See how superstar architect Frank Gehry reimagined the Philadelphia Museum of Art with a brand-new $233 million expansion

See how superstar architect Frank Gehry reimagined the Philadelphia Museum of Art with a brand-new $233 million expansion

Claes Oldenberg, Giant 3-way plug (cube tap)
(1970) from the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

For fans of Marcel Duchamp and Rocky Balboa alike, the Philadelphia Museum of Art has long been a site of pilgrimage. Last week, the venerable museum gave fans a new reason to visit, with the opening of the first phase of an architectural expansion that has been decades in the making.

The museum is at least as famous for its temple-like architecture as it is for any of the works in its collection. Frank Gehry, the celebrated architect known for his mesmerizing, rule-breaking structures, is not the first person you might imagine for the job of building on stately strengths.

But overall, Gehry’s $233 million expansion is a model of focus. The renovation does add another flashy landmark to the complex. Most of the work was about opening up new spaces and access points, and expanding downward.

A cross-section shows the changes to the interior within the existing building (base project). Architectural rendering by Gehry Partners, LLP and KX-L, 2016. Image courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2021.

If you’ve ever visited, you’ll find something very similar to the Philadelphia Museum you remember, both outside and inside.

Exterior of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photography by Ben Davis.

Telegenic interior spaces such as the Great Stair Hall remain unchanged.

The Great Stairwell Hall of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photography by Ben Davis.

On the upper floors of the museum, you’ll find familiar attractions such as ancient rooms and exhibits of European arms and armor.

Period Rooms at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photography by Ben Davis.

Arms and Armor Exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photography by Ben Davis.

And of course, there is an unparalleled collection of works by Marcel Duchamp.

Marcel Duchamp, Bride Stripped By Her Bachelors Until (Big Glass) (1915–23). Photography by Ben Davis.

The expanded museum is also opened with a survey of Senja Ningudi, the “Terrain,” which is worth a visit on its own.

Installation view of “Senga Nengudi: Topogaphies” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photography by Ben Davis.

Installation view of Senga Nengudi, The ecstasy of the warp (2007). Photography by Ben Davis.

If you’re there for the expansion, you’ll notice it first in the new access points, which open into the underground “vaulted passage” that cuts through the hill to form north and south entrances.

South entrance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photography by Ben Davis.

The walkway has a monastic feel, dotted with a few large sculptures of punctuation marks.

Jaume Plensa, Noria (2017). Photography by Ben Davis.

To keep the 640-foot-long underground walkway from feeling cave-like, skylights penetrate the ground level to let in natural light.

Underground space at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photography by Ben Davis.

Barbara Chase Reboud, Malcolm X #3 (1969). Photography by Ben Davis.

Looking south through the vaulted corridor from the Williams Forum at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photography by Ben Davis.

The North Vaulted Corridor at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photography by Ben Davis.

david smith, Two box structure (1961). Photography by Ben Davis.

Visitors enjoy the café on the new floor of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photography by Ben Davis.

A custom “Domed Walkway” shortbread is for sale at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Cafe. Photography by Ben Davis.

North entrance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photography by Ben Davis.

Probably the most exciting new space and signature of the expansion is the Williams Forum, located where the north and south sections of the domed walkway meet. The towering space is meant to serve as a performance or sculpture venue, and opens with Teresita Fernandez’s burned portrait of the United States and its colonies. Fire (USA)which makes great use of the vast space that looms on the horizon.

Williams Forum at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photography by Ben Davis.

Teresita Fernandez details, Fire (USA) (2017/2020). Photography by Ben Davis.

The gaudy staircase is actually the closest thing to Jerry’s big moment here. It connects the Forum to the western entrance through the Lenfest Hall, which remains the museum’s main gateway, as well as the newly opened exhibition spaces on the first floor above.

New staircase at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photography by Ben Davis.

Entrance in Lenfest Hall, featuring Martin Puryear, generation (1988). Photography by Ben Davis.

More importantly for fans of the collection, the expansion gives the museum 20,000 square feet of new exhibition space to work with on the first level. One wing is dedicated to the Philadelphia Museum’s American Art Collection, 1650-1850.

Gustavus Hesselius Lapoensa’s photo And Photo of Techkohan (ca. 1735-37), shown with wampum belt (ca. 1682). Photography by Ben Davis.

New American Art Galleries at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photography by Ben Davis.

A display of chairs in the New American Art Galleries at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photography by Ben Davis.

New American art galleries at the renovated Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photography by Ben Davis.

New American Art Galleries at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photography by Ben Davis.

charles wilson bell, Photo by Yaro Mamut (1819), Staircase set (portrait of Raphael Belle and Titian Ramsay Belle I) (1795), and Selfie at the museum (1822). Photography by Ben Davis.

A visitor looks at Charles Wilson Peale, Mrs. Bell mourns the death of her child (1772). Photography by Ben Davis.

Wall text in the New American Art Galleries at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photography by Ben Davis.

Bird Tree at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photography by Ben Davis.

On the other side of the building, the corridor leading to the modern and contemporary galleries is brought to life with this colorful mural by Philadelphia artist Odili Donald Odetta.

Odili Donald Odetta, Walls of change. Photography by Ben Davis.

The opening show, “New Grit: Art & Philly Now,” features 25 Philadelphia artists and is a highlight.

Installation view of “New Grit” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, showing (on floor) Mi Kyung Lee, Topic drawing 2015-5 (2015) and Jane Irish, The universe is a priori (2015). Photography by Ben Davis.

Installation view of “New Grit” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, featuring works by Roberto Lugo and Wilmer Wilson IV. Photography by Ben Davis.

Coccoli Velardi’s work in the film “New Grit”. Photography by Ben Davis.

“Epic & the Everyday” galleries in “New Grit” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photography by Ben Davis.

Paintings by Jonathan Lyndon Chase in “New Grit”. Photography by Ben Davis.

Installation view by Doug Bucci, Last session (2021). Photography by Ben Davis.

Of course, like any modern-day expansion, this expansion is not insignificant in the gift shop space. The shops are located at the north entrance in the vaulted corridor and around the new galleries on the first floor.

Design shop outside the modern and contemporary art galleries at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photography by Ben Davis.

A shirt for sale in the gift shop of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photography by Ben Davis.

A tote bag bearing the phrase “No Justice, No Peace” is for sale in the gift shop at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photography by Ben Davis.

Exterior of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photography by Ben Davis.

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