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Plans are taking shape for the new Penn State art museum at The Arboretum

by on April 01, 2020 2:29 PM

In 2016, Penn State President Eric Barron approached the university’s board of trustees with a vision. He proposed the development of a new cultural district, where all of the university’s museums could be consolidated into one easily accessible location – a location that is already a popular destination, with plenty of open space: The Arboretum at Penn State. 

Four years later, the first phase of that vision is getting closer to becoming a reality, as a new university art museum has reached the design development stage, with plans of opening at The Arboretum in 2023.

The new museum will be located in an empty space on the northeast edge of the H.O. Smith Botanical Gardens. It will have its own name and replace the Palmer Museum of Art, which has been open since 1972 in its current location on Curtin Road; space constraints have prevented it from expanding since 1993.

According to Erin Coe, director of the Palmer Museum of Art, those space constraints are one reason that now is the right time to move ahead with the construction of a new facility.

“In 1993, when the last addition was opened and the museum was renamed in recognition of leadership gifts made by benefactors James and Barbara Palmer, we had 3,500 works of art in our collection. Today, we are close to 10,000 works of art. That is 185-percent growth,” Coe says.

“Meanwhile, the footprint of this building hasn’t grown a square inch; we are landlocked here with no room to grow. We can only exhibit less than 4 percent of our collection. We are at maximum capacity and bursting at the seams. With a pipeline of donors who intend to give us their collections of art in the not-too-distant future, the time is now to expand and build a new university art museum.”

Coe came to Penn State in 2017 from The Hyde Collection in Glen Falls, New York, and says the 2016 Feasibility Study and Master Plan report on the development of a cultural district was a part of her recruitment package.

“When I looked at it, I thought, ‘This is so exciting, I want to be a part of it,’” she says. “I’ve been a part of museums that have gone through renovations and expansions, but I have never had the opportunity to lead a project where you’re building a new art museum from the ground-floor up. That isn’t a common thing. So for me it was very exciting to be part of leading the charge to build a new art museum.”

However, the master plan was broken into three phases, with an interdisciplinary gallery and STEM museum as part of phase one, a conservatory and planetarium as phase two, and the art museum as the last phase. Coe set out to change that. Once officials grasped the urgency of the museum’s need for space, she says, they quickly agreed to make it the first priority.

To kick off the project, the board of trustees approved in May 2019 the hiring of an architect, Allied Works, whose projects include the University of Michigan Museum of Art, the Seattle Art Museum, and the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City. The board also approved an initial budget of $71 million, which will not come from tuition dollars, but rather from university sources such as Penn State’s five-year capital plan, and from private donors. Coe says the museum surpassed its fundraising goal in just more than six months and plans to continue raising money until the building opens.

Working closely with officials at Penn State, including Arboretum and Palmer Museum staff and the Office of Physical Plant’s Planning, Design & Properties, Allied Works completed schematic designs last month, offering a solid glimpse at what the new facility will offer.

The building will have two wings: an exhibition wing and an education and administration wing, connected by a glass walkway bridge.

On the exhibition side, exhibition space will nearly double in the new location, Coe says, taking it from 12,700 square feet to 22,000 square feet. Not only will that allow more of the museum’s permanent collection to be displayed, it will also allow the museum to host larger temporary exhibitions that the museum must frequently pass on because of its current limited space.

A large lobby will easily accommodate opening receptions and tour groups, but the museum will also have a multi-purpose event room with the capacity to accommodate everything from performances and lectures to parties and even yoga classes. The event space will flow into an outdoor terrace.

On the education and administrative side, there will be office space for museum staff as well as for Arboretum staff, who at this time have offices in various campus buildings. There will also be classrooms, an object study area, and a teaching gallery.

“Teaching galleries have become a staple of any academic art museum or university art museum in this country. We do not have one right now,” Coe says. “The teaching gallery will allow us to work more intentionally with students and faculty and engage them in the collections of the museum.”

The education component is very important, she says.

“Our mission is the mission of Penn State: teaching, research, and public service. This gallery is a manifestation of that teaching mission of a land-grant university,” Coe says. “I can’t emphasize enough how important that is to this project. It’s something that means a lot to me as a director of a university art museum of the stature of the Palmer Museum of Art.”

In fact, the new facility will extend that teaching mission to the community beyond Penn State, as new bus lanes and parking availability will open up the museum to more visits by K-12 students and teachers, Coe says.

Aside from all of these practical new features, one of the most crucial considerations in the design of the museum is its overall look and feel, and how it integrates with its natural surroundings, Coe says.

To that end, the design will be “low-mass” rather than a tall urban-style building, she says, with the highest point reaching only two stories.

“The galleries meander through space, and then provide moments of connection with landscape through windows, and lots of natural light,” Coe describes. “We’re trying to mimic the experience of walking through a garden.

“We don’t want to build the museum to detract from The Arboretum or interfere with The Arboretum in any way. We want a museum that will integrate with The Arboretum and enhance the overall sense of place of The Arboretum.”

Of course, that is a consideration that is very important to Dr. Kim Steiner, who has been director of The Arboretum since 1999, 10 years before that project became a reality. He feels that if it is done correctly, the addition of an art museum and a cultural district will enhance The Arboretum.

“For a facility like this to be successful on a university campus, it has to be a part of the academic life of the university. It can’t be just a popular park,” he says.From the very beginning, the steering committee that I report to has consisted of the deans from agriculture, arts and architecture, science, earth and mineral sciences, and education. … We’ve always hoped for engagement with arts and architecture, and we’ve hosted events in conjunction with them, like Shakespeare in the Gardens and Music in the Gardens. We’ve always sought these things. So it just seemed natural to do this.

“I think one thing that is on people’s minds is, ‘What is this going to do to The Arboretum?’ And about all I can say is that I’ve been really excited about the idea of having the art museum out here, and the only challenge has been to make sure that the idea gets translated into a reality that will the enhance The Arboretum and not detract from it. So that’s what we’ve been really, really focused on.” 

Now the project enters its next phase, design development, which means coming up with construction plans and firm cost estimates. This step should be completed in August, Coe says, at which point it will go before the board of trustees for approval once again. If all goes smoothly, construction could begin in 2021.

When the doors finally open in 2023, the museum will continue to be a free-admission resource, thanks to the continued support of private donors, Coe says. It will be the largest art museum between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, and Coe believes its location and accessibility will draw bus tours and visitors from afar.

Steiner agrees.

“We have people come into the gardens who, if it were not for the gardens, they’d not come to the university at all. It’s because they know how to get here and it’s easy,” he says. “What I visualize is that people coming with the gardens as a destination will also want to visit the art museum, and many people visiting the art museum will want to go to the gardens. They will benefit, and I believe we will, too.”


Karen Walker is a freelance writer in State College.


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