The Philly art trail

Thereby lies a tale: The Penn Museum, located on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, is home to at least a million exhibits   -  KYLE HUFF

From ancient history to contemporary street murals, Philadelphia offers a wide canvas

When you think of art museums in the US, Philadelphia doesn’t spring to mind. The neighbouring cities of New York and Washington DC steal a march over it with heavy hitters such as The Met, MoMA and the Smithsonian. However, America’s most historic city packs in quite the punch if you know where to look. Here are the five must-dos for any art lover in Philadelphia.

Barnes Foundation

The Barnes Foundation (or simply The Barnes; barnesfoundation.org) showcases the private collection of Dr Albert C Barnes, a doctor, writer and educator who had an intimate relationship with the world of art. The Barnes was founded in 1922 and moved to its current location on Benjamin Franklin Parkway nine decades later. Among the 4,000-odd objects in its possession are 181 paintings by Renoir (the largest collection of the French master’s works), 69 by Cézanne (more than in all of France), 59 by Matisse, 46 by Picasso, half a dozen van Goghs and so much more. There’s also an exciting collection of African artworks, plus artefacts that range from Egyptian to Native American to Amish. What’s unusual about the museum is that the artworks are displayed salon-style, with paintings placed side by side on the same wall, propped above the fireplace, or hung along staircases. Interspersed among these are artefacts that tie in thematically with the paintings. For example, Modigliani’s portraits with elongated necks are juxtaposed with African sculptures, drawing parallels between the two, and also highlighting the extent to which the Italian was influenced by African art.

Philadelphia Museum of Art

The monumental Philadelphia Museum of Art building, in the form of three connected Greek temples, is a work of art in itself, standing atop a sweeping set of 72 steps (philamuseum.org). A larger-than-life bronze statue of Sylvester Stallone is a reminder of the fact that the actor ran up these very steps in a scene from Rocky (1976). It’s obvious that most visitors, either on their way in or out, stop at this statue for photo-ops. Inside, a bronze statue of the Greek goddess Artemis oversees the museum’s Great Stair Hall. On either side are rooms housing an eclectic collection of Renaissance, Impressionist, American, and Modern art. The museum’s Perelman Building, located across the street, has a huge collection of costume and textile pieces, ceramics and glasswork. The museum also administers the Rodin Museum nearby, which has the largest collection of the French sculptor’s works outside Paris, complete with The Thinker.

Penn Museum

Home to at least a million exhibits, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (simply known as Penn Museum; penn.museum) is located on the university campus. It traces humanity’s history through stone tools, household objects and rare artefacts from ancient Egypt and Greece to Asia and Mesopotamia to America. Apart from the centrepiece exhibit of a colossal Sphinx of Ramses II, there are Sumerian cuneiform clay tablets depicting some of the world’s oldest writing, statues of Egyptian pharaohs and their sarcophagi, sculptures from China and jewellery of a Mesopotamian queen. The dramatic Chinese Rotunda room with a 90-ft dome displays large-scale Chinese art and artefacts, including one of the world’s largest crystal spheres, two horse reliefs and spectacular lacquered sculptures. The museum is undergoing extensive renovations, which are expected to be completed later this year. However, many of the galleries are still open, including the recently renovated Middle East Galleries.

Street art

Not all art in Philadelphia is inside museums. The city has an evolved and ever-changing street art scene. Mural Arts Philadelphia started in 1984, seeking to eradicate graffiti and to help young artists channel their talent in a more constructive way. Since then, the organisation has helped create more than 3,600 murals across the city. It’s a good idea to sign up for a walking tour to take it all in. Both Mural Arts (muralarts.org) and Streets Dept (streetsdept.com) run tours through the year.

Mosaic art

Philadelphia’s beloved mural artist Isaiah Zagar, at 80, continues to create large-scale art pieces. His most famous work is the Philly Magic Gardens (phillymagicgardens.org) on South Street, a sprawling garden and gallery space completely given over to Zagar’s Gaudi-esque artistic vision. The mosaics here are made with handmade tiles, china plates, and even bottles and bicycle wheels. Apart from the gardens, South Street has many other murals created by Zagar. You can also see more of his work in the entrance foyer of The Clay Studio (theclaystudio.org), a gallery that exhibits ceramic art by local artists.

Prachi Joshi is a travel and food writer based in Mumbai

Travel Log
  • Getting there
  • There are no direct flights to Philadelphia from India. All flights to the city have at least one stopover.
  • Stay
  • The Study at University City is
  • an elegant boutique hotel near Drexel University and University of Pennsylvania (thestudyatuniversitycity.com).
  • BLink Tip
  • - Urban Adventures offers curated group tours that cover different themes from history, art to food and drink (urbanadventures.com).
  • - Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market is a must-visit for any self-respecting foodie (8am to 6pm; readingterminalmarket.org).
  • - Citizens Bank Park is one of the premier baseball parks in the US and home to the Philadelphia Phillies, the city’s Major League baseball team (mlb.com). Catch a home game here while munching on an array of snacks; don’t miss the crab fries from Chickie’s & Pete’s.

Published on July 26, 2019

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