Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts has been at the forefront of American fine arts since it was founded in 1805 and is the oldest art school in the USA still in operation. The main building at 118 North Broad Street is a Furness and Hewitt masterpiece from 1876 whilst an old car showroom a few metres away across Cherry street and renamed the Samuel M. V. Hamilton Building was added in 2002.
In 2011 the City closed off the 220 metres of Cherry street that divided the two buildings, allowing the PAFA to join its two buildings with a new public space called the Lenfest Plaza. This was designed by urban design firm OLIN and is now the location for changing public art exhibitions, as well as one permanent sculpture by Claes Oldenberg.
Oldenberg already had three other public sculptures in Philadelphia before the arrival of Paint Torch, which can be seen being erected in a video on the PAFA site. This 60 foot pop sculpture sticks out at an insouciant angle into Broad Street, in full view of City Hall. Standing as a reminder of the power of art and the exuberance of life the Paint Torch lights up at night and prevents anyone taking it or anything else too seriously.
The plan for the other end of the Lenfest Plaza was for a changing exhibition of public sculpture. However the first artist selected, Jordan Griska, chose to exhibit a piece that has caused so much interest that it has not yet been replaced by anything else. He bought a Cold-war era plane on ebay and he had it re-engineered to include medicinal gardens, the fruit of which will be used by the Philadelphia City Harvest Program which provides meals for low-income families. Griska has turned an object of fear and destruction into something whimsical and life-supporting as well as visually stunning.
The Museum is still collecting American work and every year one piece is purchased from the student show to put in the museum’s permanent collection. It has also recently purchased a 2007 Bill Viola piece entitled Ocean without a shore. Viola is a video artist who broods on the existential in slo-mo, painterly images. Ocean without a shore was first shown in Venice, Italy and takes its title from the mystic Ibn Arabi, who said “The Self is an ocean without a shore. Gazing upon it has no beginning or end, in this world and the next.” On three big screens people slowly approach a wall of water that is between them and the viewer. As they make their way through the water their images change from black and white to colour, and they are suddenly seen more clearly. They blink and seem uncertain as to what to do, before retreating back through the water and returning to black and white. Referring to this piece Viola has said that ‘all beings realize that their presence is finite and so they must eventually turn away from material existence to return from where they came. The cycle repeats without end.’
Inside the gallery PAFA is experimenting with an exciting program that is mixing some of its contemporary works in with the older collection. Combined with the effervescence of the Lenfest plaza the PAFA deserves its high status in the Philadelphia fine art world.