It’s often said that Philadelphia is overlooked by tourists in favor of Washington, D.C., or New York City, but by all indications that’s starting to change. USA Today readers recently voted the home of Gritty and cheesesteaks the “Best City for Street Art” and “the most walkable city in the U.S.” Even the airport has an impressive exhibitions program. Here’s what to do on an art-seeking trip to the sixth-largest city in the country:
Hit up the art museums
The world-renowned Philadelphia Museum of Art is likely already on your radar, if only for the obligatory photo op at the top of the Rocky steps. You could easily spend a day inside the space, where a $233 million design renovation led by Frank Gehry was completed in 2021. The museum houses more than 240,000 objects from across the globe including South and East Asian, Renaissance, American and contemporary works. Some highlights: an authentic 16th-century South Indian temple hall, an extensive arms and armor collection, and all the Duchamp your heart desires. Don’t leave without visiting the three gift shops, which feature an impressive selection of items from local artists. If you happen to be visiting in early November, the annual Philadelphia Museum of Art Contemporary Craft Show is a great way to meet nearly 200 vetted artists.
The Barnes Foundation and Rodin Museum are conveniently located near the museum of art — make time to visit these and you won’t be disappointed. In fact, if you only have time to go to one museum, make it the Barnes Foundation, where the walls are stacked with the works of impressionists and post-impressionists like Monet, Renoir, Cezanne, Gaugin, van Gogh and more, all from the collection of self-made millionaire Alfred C. Barnes. There are no barriers between viewers and the artwork, which allows you to see every detail. The Rodin Museum, with its charming sculpture-filled garden, boasts one of the largest collections of Auguste Rodin’s work outside France, with nearly 150 bronzes, marbles and plasters. If you’re visiting in the summer, stop by on a Friday evening for its seasonal happy hour in the garden event series.
Check out the public art
Philly’s public art is unique in that it can be seen all over the city, not just in one or two areas. Thanks in large part to the nonprofit Mural Arts, which was established in 1984, Philly now has more than 4,400 murals on buildings across the city. Other smaller organizations like V.U.R.T. Creative and Paradigm Art Advisory have commissioned murals to beautify neighborhoods in need. A murals tour like those run by Mural Arts will give you some context behind the artworks and point you to some of the most notable.
The Association for Public Art is another excellent resource for discovering the city’s public art, particularly sculptures; the organization’s outdoor sculptural audio program is a free, interactive tool that broadens a viewer’s understanding of what they’re viewing. And Philly-based public art and history studio Monument Lab is facilitating important conversations around the history and future of monuments in the U.S. Its commissions are sure to be enlightening, so check what they have going on before your trip to Philly — debuting in June 2024, for example, the Declaration House exhibition will center Robert Hemings in a story set at the site associated with Thomas Jefferson drafting the Declaration of Independence.
Don’t miss the kaleidoscopic wonder of Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens; its permanent outdoor folk art exhibition showcases the mosaic work of artist Isaiah Zagar. Buy your tickets in advance, as this popular attraction tends to book up.
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Pose for a timeless photo
Visit the studio of Vanity Tintype founder Maureen Cooper, located in the city’s hip Fishtown neighborhood, for a one-of-a-kind photo session. The artist and photography professor will teach you the history of traditional portraiture as you sit for an heirloom tintype photo using the Victorian-era wet-collodion process for a modern take on the 19th-century style. Ambrotypes (photographs on black glass) are also available. It’s a fun activity whether traveling solo or with a group and you’ll return home with a keepsake of your time in Philly. Cooper also participates in select pop-up art events around Philly. Check out Vanity Tintype’s website or Instagram for announcements.
Stay at an artsy hotel
If you love modern design and supporting local artists, you’ll love the brand new (opened August 2023) Yowie Hotel from Philly native Shannon Maldonado, a former designer for Ralph Lauren. Some objects in the 13 guest rooms are available for guests to purchase at the expertly curated on-site shop; catalogs in rooms conveniently display the items guests can buy — just go ahead and leave space in your suitcase now! And Maldonado is happy to share information on the artists, like Miles Shelton and Elizabeth Loux, whose original artwork hangs in the space, so guests are able to easily purchase and commission works directly from the artists. Hyatt Centric Center City makes an effort to highlight local artists as well. Its ongoing Maker Series features monthly or bimonthly pop-up displays showcasing the works of Philly area artists like Sean Hassett, Tiff Urquhart and Joe Barker.
Meet local artists
Immerse yourself in Philly’s vibrant local arts scene by taking advantage of open studios. Twice a year, the Bok building (a 340,000 square foot space housing more than 250 creative tenants, including standout artists Nazeer Sabree, Symone Salib and Maria Eife) opens up all nine floors to guests for a free evening of mingling with makers and observing artists at work. Plus, the rooftop Bok Bar offers a lively atmosphere, quality drinks and some of the best views in the city. The Center for Emerging Visual Artists’ annual open studios celebration spans 26 neighborhoods across the city. Cherry Street Pier, a mixed-use space on the Delaware River waterfront, frequently holds artist and artisan events and is home to several artists-in-residence.
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