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Friday, 4 June 2010

Museum Mile: Another museum to grace the Franklin Parkway? (No, not the Barnes Foundation)

PAFA's Lenfest Plaza Under Way

By Richard Carreño
Junto Senior Staff Writer Bio
With the Philadelphia Museum of Art as its capstone, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway is increasingly living up to its reputation as Philadelphia's 'Museum Mile.' This, especially, since the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts is finalizing plans to connect its Lenfast Plaza to the base of the 'Mile' at Broad Street.

The plaza is named for Gerry Lenfest, a PMA trustee and a former board chair, and his wife, Marguerite Lenfest, and will encompass space made available from the closing of Cherry Street, from Broad to 15th Street. PAFA's plan envisons the plaza as being Museum's Mile anchor, or its Center City 'gateway.'

The plaza is sited across from the new Broad Street entrance to the expanded Pennsylvania Convention Center, and and is likely to act as a funnel to the Mile from new foot traffic in the area. PAFA estimates that about 1.5 million visitors will annually attend center events.

As important, the plaza eliminates a traffic artery dividing the PAFA 'campus' from its iconic Frank Furness main building and its Hamilton Building satellite, just north of Cherry Street. This also deep sixes a plan, floated a few years ago, that would have constructed a tunnel to connect the two buildings. That idea was highly unpopular in that it would have meant altering the pristine interior of treasured Furness building.

Meanwhile, PAFA has created a task force to determine best uses for the plaza. Memo to David R. Brigham, the academy's president and CEO: For starters, an alfresco cafe, book stalls, outdoor art shows and sales, and live video streaming the museum's brilliant collection.

Civil War Museum to the Parkway?
Oliver St. Clair Franklin might be on to something. Frankin, who's best known around town as Britain's chief local ribbon cutter (he's the UK's honorary consul), has suggested that the Family Court Building at Logan Square and Vine be converted to house the city's now-nomadic Civil War collection. Turns out that Franklin is also the board chairman of the Civil War Museum. Who knew?

Franklin's proposal comes gift-wrapped in a big 'if.' Still, the notion -- the museum, part, at least, has been floated by others, as well -- is well worth exploring. With certain caveats.

While the relocation is a good idea, it comes attached lots of strings.

The biggest is the actually vacancy date of the fabulous Beaux Art-styled building, fashioned after the Crillon on the Place de la Concorde. Thanks to Ronald D. Castille, the state's chief justice, that timing is now problematic. Construction of new Family Court building was scheduled to get under way next month at a parking lot site across from Love Park. But, as recent news reports have noted, Castille screwed up that time-table royally with his mis-handling of the millions that were earmarked for construction. Enter a well-connected, double-dealing Philly lawyer, and, well, it's another all-too-familiar story of public corruption, ineptitude, and greed.

So even when the Vine Street building is free to be repurposed, there's also that other quite familiar scenario emerging: sniffling whinging by but-in-ski nay-sayers. In this one-act play, more suitable for a one-horse town than the nation's sixth largest city (village?), step forward John Andrew Gallery, the executive director of Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia. Gallery has coughed up a half-dozen rinky-dink objections to Franklin's plan. These piddling bits could have been better settled over a cold Stella than by picking a fight in an Inquirer letter. (31 May).

Still, the museum plan needs refinement. The Family Court building is a monumental city-block behemoth, and thus cries out for commercial mixed use. Franklin's putative sole-used concept can't fly. The collection is too small. Moreover, for the collection to move to a new home -- any new home -- it needs to be curated and refurbished. Sadly, the museum simply went 'bankrupt' at its former home on Spruce Street, and the collection itself suffered.

Others have proposed a hotel occupant. Good idea. Other good ones: Retail, including a branch of the PMA's gift shop. 'Floating' gallery exhibits from neighboring museums and cultural institutions. (These include, by the way, the Gallery at the Moore Gallery of Art, the Academy of Natural Sciences, the Franklin Institute, the main branch of the Free Library, and new Barnes Foundation. In other words, it's a hard-core cultural hood). Add book shops. A requisite cafe.

And, lastly, the removal of the bums who, who simply by dint of their presence, litter Logan Square.

Hello, this is a vision thing. Something that Philly movers and shakers aren't too good at, alas.

RIP: Robert McNeil Jr., 94
Robert Lincoln McNeil Jr, 94, a chemist, head of the company that created the well-known pain-killer Tylenol, and a major donor and patron of the Philadelphia Museum of Art died 20 May at his home in suburban Wyndmoor. Donations in his memory may be made to the PMA's Center for American Art, or to the Community Partnership School, Philadelphia.