For fans of Marcel Duchamp and Rocky Balboa alike, the Philadelphia Museum of Art has long been a pilgrimage site. Last week, the venerable museum gave fans a new reason to visit, opening the first phase of an architectural expansion that has been decades in the making.
The museum is famous at least as much for its temple-like architecture as for any of the works in its collection. Frank Gehry, the starchitect known and parodied for his glamorously rule-bending structures, is not the first person you might have imagined for the job of building on its stately strengths.
But all in all, Gehry’s $233 million expansion is a model of focus. The renovation does not add another landmark structure. Most of the work had to do with opening up new spaces and access points by expanding downwards.
If you’ve visited before, you will find something that feels very much like the Philadelphia Museum you remember, both outside and in.
Telegenic interior spaces like the Great Stair Hall remain untouched.
In the upper levels of the museum, you have the familiar attractions such as the period rooms and the European arms and armor galleries.
And, of course, there’s PMA’s unparalleled collection of works by Marcel Duchamp.
The expanded museum has also opened with a Senga Nengudi survey, “Topographies,” which is worth the trip all on its own.
If you’re there for the expansion, you will first notice it in the new access points, which open onto the below-ground “vaulted walkway” that punches through the hill to make north and south entrances.
Dotted with just a few large sculptures for punctuation, the walkway has a monastic quality.
To keep the 640-foot-long underground walkway from feeling too cave-like, skylights punch through to the ground level letting in the natural light.
Likely the most spectacular new space and signature of the expansion is the Williams Forum, where the two halves of the vaulted walkway meet. The towering space can serve as a venue for performance or sculpture commissions, and opens with Teresita Fernández’s scorched relief image of the United States and its colonies, , which makes great use of the vast, looming space.
Via a showy stairway—really the closest thing to a big Gehry moment here—the forum connects to the west entrance through Lenfest Hall, still the primary entrance to the museum, and to the newly opened up galleries on the first floor above.
Most importantly for fans of the collection, the expansion has opened up 20,000 square feet of new gallery space on level one. One wing is dedicated to the Philadelphia Museum’s collection of American art, 1650–1850.
On the other side of the building, the corridor to the modern and contemporary galleries is enlivened by this colorful, slivery mural by Philadelphia artist Odili Donald Odita.
The inaugural show, “New Grit: Art & Philly Now,” features 25 Philadelphia-based artists, and is a highlight.
And, of course, like any modern-day expansion, this one is not scant on gift shop space. Stores are sited by the north entrance in the vaulted walkway and around the new galleries on the first floor.