Get a peek inside the art museum’s archives

Step inside the Philadelphia Museum of Art to get a "First Look." Credit: B. Krist for GPTMC
Step inside the Philadelphia Museum of Art to get a “First Look.”
Credit: B. Krist for GPTMC

For every masterpiece hanging on the walls of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, there are countless other works of art sitting in the museum’s archives waiting for the right opportunity, with more constantly coming into the collection. In the past five years alone, more than 8,500 pieces have been acquired, many of which have yet to be displayed to the public.

“First Look: Collecting for Philadelphia,” which opened yesterday, is a new exhibition that presents just over 100 of those new works and concentrates not on an artist or an era or a style but on the manner in which art comes into the PMA’s collection. The items range from craft objects to important additions to the museum’s key collections of works from artists like Cezanne and Monet. To bring home the decision-making process behind museum acquisitions, visitors are asked to vote on which of two pieces by hard-boiled photographer Weegee the museum will purchase for its permanent collection.

“The exhibition represents the entire range and diversity of the collection,” said Alice Beamesderfer, deputy director for collections and programs at the museum, during a tour of the exhibition. “Photographs, design objects, crafts, paintings, costumes — there’s something for everyone to see here.”

That sheer range of acquisitions made the work of arranging and displaying the pieces in a coherent manner particularly difficult, Beamesderfer explained. “The challenge of doing an exhibition like this is that there’s such a great diversity of objects, because I really wanted to reflect every aspect of the museum’s collection. So then you’re faced with the issue of how to put it together so that it doesn’t look like a big hodge-podge. We decided to organize the exhibition by big, universal themes in art. We wanted to put things together that we thought rhymed with each other and also invited our visitors to look at their similarities and their contrasts.”

That approach leads to some startling juxtapositions that spotlight the ways in which different generations of artists have approached similar broad themes in vastly different ways. The first room, which focuses on portraits and landscapes, features a video diptych by Bill Viola on a pair of plasma screens just around the corner from an 1819 portrait of a Muslim former slave by renowned Philadelphia portraitist Charles Willson Peale. One section of the second room, which concentrates on images of nature, includes works from Switzerland, India, Japan, Korea and the Pennsylvania Dutch, with a 19th-century English Mummers costume nearby.

“First Look: Collecting for Philadelphia”
Through Sept. 8
Philadelphia Museum of Art
26th Street & Ben Franklin Pkwy.
$14-$20, 215-763-8100
www.philamuseum.org


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