PAFA halfway to $25 million goal for renovations, improvements

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Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts President and CEO David R. Brigham shows off some Andy Warhol pieces that are kept in the new archive and art storage vault of the Center for Study of the American Artist at PAFA in Philadelphia.

Past and future have long nestled up against each other at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, but rarely as expectantly as they do at this moment.

The basement of the Hamilton Building is composed of sleek, new materials, and then you venture beyond a door into a space now raw but destined to become a discrete new 250-seat performing venue for burgeoning North Broad Street. A dowdy back-alley entrance soon will be reconstructed to ease handicapped visitors into the museum - a stylish stroke of building-code compliance more than a quarter-century after the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law.

History and possibility hover hopefully around PAFA's campus because the museum and school has now reached the halfway point in a capital campaign to pay for a long list of improvements. The elder statesman of Philadelphia arts groups - founded in 1805 - is set to announce Wednesday that it has raised $12.7 million toward a $25 million goal. PAFA has about $8 million worth of "asks" out to donors, says president and CEO David R. Brigham, who expects it will take about two more years to raise the rest of the money and three to complete the work.

Projects are being undertaken as money comes in - some are complete or in progress; others await money.

Bricks and mortar are being moved in tandem with changes in offerings to the school's aspiring artists. Improvements include substantial new spaces for two new programs that started in 2015: an undergraduate program in illustration, and a low-residency MFA program. Cartoonist and illustrator Jessica Abel, coeditor of the Best American Comics series for several years and a specialist in graphic narrative, has just started as program chair of the illustration program.

PAFA expects the two new programs to increase enrollment from the current 290 to 350 within three years - with an attendant boost in revenue. Tuition covers about half of the institution's $20 million annual budget, with the rest coming from donations, earned revenue from rentals and the like, plus a small amount from an endowment.

"What is exciting is that we are one of the very few museum schools in the country . . . and this helps to leverage the dual mission of the institution," Brigham says of the changes brought by this campaign. "I think it raises both sides of the house and helps connect them to one another."

The work is being overseen by Cleveland architecture firm Westlake Reed Leskosky. Among the renovations already completed:

An indoor-outdoor cafe on Lenfest Plaza, between the 1876 Furness and Hewitt building and the newer Hamilton Building acquired by PAFA in 1999 and opened in 2005.

An education center in the space immediately to the right on entering the 1876 building, where the cafe used to be.

The creation of a Center for the Study of the American Artist on the fifth floor of Hamilton, which clusters together in one area the archives; library; a study center; facilities for conserving, cataloging, matting, and framing art; and a vault that increases storage for art by about 80 percent.

"Urgent capital needs," as Brigham puts it, on the 1876 building, including replacing damaged slate on the roof, rebuilding a chimney on the west side, replacing a boiler and chiller, and updating restrooms.

"The historic building is a responsibility we don't take lightly," Brigham says. Spending about $8 million on current work "means the building will be strong, secure, and beautiful."

Changes underway, or soon to be, include:

Replacing two massive skylights on the Broad Street side of the 1876 building - one that brings light into the gallery with Benjamin West's The Treaty of Penn With the Indians, and the other over works of Sully, Stuart, and Peale.

The new handicap ed entrance, which means visitors will no longer have to buzz at the front door and then go to the rear to be lifted in a freight elevator.

The creation of a new glass-triangle artist studio on the south side of the Hamilton Building facade that will allow passersby to watch artists at work. The tinted plateglass windows on Broad will be replaced by clear ones. (Will there be nude models, as there are elsewhere at PAFA? "We haven't really addressed that," Brigham says.)

No endowment piece is part of the $25 million campaign. An acquisitions fund - fueled largely by the controversial deaccessioning of Edward Hopper's Depression-era painting East Wind Over Weehawken, whose 2013 sale at Christie's for $40.5 million reaped $36 million for PAFA - allows it to spend about $2 million a year on acquisitions. Half of that is for contemporary art purchases and half for filling gaps in the historic collection.

"PAFA has a really strong commitment to contemporary work, in exhibitions and diverse artists, and our curriculum - being rooted in tradition but rearing contemporary artists - advances our mission," Brigham says. "Our acquisitions fund enables us to have conversations with collectors, so we are seeing new gifts, and the new storage space means we have space to accommodate a growing collection."

Awaiting funding is the project of moving staff nearly entirely into the Hamilton Building, to free up space in the 1876 one for other uses, as well as the renovation of the Hamilton Building's basement. That 50,000-square-foot space will be carved up into a storage vault for post-World War II painting and sculpture, a new student gallery, and the new auditorium expected to seat about 250 listeners.

PAFA will give seven local groups free use of the space five times per year: the Mural Arts Program, Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra, Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, FringeArts, WURD-AM, and New Freedom Theatre. The price tag for that phase: $5 million.

As with any old building, the work is never done. Sometime after this campaign is complete, PAFA will look to another campaign that would include extensive renovation of Furness and Hewitt's 1876 masterpiece, whose odd, energetic amalgamation of styles has drawn praise from students of history like architect Robert Venturi and author Vincent Scully. That would require closing the building for about a year to totally replace the roof, electrical, and plumbing systems, and undo some earlier renovations to restore spaces to their original appearance. The estimated cost of the project (in today's dollars) is $25 million.

That would return it to its Victorian splendor, and, Brigham says, "position the building for the next half-century."

pdobrin@phillynews.com

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