Historic PAFA adapts to the present, reimagines its future

When leaders of Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia embarked on a journey with EmcArts last fall, they needed a safe space to step out of their comfort zone and take a risk.

That’s exactly what they, along with peers from 15 other arts and culture organizations in the city, found when they gathered for Building the Capacity to Innovate and Adapt | Philadelphia, a program funded by the Knight Foundation and facilitated by EmcArts. The cohort wrapped up a series of six workshops in January.

PAFA, the first art museum and school in the country, is known for featuring experimental art in its Historic Landmark Building. Now it is planning an experiment of its own — an exhibition of potentially epic proportions involving partnerships with noted contemporary artists as well as other historic sites and institutions in Philadelphia.

Affixed to center wall: Alex Da Corte, Street View (Hoagiefest), 2019. Phototex, dimensions variable.Courtesy the artist, Karma, NY and Sadie Coles HQ, London.Center: Thomas Birch, Perry’s Victory on Lake Erie, ca. 1814. Oil on canvas, 66 x 96 ½ inches, gift of Mrs. Charles H. A. Esling.Installation view: Ancient History of the Distant Future, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, September 26, 2019 –February 2, 2020. Photo by Barbara Katus, courtesy Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia.

How to experiment with art in its historic building emerged as one of PAFA’s biggest challenges during the workshops series, noted Sarah Spencer, Assistant to Museum Director Brooke Davis Anderson.

“PAFA is this historic landmark in the city and it’s hard to bring change to a space that people see as a permanent,” Sarah explained. “We began to look into reevaluating that identity and showing that the building itself is a work of art that can evolve and be a space for experimentation.”

Toward that end, the PAFA team began planning a series of community gatherings with artists to explore new ways to engage with American art. PAFA hosted its first “Town Hall” meeting in March to generate ideas — and struck gold.

“One of the things that emerged was a premise for an exhibition,” Sarah said. “We want to partner with contemporary artists like Alison Saar, Alex Da Corte, Kerry James Marshall, and with local historic sites and institutions, to create artwork that looks at the future of the U.S. through the lens of its most revered objects.”

Saar addresses ideas of race and gender through her figurative sculptures; Da Corte explores consumerism, pop culture and mythology through painting, sculpture and video. Marshall, a painter, delves into the marginalization of everyday African-Americans through his work.

Under the leadership of PAFA’s Curator of Contemporary Art, Jodi Throckmorton, Rising Sun: History and Debate in 21st Century American Art plans to open in the fall of 2022. The exhibition derives its name from the “Rising Sun” chair in Independence Hall. As history tells it, when Benjamin Franklin watched his fellow countrymen sign the Constitution he was struck by an image of the sun on the back of President George Washington’s chair. With its shape only halfway revealed on the horizon, Franklin later mused about whether the sun was rising or setting.

“Philadelphia is a huge creative space, in many ways historically,” Sarah said. “We really embrace working collaboratively, and by extending the invitation to our partners, it will make the exhibition a huge celebration for the city.”

Kerry James Marshall(b. 1950), Vignette (Wishing Well), 2010. Color aquatint, spit bite aquatint and sugar lift aquatint with softground and hardground etching, scrape and burnish, drypoint and collage, 44 3/4 x 33 1/2 in. Published by Paulson Fontaine Press. PAFA, Museum Purchase.©Kerry James Marshall, Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

PAFA is using the $10,000 it received from the Knight Foundation for completing the EmcArts program to subsidize planning for the exhibition, including two additional community meetings. Because of limitations posed by COVID-19, the gatherings likely will be virtual in format.

“These gatherings provide a space where we can dive into ideas and generate points to move forward with. We’re hoping to see more collaborative work going forward and to bring in many voices to help with this project,” Sarah said.

“This is going to be very different for PAFA — these will be primarily large installation works — and it is going to be exciting for us to see how the Historic Landmark Building will be reinvigorated and made into an active space that we haven’t seen before.”

The exhibition dovetails nicely with PAFA’s mission: to promote the transformational power of art and art making.

“We are an American art museum, so we have to think about how to show the American art story in a way that is diverse,” Sarah noted, “but more importantly, in a way that creates audience engagement and reimagines the multifaceted nature of our relationship with American Art.”

The Philadelphia program is part of EmcArts’ Workshop Series on the Adaptive Organization offered thanks to the generous contribution of the Knight Foundation. The PAFA team considered the work a valuable investment of time and resources, Sarah said.

“PAFA wants to be a part of organizations that dive into active learning and understanding. Being adaptive shows that an organization can change and can grow. “

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