In its venerable status as collector of all things beautiful, historic, and important in the ongoing development of art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art sits as a temple on a hill, an imposing structure protecting its treasures and inviting reverent visitors to stand in awe. If the PMA is the temple of art, the new Ruth and Raymond G. Perelman Building is, perhaps, the seminary – devoted to study, conservation, and intimate viewer experience.
The behind-the-scenes quarters of the Perelman Building, off-limits to visitors, house state-of-the-art conservation spaces, a necessary expansion for maintaining the museum’s ever-growing collection. Several study centers (such as the Center for Prints, Drawings, and Photographs) offer appointment-only visitations, making possible in-depth research and exploration of the museum’s holdings. Undoubtedly the heart of the museum, these vital operations of conservation and research, although not visible to the general public, deserve such a vibrant new space.
What you CAN see, however, is worth the visit.
The façade stands as a testament to 1920s prosperity, with Art Deco detailing enough to make anyone gape upward as they open the doors. Fidelity Mutual Life Insurance, the company that built the 80-year-old building, clearly wanted its clientele to sense power and prestige, security and solvency. The lobby’s marble floor and ornate ceiling retain those high-life qualities, the passage of time infusing the atmosphere with nostalgia and historical appreciation.
Stepping out of the lobby opens up another world. Faced with the problem of reconciling the historical building with the modern expansion of galleries and work spaces, architecture firm Gluckman Mayner created a Skylit Galleria that superbly joins the disparate sections. The original wall stands vertically, rectangularly, with painted window casings and ordinary yellow brick. The new opposing wall slants forward in a distorted mirror-image, all contemporary design and texturized brick, with a row of optically slanting doorways. The skylights overhead, industrial second-floor walkways, and alcoves for sculpture tie together the two walls, so they seem like cousins or not-so-identical twins, each one inextricably linked to the other, each emphasizing the other’s strengths and inherent beauty.
The Galleria’s doorways lead to new gallery spaces showcasing segments of the Museum’s permanent collection, with spaces dedicated to photography, costume and textile, modern design, and sculpture. Each room has been designed to most effectively display its particular oeuvre – the Julien Levy Gallery of photography introduces extra hanging space with the inclusion of additional walls and pillars throughout; the Joan Spain Gallery protects fragile textiles and enhances costumes with dim lighting and dramatic displays against dark grey walls; the Collab Gallery highlights modern design using a variety of display cases and elevated floor pedestals; and the Exhibition Gallery, designed for sculpture, features natural light from two rows of tall windows with the requisite open spaces and white walls of a contemporary gallery.
Unfortunately, each gallery exists in isolation from the others, aggressively compartmentalized so that you cannot move from one gallery to another or visually link artwork in adjoining rooms. In a postmodern era of non-hierarchy and pluralistic association, a gallery system should seamlessly pull viewers through the range of art-making, allowing diverse and even opposing streams of art to co-exist, in much the same way the Skylit Galleria melds different generations of architecture. At the Perelman Building, the theatrical evening gowns might enjoy a conversation with the clever furniture, which might in turn have something to add to discussions of contemporary sculpture, but instead, the gallery structure refuses their interaction. Even at the main PMA building, not exactly a tribute to postmodernity or contemporary architecture, chronological and geographic art designations give way to a fluid floor plan that maximizes aimless wandering and facilitates unexpected visual connections.
In any case, the exhibits themselves are lovely, as you would expect. Early 20th-century photographer Alfred Stieglitz’s lifetime of work ranges from studies of Philadelphia skyscraper construction to family portraits to studio sessions with Georgia O’Keefe. The fashion display includes three Philadelphia designers, James Galanos, Gustave Tassell, and Ralph Rucci, following trends in women’s dresses from the 1950s through today. In the modern design gallery, the expected collection of eclectic furniture sits alongside tea sets, advertisements, and even the sleek design of the brand new iPhone. (You might wonder, as I did initially, whether such a hot commodity belongs in an art museum’s holdings, but Apple has undeniably done some outstanding product design, and it IS a modern design collection.) The sculpture currently in the Exhibition Gallery expresses a range of modern and contemporary sculptural concerns, with Sol LeWitt’s geometry, the organic handiwork of Martin Puryear, a natural installation by Richard Long, and the transitory possibilities of Félix González-Torres. And book-lovers should be sure to wander to the second-floor library to see the selection of rare books on display.
The Perelman Building won’t replace the PMA as the center for the worship of all things art, but it offers a focused space, a specialized environment for observation, research, and conservation. Students and scholars can delve into historical, cultural, and technical explorations, while viewers can enjoy the PMA’s lesser-known collections and revel in the diversity of visual expression.
By: Melinda Steffy, for The Bulletin, September 28, 2007