the Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibition on its Frank Gehry-designed master plan, I ran across this passage in Donna Tartt's recent novel, The Goldfinch:

In a rendering, the new Forum at the heart of the museum requires ripping out an auditorium beneath the Great Stair Hall. (Gehry Partners L.L.P.)
In a rendering, the new Forum at the heart of the museum requires ripping out an auditorium beneath the Great Stair Hall. (Gehry Partners L.L.P.)Read more

Shortly after going to see the Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibition on its Frank Gehry-designed master plan, I ran across this passage in Donna Tartt's recent novel, The Goldfinch:

"You can have a lifetime of perfectly sincere museumgoing where you traipse around enjoying everything and then go out and have some lunch. But . . . if a painting works down in your heart and changes the way you see, and think, and feel, you don't think, 'Oh I love this picture because it speaks to all mankind.' That's not the reason anyone loves a piece of art. It's a secret whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey, kid. Yes, you."

Yes, me. Exactly.

I remember when it happened. I was maybe 15 and, for reasons I cannot remember, took an hour-long bus ride to New Haven, where I went, by myself, to the Yale Art Gallery. Earlier, my high school Latin teacher had marched me past masterpieces at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But that day, on my own in the sleepy gallery, I was ravished by a 1957 Edward Hopper painting called Western Motel. It might have been the car - is it a Buick? - that first caught my eye. But the enigmatic woman at the center, the banal motel room, the wilderness outside all unsettled and excited me. There is something empty there, and I felt it was my emptiness, too.

Museums are very public buildings that offer the promise, or at least the hope, of this intimate experience, the moment of seduction and insight. A museum master plan probably needs to be most concerned with organizing the traipsing around, but not at the expense of silencing that voice from the alley.

If you haven't been to the exhibition "Making a Classic Modern," which has two more weeks to run, you should go. The great model that slices the museum and its proposed additions is itself thrilling, and perhaps dangerous, too, because its beauty as an artifact encourages us to ignore the possible shortcomings of the vision it represents. And if you visit, you should wander around the museum, pondering what's good about it and what it needs.

Oh, and don't worry about the picture window. Resolving the question of whether to pierce a window through the building's monumental steps is well over a decade away, and the presumed payoff from the project - the addition of high galleries with undulating ceilings under the east terrace - is even farther in the future.

Much closer is the decision on whether to go ahead with what is known as the Core Project. This involves tearing out the existing auditorium, which sits directly beneath the Great Stair Hall, and replacing it with a space labeled the Forum, which would provide access to the reclaimed vaulted passageway, and to the eventual subterranean galleries.

Ripping out and rebuilding this space right at the very heart of the museum will be expensive and disruptive. Officially, no decision has been made on whether to close the museum while the Core Project is taking place, but realistically, it is hard to imagine that it can be kept open during the entire process.

(One possible upside to a closure is that it might accustom more people to visiting the museum's Perelman Building, whose excellent and somewhat underprogramed galleries could make visitors wonder why the museum needs an additional 78,000 square feet of gallery space.)

Some essential and desirable things - notably the reopening of the high windows in the Great Stair Hall to admit natural light after four decades of gloom there - are part of the project. And others, such as the addition of some new galleries along the vaulted passage, may be added if the funding comes.

Mostly, though, what the museum will have to show for all this expense and inconvenience is the Forum, a huge volume that most visitors will enter at the top, walking along the side until they reach a bridge at the other end, from which a curving staircase descends to the new entrance of the subterranean galleries.

You can understand why something like the Forum is necessary to free up circulation within the building, and to provide an entrance to the future subterranean galleries, but what is proposed is artless in every sense. The visitors' path is neither logical nor clear. The bridge and stairway, which could provide a moment for Gehry to be Gehry, are dull. The Forum seems to cry for monumental sculpture or the kind of spectacular temporary installations for which the Turbine Hall of London's Tate Modern is famous, but it is intended to be kept clear in order to preserve sight lines. The Core, as it stands now, is hollow.

Frank Gehry is a great architect. I first praised him in The Inquirer more than 35 years ago, when he was notorious for his use of chain-link fencing in his projects. The swirling sculptural Guggenheim Museum branch in Bilbao, Spain, which opened in 1997, made him the go-to guy for city-changing architectural statement. The hope is that this ambitious, yet hidden, expansion will be our own Bilbao, generating bigger crowds and increased international tourism. (I just returned from visiting the vastly expanded Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., a project its director has touted as "Bilbao in the Berkshires.")

Actually, the Philadelphia Museum of Art is already a Bilbao, a symbol of our city, a definer of the cityscape, an icon of popular culture. With its dazzling polychrome terra-cotta decoration, it is also a far less staid building than we often think.

Also, since the plan was first proposed, the new Barnes - another Bilbao wannabe - has opened. How many grand gestures can the Philadelphia philanthropic community afford? How many special-exhibition galleries can be filled with programs?

Let's hope the museum administrators and trustees have used the current exhibition to take a second look at what the museum needs to be for the rest of this century. How much does it need to expand? What does it need to do to help a future 15-year-old find the work that says, "Hey, kid. Yes, you."

Art: A Look Inside The Future

"Making a Classic Modern: Frank Gehry's Master Plan for the Philadelphia Museum of Art," through Sept. 1 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Hours: Tuesday through Sunday: 10 a.m.–5 p.m.; Wednesdays and Fridays until 8:45 p.m.

Admission: Adults, $20; 65 and older, $18; students with valid ID, $14; 13–18, $14; 12 and younger, free.

Information: 215-763-8100 or EndText