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If They Build It ...

September 20, 2007 By:
Rita Rosen Poley, JE Feature
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Signature spaces at the new Perelman Building

Museums are the primary stewards of collections. They exhibit them, care for them, grow them.

Over time, as collections get bigger, museums often find themselves out of space, longing for a way to burst out of their architectural footprint. Very often, the process of expansion is met with community opposition. In New York, three major museums have been in running battles over how to expand in the densely built city: The Metropolitan Museum is confined by Central Park, while both the Guggenheim and the Whitney are surrounded by residential and retail neighbors that make finding new space a contentious experience for all.

Just the opposite has been true in this city for the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The recent expansion of the museum into the former Fidelity Insurance building has been welcomed. Opening last weekend to the public -- and now known as the Ruth and Raymond Perelman Building -- the new site will greatly enhance the museum's ability to perform its mission, just as it will make the city more inviting for residents and visitors.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art was built in 1928. At that time, much of the building's interior spaces were unfinished. Over the years, more galleries were built as the collection grew and as money was found to support the expense.

The last interior space was created on the second floor, in back of the East entrance (Great Steps), for the Kienbusch Collection of Arms and Armor. And then the museum, one of the largest in the world, was out of room with a collection that now numbers more than 225,000 objects, and a library of 200,000 volumes and related items.

The Fidelity building provided a welcome opportunity for expansion, for more than the obvious -- its geographic proximity to PMA. (It sits directly across from the museum at the corner of Fairmount and Pennsylvania avenues.) The two buildings shared the same architectural teams and opened within one year of each other; the same scholar even served as color adviser to both buildings.

The Fidelity building itself is regarded as one of this city's finest Art Deco structures, listed on both the National and the Philadelphia Registers of Historic Places. Its dazzling exterior is filled with sculptural reliefs whose themes were conceived by California professor of philosophy Hartley Burr Alexander. Among them are the Tablets of the Ten Commandments, replete with Hebrew lettering.

The firm of Gluckner Mayer Architects, well experienced in museum work, is responsible for the conversion and expansion of the building. They have pulled off an amazing transformation.

Old Meets New

While respecting and preserving the original architecture, the architects have created a new physical entity, a synthesis of old and new, that soars and excites while it fulfills the myriad requirements of a museum bursting at the seams.

The 30,000 objects of the Costume and Textile Collection now have expanded permanent galleries of their own, as do the important collections of modern and contemporary decorative arts. The Julian Levy Gallery, showcase for the museum's renowned photography holdings, also has expanded to the Perelman Building. All are housed in light-sensitive specially designed galleries.

Sculpture occupies a flamboyant light-filled space in the original part of the building. It provides a perfect home for examples of the museum's substantial collection of large sculpture -- much of it often unseen because of space constraints.

In a niche in the Galleria, which links the old and new architecture, is "The Prayer," a 1943 sculpture by Jacques Lipshitz that depicts the act of Kaparot, a High Holidays traditional ritual. This wonderful work, long in storage, was presented to the museum by R. Sturgis and Marian B.F. Ingersoll in 1965.

The Perelman Building is meant to serve as a research center for scholars and, as such, it is much more than an exhibition venue. It also holds state-of-the-art conservation labs, extensive library facilities, a gift shop and restaurant, a lecture room, museum offices and the Wachovia Educational Resource Center for visiting teachers. An additional $500,000 gift from Wachovia will provide free entrance for all to the Perelman building through the end of the year.

In 2000, Raymond and Ruth Perelman presented PMA with an unrestricted gift of $15 million. This gift was crucial to the museum's ability to expand as it now has. Perelman, a museum trustee for more than 30 years, served as chairman of the board from 1997 until 2001, and is currently chairman emeritus and chairman of the executive committee.

It becomes exceedingly clear that just as the museum serves its constituents, so, too, do its constituents serve the museum.

The entire city is the beneficiary of this latest example of the combined powers of philanthropy and museum stewardship.

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