Philly Art Museum begins sweeping starchitect-designed renovations

At a groundbreaking ceremony this morning, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said the project reflected the city’s diversity.

Cassie Owens/Billy Penn

Correction appended

The Philadelphia Museum of Art has officially begun $196 million in renovations. Called the “Core Project,” the effort will create 90,000 square feet of new public space within the museum.

“This Core Project will make the museum more open,” said museum board chair Leslie Anne Miller at the groundbreaking ceremony on Thursday. “It’ll be an embodiment of our mission: To serve the public.”

The groundbreaking took place inside what will be the new “Vaulted Walkway,” where construction is already underway. Formerly a public thoroughfare, museum officials don’t believe the area has been used since 1975, when it closed in preparation for events for the nation’s bicentennial.

Cassie Owens/Billy Penn
VIPs and press take a tour of the Vaulted Walkway.

VIPs and press take a tour of the Vaulted Walkway.

Cassie Owens/Billy Penn


It’s reopening is one of the changes that Frank Gehry, the legendary 88-year-old architect who designed the renovations, considers “uncork[ing] a few clogging arteries.”

Mayor Jim Kenney announced at the ceremony that the city will commit $32.5 million to the project over the next six years. “After all, we do own the building, so it would nice to contribute to it,” Kenney joked. The museum’s It Starts Here fundraising campaign has a goal of raising $525 million by 2020; this morning Miller, said they’d raised more than $326 million so far, “more than any cultural campaign in Philadelphia’s history.”

What the "Vaulted Walkway" will look like when it's complete.

What the "Vaulted Walkway" will look like when it's complete.

Architectural rendering by Gehry Partners, LLP and KX-L. Photo courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art


The museum’s Van Pelt Auditorium has already been demolished to bare bones, and will soon be removed completely to make way for a three-story central hall called The Forum. Corridors with new, large windows will allow for sweeping views of the cityscape. The project will add 23,000 square feet of new publicly accessible gallery spaces.

Gehry began work with the museum back in 2006, and unveiled these designs in 2014. The museum’s trustees approved the plans this past June, two years later.

A more diversity friendly design

Kenney said that the museum and the project, “despite the stupidity and ugliness of recent times,” represented the city’s diversity and values.

“We will not allow us to slip back into medieval times,” he said. “It’s not easy to be the mayor of a sanctuary city, but we will maintain that and maintain that decency to everyone.”

The facelift isn’t just a means of looking younger. Its ethos is on trend. Recently, urbanist experts have urged institutions to reconsider their approaches to public spaces to make them more welcoming, and museums haven’t ignored that conversation.

The New York Times highlighted the renovations earlier in this month in an article that explored how museums nationwide are expanding with the bounds of their footprints, rather than throwing billions at brand new architecture beyond it.

Miller told Billy Penn she does think the renovations reflect an urbanist sensibility, but whether it’s a genuine influence is “kind of a chicken and the egg” thing. Over the years, the museum’s educational outreach goals have heightened as cash-strapped schools have turned to the museum more as arts resource.

“As we assume a greater role, it makes sense [to reach an] expanded audience that we want to serve,” she said. “There was not one key moment; it’s been gradually increasing, in an effort to keep up with the demand, which obviously we haven’t been able to do that since there isn’t arts education in the schools.”

What the new space will look like

Picture yourself in the main entrance lobby, Lenfest Hall. The current information desk will be gone. Chunks of limestone will be removed from its walls to allow for more views, more light and access to “The Forum,” a grand three-story room that’ll be below the Great Stair Hall (Diana and her arrow aren’t going anywhere). The Vaulted Walkway will also open to The Forum, which is being envisioned as a prime space for socializing and events.

"The Forum"

"The Forum"

Architectural rendering by Gehry Partners, LLP and KX-L. Photo courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art.
If you're standing in the Great Stair Hall, where Diana Lives, this will be your new view to the main entrance.

If you're standing in the Great Stair Hall, where Diana Lives, this will be your new view to the main entrance.

Architectural rendering by Gehry Partners, LLP and KX-L. Photo courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art

When the Core Project is complete, there will still be a wall standing between the Forum and additional galleries, but the museum has its eye on removing it as a next step after 2020. This would allow continuous access from the main entrance through to the new Forum, then across galleries with art on view, onto the Rocky Steps, and then down to the Parkway.

No, a design decision hasn’t been set on the Rocky steps, which Gehry controversially wanted to modify. Messing with the steps might still be in the future, though. Museum spokesman Norman Keyes called modifying the steps “an option,” but “something we won’t be turning our attention until the Core Project is done.”

How Gehry addressed the museum’s ‘challenge’

Gehry, who designed the project, shared a story for how it came to be. Gail Harrity worked with him as planning director for the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, an immensely popular and influential Gehry project that sealed his legendary status in the field. When she moved onto the Art Museum, she connected him with Anne D’Harnoncourt, the museum’s longtime director.

D’Harnoncourt, Gehry recalled from the podium, praised him for the Bilbao building, calling it “sculptural,” “exciting,” and telling him that he had performed a “miracle.” She wanted the same effect in Philadelphia, but there were limits.

Could he alter the building without changing the exterior architecture, Gehry remembered her saying. He quipped to the audience: “Nice challenge.”

The demolished auditorium.

The demolished auditorium.

Cassie Owens/Billy Penn

Essentially, what the museum is embarking on is not solely an effort to modernize the museum for future generations and expand its gallery space for a growing collection, which already tops 240,000 holdings. It is also an effort to mirror the impact of one of the most significant pieces of architecture in the last 30 years — but to do it with minimal exterior improvements.

Harrity, now the museum’s president, doesn’t think this is a steep feat. Bilbao shows its boldness with a snap of wavy walls that form its exterior, but Harrity explained Philadelphia doesn’t need that. “It’s not a single image,” she told Billy Penn of the project. “It reflects the multiplicity of people and their interests… I think what’s exciting is it’s the audiences that come that serve as the ambassadors.”

Gehry, at a meeting with reporters, also was confident.

“I hope we deliver what we said: That it’s going to make waves here and that it’s going to become one of the best museums in the whole country,” he stated. “It’s going to be a blockbuster and that’s going to make me happy.”

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