When an Alexander Calder Museum was first proposed for the Benjamin Franklin Parkway by Philadelphia Mayor Edward G. Rendell, the Youth Study Center, a detention center, was across the street and the Barnes Foundation was in Merion, Montgomery County.
It was 1998, exactly 100 years after Calder, the eminent sculptor and artist, was born in Philadelphia. Rendell presented a museum in his honor to the Calder Foundation, a New York-based family operation run by Calder’s grandson, Alexander SC Rower (known as “Sandy”, like his grandfather).
Rower had been trying to strike a museum deal with then-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and wasn’t making much headway. But Philadelphia, which already prominently displayed the artwork of three generations of Calders (including Sandy), was pushing hard — part of Rendell’s grand plans for the cultural and economic transformation of the Old City.
The Rendell team influenced Rower. Calder would come to town.
This being Philadelphia, the deal got bogged down. Many different actors, not enough consensus. In 2005, when Rendell was governor, the deal was declared dead.
But this being Philadelphia, nothing is ever too long to do, and what is declared dead is never forgotten. It’s a Philadelphia throwback story.
In 2020, when virtually all of the original players were off the field, a completely reconfigured Calder showcase was announced and was quickly delayed by the pandemic. But the plan, dubbed “Calder Gardens” — more of a small sculpture garden, about 17,000 to 18,000 square feet of exhibition space, than a museum — is presented to the Philadelphia Art Commission on September 14. The plan becomes public today, part of the file submitted to the Art Commission.
And, of course, being Philadelphia, HF “Gerry” Lenfest was at the heart of the resurrection effort before his death in 2018. He called Rower and Neubauer Family Foundation Trustee Joe Neubauer. (Lenfest was a former owner of The Inquirer, and the paper receives support from the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.)
Neubauer, a trustee and driving force behind the Barnes Foundation since 2005, said he needed no prodding to seek to revive the Calder project on the boardwalk.
“Gerry was a man of many wishes,” Neubauer said — and this one was within the realm of possibility.
“Joe was a beacon; he’s just amazing,” Rower said in a recent interview.
“We love Philadelphia,” Neubauer said. “We have lived here for over 40 years. We love the Parkway, and we think we improved it a lot with the Barnes.
“Art is important in our culture, especially in troubled times,” Neubauer said. But, he added, “I hated the awful empty space that the city or the state or whoever” was piling up building materials between 21st and 22nd streets, just across from the Barnes and the museum. Rodin.
It was actually PennDot building materials stockpiled on the two acres of Parkway land that the city had agreed to lease from the Calder Foundation for a “museum” two decades ago — a facility Neubauer recognized as the “completion piece” missing from the cultural profile of the walk.
“When Gerry Lenfest and Rebecca Rimel [head of the Pew Charitable Trusts] and I started talking about the Calder project, I was very interested in that,” Neubauer said. “I don’t know what happened 20 years ago, and it doesn’t interest me. But we made a deal, an arrangement with the Calder Foundation to lend us art for a period of 99 years on a rotating basis. And that’s what’s going to happen in this building.
If the Art Commission approves the project – and all indications are that it will – construction could begin as early as this fall and last around two years until 2024, or even 2025.
The architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron, based in Basel, Switzerland, and known for the Tate Modern in London, the National Stadium in Beijing (known as the Bird’s Nest) and, closer to Philadelphia, the Parrish Art Museum in the Hamptons on Long Island, has largely completed its design work.
Neubauer said about 90% of the project’s planned $70 million cost (which includes a “substantial” endowment) has been raised.
The architects, led by Jacques Herzog, designed a long and low structure with several levels leading or giving onto gardened spaces. The building backs onto the Vine Street highway and features a mild steel façade towards the promenade, appearing to rise from gardens designed by Dutch landscape architect Piet Oudolf.
The art in both the interior galleries and the exterior gardens will consist of Calder’s characteristic ingenious hanging mobiles and stationary sculptures, what the artist has called “stabiles”.
The Calder Foundation holds hundreds of works, which it loans out for exhibitions or keeps in the artist’s former studio and backyard in Roxbury, Connecticut, and other locations.
The promenade already features the work of Sandy Calder’s grandfather, Alexander Milne Calder, best known for his monumental statue of William Penn atop City Hall; the artist’s father, Alexander Stirling Calder, designed Swann Fountain, the centerpiece of Logan Square, a few blocks from the Calder Gardens site.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art has Sandy Calder’s own monumental work Phantom mobile in the grand stair hall overlooking the length of the walk past his father’s Swann Fountain artwork to that of his grandfather William Penn and other sculptural groupings at City Hall a mile away.
There will also be two- and three-dimensional works by Milne and Stirling on display in the new showcase, Rower said.
“Oh, it took too long, no doubt, but it was hard to put the pieces together,” said Rendell, the man who put Calder on the line two decades ago. “I think it will be a great thing for the city. The Calder Museum is owned by Philadelphia. It’s a city with more Calders than the rest of the country combined. And Calder was a great artist and his work should be given the exposure it deserves.
Rower and Neubauer said the number of artworks that will be displayed in Calder Gardens has not been determined, and given the wide range of artwork sizes, the number of views to any given time will fluctuate. But the foundation has several hundred, if not thousands, of Calder mobiles, stabiles and two-dimensional works that would contribute to the gardens for display, Rower said.
“This is the first time there’s been a purpose-built space for Calder,” Rower said. “I want it to be small. I don’t want it to be a big, crowded place.
Rower’s idea was not to use foundation funds to stock a museum, but rather to present art for contemplation. He wanted an experience with no intermediary between the viewer and the work of art.
Herzog said that after careful consideration, “we wanted to do something that doesn’t come across as a shape or as a color, because Calder is so much about shape and color.” The decision was made to place much of Calder Gardens’ public spaces – including the gardens – below ground level.
Visitors, he said, “would walk around and experience the work in a spatial sequence they had never seen before”.
Calder Gardens, Herzog said, is “a place of meditation. There is a big word. Meditation. But you know, concentration, discovery, curiosity. Visitors will “perceive the art in a new way, and that’s what actually drove the design.”
Rower said he wanted a place “open to everyone” to have a “spiritual personal dialogue with Calder’s work in a pure sense.” What he called “pure activation between Calder and you with nothing in between, you know. No wall tag, no curator just you and Calder and his work.
Also, on a practical level, Rower believed that a smaller installation would be easier to manage. In fact, Calder Gardens back-office operations will be handled by the Barnes Foundation across the street, freeing up Calder to focus on presenting the art. Details of Barnes’ arrangement have yet to be worked out, Neubauer said.
Visits to Calder Gardens will require tickets.
Operational stability is key, Neubauer and Rower said.
“I want him to be able to survive through thick and thin, you know,” Rower said. “Right now we have these wonderful backers and everything, but 50 years from now, what’s going to happen? And I can’t let this end up as some kind of dead place. It would be awful. I don’t want that to happen. So I want to look forward to make sure it survives and is vibrant, and has that kind of liveliness like Grandpa’s work.