Monday, September 17, 2007

Open for Business

This past Saturday, September 15th, local dignitaries cut the ribbon for the grand opening of the Perelman Building, the PMA’s new addition. I wasn’t able to attend on Saturday, but Annie, Alex, and I visited on Sunday to get a feel for the new place.

Thanks to the Philadelphia Distance Run, driving around the museum Sunday morning was a nightmare. The normally terrible parking situation was even worse, so we changed direction and visited Alex’s favorite museum—The Please Touch Museum–and waited for the crowds to disperse. After grabbing some lunch, we made our way over to the Perelman and found it to be less than electrifying. From the facts of the newspaper account of the opening on Saturday, I got a sense that the day wasn’t a complete victory. Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell sent his wife Midge to read a statement and Philadelphia Mayor John Street sent only a statement to be read. Rendell can make time to do postgame shows for the Philadelphia Eagles football games (as he undoubtedly will for tonight’s Monday night game), so I’m very disappointed in him. Mayor Street only makes appearances in election years, so the Perelman wasn’t going to get him up early on a Saturday. Considering that the Perelman is literally in the heart of a residential section, you would have thought some of the neighbors would have showed up to see the opening after years of construction, but news accounts say less than one hundred people showed up. They had more than that for the press preview.

I always value Annie’s opinion on art, because she doesn’t get as close to it as I do and isn’t as much of a fan of modern art as myself. Annie felt underwhelmed by the Perelman experience. Admittedly, the departments that the PMA moved over to the Perelman (costumes; prints, drawing, and photos; and design and furniture) aren’t the crowd pleasers. However, the large exhibit space they have as the “wild card,” where the large modern sculptures now reside temporarily, needs to become the drawing card for the Perelman to attract visitors. The small area for drawings and prints just isn’t enough for the people wanting to see paintings. The PMA has so much in their collection not on view, I can’t understand why a more obvious crowd favorite (perhaps something like an “Unseen Thomas Eakins” exhibit culled from the archives? OK, maybe I'm the only one who can't get enough Eakins) couldn’t have been done. I’m no curator, but I know what works and what doesn’t when I see it. The Perelman was a mausoleum on Sunday. Curiosity seekers drifted through the exhibits in near silence. Where were the docents and curatorial types? I was expecting an opening weekend resembling a lively open house. (The permanent display area of the costume department remained curiously empty except for one lone dress, as it was for the press preview. They couldn’t find 10 to 15 pieces of interest to fill the cases? Grace Kelly’s wedding dress was on exhibit just last year and would have served admirably, at least temporarily.) If this is the attendance when admission is free, I don’t want to know what happens when it’s pay per view. Even sadder, the new resource center for teachers seemed woefully empty, with the newly installed computers tragically dark. Fortunately, the building itself is sound and the collection remains wonderful enough to pull in the curious and bring them back, if used correctly. I hope the PMA finds its footing marketing-wise and allows the Perelman to flourish and become the public arm of the museum’s outreach that they dreamed it might be.

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