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Eye-popping fund-raising goal for Art Museum: $525 million

The campaign, which already has raised $326 million, according to museum officials, is aimed at completely revamping the interior of the museum, enhancing programming, and adding to the museum's endowment.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art announced a $525 million fund-raising campaign Thursday morning, believed to be the largest, by far, ever mounted by a Philadelphia cultural institution.

The campaign, which already has raised $326 million, according to museum officials, is aimed at completely revamping the interior of the museum, enhancing programming, and adding to the museum's endowment, which now stands at about $448 million, well below comparable institutions across the country.

The campaign is seeking $150 million for the endowment; $233 million for capital projects; and $142 million for "strategic initiatives," which includes everything from educational programs, audience-enhancement efforts, digital projects, community programs, and similar pursuits.

The announcement of the campaign, officially dubbed "It Starts Here," came at Thursday morning's official ground-breaking ceremony for the $196 million "core project," which will radically rework the interior of the 1928 neo-Classical building by removing the auditorium, adding about 23,000 square feet of new gallery space and a total of about 67,000 square feet of new public space. The core project — the costs of which are included in the fund-raising goals — is the most extensive reworking of the museum's interior in its 90-year history. It is scheduled for completion in 2020.

Frank Gehry, the 88-year-old architect known for such game-changing buildings as the Disney Concert Hall in his hometown of Los Angeles and the curvy titanium-sheathed Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, in Spain, was on hand for the ground-breaking, along with hundreds of donors, visitors, and members of the media.

"It's going to be amazing, amazing," Gehry said, alluding to completion of the whole project, which eventually will include galleries beneath the museum's eastern terrace. "Can it do what they did in Bilbao? Hell yes!"

Bilbao has experienced a cultural and economic explosion that many trace directly to Gehry's museum, completed in 1997.

Philadelphia museum officials said major contributors to the enormous fund-raising campaign include Marguerite and Gerry Lenfest, the late Robert L. McNeil Jr., and Constance and Sankey Williams. Additional gifts have come from the late Daniel W. Dietrich II, David Haas, Keith L. and Katherine Sachs, the state, and the city.

Officials said they are confident they will achieve the fund-raising goal, although the Philadelphia philanthropic landscape has in recent decades sometimes proven difficult.

The Barnes Foundation successfully raised $200 million for its Benjamin Franklin Parkway gallery construction and endowment. Next month, the Museum of the American Revolution will open after successfully raising $150 million for its building (and endowment) at Third and Chestnut Streets.

The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts eventually raised its announced $275 million, although it took many years to do so.

The Art Museum campaign dwarfs these other Philadelphia projects and becomes one of the largest nationwide in recent memory. Last fall, for instance, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art successfully completed a $610 million drive. On the other hand, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York just placed on indefinite hold a lackluster $600 million campaign that never got very far. (The Smithsonian Institution is in the midst of a $1.5 billion campaign, but that is for work at all 19 of its museums combined.)

Gehry has spoken in the past of his desire to "unclog the arteries" of the museum by removing the auditorium and allowing a free flow of visitors from front to back.

When he first was hired by late museum director Anne d'Harnoncourt, Gehry said "Annie" asked him if he could do something transformative for a building, "but you can't do anything on the outside."

He thought. And said, "Why not?"

"We studied it," he said. "We spent a lot of time looking at the bones. ... The DNA, the bones of this place are really fantastic — for the past and the future."

But the first part of the project was rebuilding the museum's loading and storage areas.

"I thought, why the hell are they building a loading dock?" Gehry said. But the answer became evident — the loading dock had to be built before other parts of the project, in order to take over activities underway in areas that would be refurbished down the road.

"Anyway, we did it," Gehry said. "We built it and it's the best g-- loading dock in history!"

Timothy Rub, museum director, characterized Gehry's plan for revamping the museum as "simple, yet brilliant." The design will improve the experience of museum-goers. It will allow more of the city into the museum interior, for example, by unblocking existing windows. The design will also allow for more of the collection to be on display.

"This project is complex and touches many parts of the museum, but we are committed to remaining open to the public throughout," Rub said.

Mayor Kenney, also on hand, announced that his administration has committed $32.5 million over the next six years to support the core project.

The city owns the Art Museum building and provides annual operating support of about $2 million.

Kenney enthusiastically endorsed the project, adding that he hoped it proves to be a sign of the "city maintaining its decency" in the face of "medievalism" breaking out around the world.

"This project is not just vital to the institution, but also Philadelphia," Kenney said in a statement. "I frequently speak about the impact public-private partnerships have on Philadelphia and its residents. This museum's formation is a shining example of that. And that continues today."

Construction on the core project actually began in the fall, but museum officials said they wanted to hold off a ground-breaking ceremony not because of the ground, but because they wanted to have the fund-raising goal in place.

Thursday's announcement certainly establishes that eye-popping number.

One of the unique aspects of the plan is to refurbish and reopen a 640-foot-long vaulted walkway, closed for half a century, that runs beneath the museum's east terrace from the Kelly Drive side facing the Perelman Building to the Schuylkill side of the building.

The walkway will serve as an entrance to the main building through a new public area dubbed the "Forum" — a soaring space that will be opened up by the removal of the auditorium. The auditorium, added to the museum building in 1959, already has been gutted.

The vaulted, tiled walkway also will serve as the entrance to new galleries that will eventually be carved from the stone beneath the eastern terrace. The terrace galleries and a new auditorium are not part of the current phase of construction.

Gail Harrity, museum president and chief operating officer, said the renovations and rebuilding are “about restoring, preserving, and at the same time reimagining the building for Philadelphia’s future.”