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Penn State Trustees OK Plans for New Palmer Museum of Art at the Arboretum

Penn State’s Board of Trustees on Friday approved final plans to build a new Palmer Museum of Art adjacent to the Arboretum, despite opposition to the timing of the project from several trustees.

Construction on the $85 million 71,000-square-foot facility, will begin this summer and is expected to be completed in the fall of 2023.

“A museum as part of a cultural district at the University Park campus is a long-term vision for the university,” board chair Matt Schuyler said during a committee meeting on Thursday. “It’s an investment in the next 100 years of Penn State, not the next few years of economics.”

The existing museum on Curtin Road was built in 1972 and renovated and expanded to 50,000 square feet in 1993. Since then, its collection has grown 185% to more than 10,000 objects while its physical space remains the same. The new facility will allow the museum to expand its works on view from 3-4% to 7-8%, while also offering more services and cultural opportunities that supporters say will make it a destination for thousands more people each year.

Though no tuition or general fund money will be used for project, several trustees said they worried about the timing and funding. The final vote was 26-7, with agricultural trustee Valerie Detwiler and alumni-elected trustees Ted Brown, Anthony Lubrano, Bill Oldsey, Jay Paterno, Alice Pope and Brandon Short voting no.

“Yesterday we heard a survey of students identified a third of the students had food insecurity,” Brown said. “I’m in favor of the art museum. I love art museums… I don’t think now is the right time to approve an $85 million project when we have students surveyed saying they have fear of insecurity of food.”

Nearly three-quarters of the project — $62 million — will be funded by borrowing. Debt service of $4 million annually will come from the university’s share of Big Ten media revenue, which is more than $50 million each year. When the conference last negotiated an increase in its media rights deals, university presidents agreed each school should use $4 million annually for difficult-to-fund campus projects.

“I think the concept is a great concept, however I have some real concerns overall about the timing of this project,” Lubrano said after remarking that there was no guarantee that the media rights money available for it wouldn’t change in the future.

Detwiler said she thought after early work on project design that philanthropy would account for more of the financing and suggested it should wait until further donations could be solicited.

“I think this is a lovely project. I think it will provide benefit to the campus, and I think it is something to pursue,” Detwiler said. “I have concerns about how we fund the project… Obviously you’re not going to get 100% philanthropy but I think in a lot of our minds it was a significant figure…”

But Penn State President Eric Barron and Trustee Rob Fenza, said philanthropy has already exceeded the initial goal and the Big Ten money was always part of the proposal.

Fenza, who also serves as vice-chair of the university’s current capital campaign, said the project’s goal was $13.9 million in philanthropic support, but to date has received $19.6 million. That is already the fifth highest total in private giving for a single new project, behind the Smeal College of Business Building and ahead of Bryce Jordan Center.

The university’s Office of Development is in discussion with 100 more prospective donors, Fenza said, and private giving could finish around $24-25 million.

Waiting could also make construction far more expensive, said Fenza, a retired real estate industry executive. Raw materials for construction like steel and concrete are becoming increasingly difficult to secure and their costs are soaring, a trend that’s expected to continue because of “a pent-up demand and billions of infrastructure dollars pouring into construction,” Fenza said.

The university already has hard bids in hand and is lined up to secure steel with the project not going over budget.

“I’ve been in the construction industry for about 40 years and it is absolutely incredible that we are positioned to proceed in these times with hard bids in hand that meet budget,” Fenza said. “We really can’t delay.”

The current Palmer Museum building will give the university with an estimated $35 million worth of space that will be repurposed for academic uses still to be determined.

To be located next to the H.O. Smith Botanic Gardens and across the street from the Lewis Katz Building on Bigler Road, the building designed by Allied Works Architecture has two wings clad in local stone. The larger wing on the west side is for the galleries and museum support spaces, while the east wing will have administrative and educational facilities.

The wings have open space between them offering a view directly into the Arboretum and are connected on the second level by an enclosed walkway.

It is designed to connect to the landscape with indoor and outdoor courtyards and be a gateway to the Arboretum.

In addition to galleries and a museum store with a small grab-and-go cafe, the new building will have an event space that opens onto a courtyard with a view of the Arboretum. The event space includes a catering kitchen.

“As one of the largest art museums between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and the most significant academic art museum in the state, this new facility will help to advance the Palmer as a cultural destination and scholarly resource for the university, surrounding communities, and visitors from across Pennsylvania and beyond,” Erin Coe, director of the Palmer Museum of Art, said in a statement.

No new parking is included in the plans. University officials told State College Planning Commission in March that a parking consultant was hired and determined the 339-space parking lot of the Katz Building would accommodate the law school building and current and future needs of the Arboretum and the museum.

The new museum is part of a vision for a cultural district, first presented by Barron to the board in 2016, to be developed at the Arboretum, with the potential for other university museums to relocate to facilities on the site with a new STEM museum, performance spaces, education center, planetarium and a conservatory, in a series of “connected or semi-connected” buildings. 

Those plans have not moved forward to date, but officials said in March that land next to the new Palmer site is reserved for a potential future building for that purpose.

The Palmer Museum plans also are designed for a potential expansion of the building in the future.