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Get a sneak peek at Penn State's new Palmer Museum of Art before grand opening Saturday

Palmer Museum Exterior
WPSU
The Palmer Museum of Art opens June 1, 2024. The 73,000-square-foot building doubles the exhibit space of the old museum.

The new $85 million Palmer Museum of Art at Penn State on the University Park campus opens Saturday with twice the exhibit space as the old one, education and event spaces, lots of parking and, according to director Erin Coe, a wow factor.

“As you walk through the galleries, you'll notice different ceiling heights. So you're in one gallery with a low ceiling height and then you walk into an adjacent gallery that soars,” Coe said. “There's a sort of ebb and flow of the visitor experience as you meander through the galleries. No two galleries look the same in this building.”

There are also colorful walls and views of the neighboring Arboretum.

Erin Coe, the director of the Palmer Museum of Art at Penn State, said their goal was to make a museum that feels welcoming.
WPSU
Erin Coe, the director of the Palmer Museum of Art at Penn State, said their goal was to make a museum that feels welcoming.

Coe led the effort to create the new museum, which was designed by Allied Works Architecture. She said the Palmer Museum's collection had outgrown its old building on Curtain Road. That museum was in the center of campus. It couldn’t be expanded, and there was no parking.

Coe said the new Palmer will allow for larger exhibitions and bigger pieces of art. And it will more than double the number of works in the permanent collection that can be on view from 3% to 7-8%. The inaugural installation of permanent collection pieces will be organized around the theme of “Roots and Renewal.”

“‘Roots and Renewal’ is a fitting theme given our new location in the Arboretum and adjacent to the botanic gardens,” Coe said. “And it signals our new community-centered approach to the presentation of the collection.”

“Made in PA” is the Palmer’s inaugural exhibition through Dec. 1, 2024. Coe said it spans three generations of Pennsylvania artists, from Andrew Wyeth to Andy Warhol to contemporary artists. She said "Made in PA" could refer to the museum building too.

“This building is clad in about 10,000 slabs of sandstone quarried at a nearby quarry in Grampian, Pennsylvania,” Coe said.

The museum will also include a specially commissioned installation by artist Dale Chihuly called “Lupine Blue Persian Wall.” Twenty-two Chihuly glass pieces in Penn State blue and white snake their way up the main staircase. It was commissioned in honor of former President Eric Barron and his wife, Molly Barron. Eric Barron came up with the idea for the new museum and trustees voted to authorize the museum under his presidency in 2021.

Palmer Museum Assistant Director Joyce Robinson said visitors will also find works of art that are unexpected and don’t quite seem to fit into their galleries. For example, in the Palmer’s first-ever gallery dedicated to African art, among the more traditional African masks and pottery is a stylized photograph of a Lord Nelson figure passed out on a bed in a powdered wig, but in clothing made from brightly colored fabric popular in Africa. It’s by British Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare. Robinson said they call these pieces "interventions."

“We want to sort of disrupt the visitor’s path when they come into this gallery,” Robinson said. “So Yinka Shonibare, a contemporary 21st century artist, really complicates our understanding of African art. It opens it up. Clearly, there are contemporary African artists who are working in modes that don't match the other objects that you see in this gallery. And also ask interesting, complicated questions about cultural identity and cultural hybridity.”

An 'intervention' piece sits to the left of a ladder on April 11, 2024, waiting to be hung in the African art gallery at the Palmer Museum of Art at Penn State. The 2011 photograph "Fake Death Picture (The Death of Chatterton—Henry Wallis)" is by British Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare.
Emily Reddy
/
WPSU
An 'intervention' piece sits to the left of a ladder on April 11, 2024, waiting to be hung in the African art gallery at the Palmer Museum of Art at Penn State. The 2011 photograph "Fake Death Picture (The Death of Chatterton—Henry Wallis)" is by British Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare.

Coe said for the past five years they’ve intentionally focused on building up their collection of underrepresented artists. She said it’s part of a nationwide movement.

“Most museum collections, if you were to look at them statistically – the Palmer included – the majority of works are by white men,” Coe said. “So we are now in a moment where we're reckoning with that. And we're thinking about the vast tapestry of artists that have been working historically – so in the past – and today.”

Coe said many of those new acquisitions will be on display for the first time at the new Palmer Museum.

She said their ultimate goal is to make a museum that feels welcoming, not intimidating.

“We want visitors to feel like they belong here. We want them to leave and say: This is my museum,” Coe said.

The museum has adjacent parking and can accommodate buses. Organizers expect to see three times as many visitors in the first year.

For opening weekend, the Palmer Museum of Art at Penn State will have guided tours, events and performances Saturday from 11 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sunday from noon-5 p.m. Entrance to the museum is free. Parking is free opening weekend.

The Palmer Museum is a financial supporter of WPSU.

Emily Reddy is the news director at WPSU-FM, the NPR-affiliate public radio station for central and northern Pennsylvania.