The city of Philadelphia is famous for its thriving art culture. Without a doubt, one of the major contributors to this enthusiastic mindset is the presence of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Influencing and championing artists for centuries, PAFA has the esteem of being the oldest art museum and fine arts academy in the entire United States. Founded in 1805, it's original location was on Chestnut Street, where it opened a few of its rooms in 1810 for use of an art school. In 1876, the Museum moved to its current location on the corner of Cherry and Broad Streets. The Historic Landmark Building, a National Landmark, is noted as being one of the finest remaining examples of Victorian Gothic architecture. In 2002, PAFA also acquired the building across Cherry Street which was originally used for automobile manufacturers. Renamed the Samuel M.V. Hamilton Building in honor of a former chairman of the board and museum benefactor, it was named eligible for the National Register of Historic Properties in the 1990s.
Though both historic in nature, the buildings are incredibly different from each other. The large, loft-like spaces in the Hamilton Building contrast greatly with the high-ceilinged, windowless galleries in the Landmark Building. However, both are impressive in their own ways and deserve a visit. You're biggest choice when visiting PAFA is whether you want to start in the past and work your way to the present or if you'd prefer to travel backwards in time. The galleries are set up in a timeline, showcasing American art from the 19th century to current student and staff works. We preferred to work our way backward beginning in the Hamilton Building.
Open and bright, the Hamilton Building gives visitors the ability to experience and appreciate art from every angle. Get up close and walk around it or step far, far back and examine it from a distance. Most of the spacious galleries in this building showcase Special Exhibitions (such as Beyond the Paint, which we saw and loved during our visit!). The Tuttleman Sculpture Gallery and Luce Sculpture Study Center not only highlight beautiful and thought-provoking pieces (Woman with Packages by Louise Bourgeois was among our favorites), but also give visitors a fantastic view of Philadelphia's famous Broad Street and the Lenfest Plaza. Don't forget to look up when climbing the main staircase or you'll miss the Alexander Calder Mobile piece hanging from the ceiling (Route Barrée). Gallery 128 in the lower level of the building displays works by current students and faculty, tying the art museum to the fine arts academy and giving it a cutting edge advantage over other art museums.
Entering the Landmark Building is like stepping back in time, especially after a trip through the sleek, modern interior of the Hamilton Building. Passing through the entrance and into the Grand Staircase, one is immediately convinced that this building could be empty and people would still be drawn to visit and admire it. Ornately tiled walls and bronze and mahogany banisters work their way up to a rich blue vaulted ceiling with silver stars. With high ceilings, beautiful columns, and daring exposed steel beams, the rest of the galleries prove to be just as impressive. Begin in the front galleries (Colonial and Federal America, the Washington Foyer, and American Portraitists), and continue to work your way around to experience the art on a timeline. Immerse yourself in Antebellum and eventually wind up in Social Realism with a stop in Landscapes on the way (plus many more styles and art movements in between). Some standouts for us included Pittsburgh by Louis Lozowick (Gallery 9), Man with a Pick by Mohonri Young (Gallery 12), and The Wave by Alexander Harrison (Gallery 11).
The art experience continues outside in Lenfest Plaza constructed in 2011 and open to the public year round. A quiet retreat in the heart of Center City, the Plaza is the location of Claes Oldenburg's Paint Torch, towering at an amazing 51 feet and a 60-degree angle (not to mention the 6 ft paint "Glob" on the sidewalk). The "Glob" and tip of the paintbrush are illuminated at night with changing red hues. Another famous sight in Lenfest Plaza is Jordan Griska's Grumman Greenhouse. Constructed from the Grumman Tracker II, a cold war era naval plane, the pieces have been repurposed as working greenhouses.
Once you've enjoyed all that both buildings have to offer (with a stop at the cute café in the Landmark Building), be sure and visit PORTFOLIO, the museum store, to take some of the experience home with you. Check out the jam packed calendar of events (with something for everyone and every age) and special exhibits that PAFA hosts and make plans to return as soon as possible. We recommend becoming a member, because one trip will just not seem like enough.
Art enthusiasts, lovers of Philadelphia, and champions of American Art will all find what they are looking for at PAFA. With a firm footing in the history and shaping of the city of Philadelphia and the nation, as well as an eye on the future and the next generation of artists, PAFA is an absolute must-see art museum. You can't say you have really experienced Center City until you have viewed Broad Street from the Hamilton Building galleries, gazed in wonder at the beauty of the Landmark Building's Grand Staircase, and marveled at the life growing inside pieces of aircraft in Lenfest Plaza.
(Tours are FREE with Admission)
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