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Philadelphia Contemporary is re-imagining what a modern art museum can be … now with a high-profile import from NYC

From the mind of former PAFA head Harry Philbrick comes Philadelphia Contemporary, an ambitious new art museum offering the latest in multidisciplinary art.

Harry Philbrick at The Quiet Circus: River Charrette 1, 2016,
Harry Philbrick at The Quiet Circus: River Charrette 1, 2016,Read moreEric Preisendanz

Whether it's live-streaming theatrical "nuns" from the Barnes Foundation gallery in an all-night show, or mounting an exhibition inspired by the nighttime sky, or staging performances exploring a Delaware River dump and an abandoned swimming pool, Harry Philbrick has shown he's ready, willing, and able to make it happen.

"The art world is an extremely broad and diverse place," the 59-year-old former museum director said, "and as an institution, if you want to reflect that, you can do it better working with a variety of people."

The desire to explore the sometimes oddball diversity and proliferating possibility of contemporary art-making led Philbrick to leave his position as director of the museum at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts early in 2016.

It's not that he was dissatisfied with being a museum director. Far from it. Rather, Philbrick had come to believe that museums need to rethink themselves and their cultural roles in the current moment.

Philadelphia's newest arts organization, Philadelphia Contemporary, is the result.

Performance, cross-disciplinary installations, visual art, spoken word, poetry, dance — all have been presented and curated by Philadelphia Contemporary, so far in temporary locations. But Philbrick and his newly hired artistic director, Nato Thompson, are closing in on a building to call home. They hope to have it sometime in 2018.

Thompson, who lives in Philadelphia, was the highly regarded artistic director of Creative Time — an innovative New York public-art nonprofit —  until Philbrick lured him away last month.

"I really do love Philadelphia," said Thompson. "I love the different neighborhoods. It's livable. It's complicated. It's gritty. It's a really interesting place. There is an appetite for cultural programming in Philadelphia. I'm excited."

Philbrick is also looking to hire a curator of spoken word and already has a small staff of four, in addition to Thompson.

Disrupting the museum mind-set

While there are certainly collecting and exhibiting institutions for contemporary art in the city, and many performance venues, none quite fits what Philbrick has in mind for Philadelphia Contemporary. He's thought about it a lot.

"I began to think we're in the 21st century and what would a 21st-century model of a contemporary art museum be," Philbrick said as he sat recently in one of the many, many Center City coffee shops he's come to know as his office spaces over the last year and a half.

"Think about the music industry and how you used to get music and how you get it now," he said. "Think about the taxi industry and how you used to get from point A to point B. The delivery of things we've always taken for granted has changed. And it began to make me think about the art museum model and how that might change as well. So I decided I wanted to explore this, and Philadelphia seemed like a great place to do it in."

Over the last year, Philbrick and his curators have mounted a number of pop-up exhibitions and performances that hint at the form and substance of his new kind of museum. Virtually every presentation has been collaborative in nature, and many have taken place outdoors. The collaboration is by design, the location less so.

The main concepts driving Philadelphia Contemporary are straightforward.

"The first is that art today is completely multidisciplinary," he said. "It's anything from a painting hanging on the wall to a poet reading to a dance or movement performance – and all often happening in the same place."

The partnership principle

But how to present such art with multiple dimensions? He believes the answer lies in the flexibility inherent in partnerships and collaborations.

"I wanted to create a structure where we would be producing collaborations with a really diverse range of folks," he said. "That would mean working with other existing institutions, partnering with them on projects, partnering with freelance curators, partnering with performing arts groups, partnering with private foundations, and even a commercial gallery if that was appropriate."

In just a year or so, Philadelphia Contemporary has become involved with a wide range of organizations and institutions.

For instance, the Barnes Foundation and the No Face Performance Group came together with Philadelphia Contemporary to present Mark McCloughan and Jaime Maseda's Abbot Adam: Matins/Lauds — the overnight nuns performed in the Barnes and streamed live in July.

Philadelphia Contemporary has worked with Headlong Dance Theater and its co-founder David Brick — and other artists and organizations — to present four separate performances at sites on the Delaware River. Locations for the "River Charrettes" series, which began last fall and concluded early this month, included the august Biddle estate Andalusia in Bucks County and a waste and recycling center in the Northeast. Sites on the Schuylkill included Bartram's Garden and the abandoned pool at the Fairmount Water Works.

Coming in April is a painting installation by Jane Irish at Lemon Hill, the historic mansion off Kelly Drive.

Stars in their eyes

Most recently, Philbrick and his curators worked with the Brandywine River Museum in Chester County to present a monthlong show of large-scale paintings by Ana Vizcarra Rankin at the Brandywine, her first museum show.

Rankin's exhibition, which ran Oct. 7 to Nov. 5, came about because the Brandywine found it had a gallery empty for a month. Rather than mount an exhibition pulled from its own collection, Brandywine director Thomas Padon talked with Philbrick and his curator, Tina Plokarz, and program director, Kerry Bickford.

"They looked at the space and they really responded, and then, what I thought was really interesting, they wanted to know what would be on view at the same time," Padon said. "We were premiering this video installation by Dylan Gauthier, who is Brandywine's first artist-in-residence."

Gauthier's video, shot over the course of the year, follows the Brandywine River from its headwaters in Amish country south to Wilmington.

"They really took the time to look at Dylan's work, which is all about the relationship of these various communities and water as a connector, and then they selected Ana, who is very interested in mapmaking, geography, and star-mapping — it's the same kind of interest in relationships and concepts of place. It was a really poetic combination."

Padon was impressed by the successful pairing and its quick execution. He believes few organizations could have produced something in the two months Philadelphia Contemporary had to bring it together.

"It all just really worked," he said. "Ana did a site-specific piece, like a star map. Three or four nights she came out to the Brandywine and looked at the stars that were visible right there. I walk out in the parking lot every night and I never think to look up, so I couldn't believe it. 'What? These are all stars visible here? You see this in our parking lot?' She said, 'Yeah. You have to be patient. It takes time for your eyes to adjust.' I thought, 'Wow.' "