Board Of Trustees Finalizes Plans, Approves Funding For New Palmer Museum Of Art At The Arboretum

Following months of planning and deliberation, Penn State’s Board of Trustees voted 26-7 to approve plans Friday that will construct a new and larger Palmer Museum of Art adjacent to the Arboretum.

Construction on the $85 million project is expected to begin this summer and open in fall 2023. The new 71,000-square-foot facility is expected to replace the existing, nearly 50-year-old Palmer Museum of Art just a few minutes down the street on Curtin Road.

The building won’t be funded by student tuition. It’ll keep the Palmer namesake honor of the late Barbara and James Palmer, whose gifts to the museum are valued at more than $50 million.

About $62 million of the project’s cost will be funded by borrowing. Debt service of $4 million annually will come from the university’s share of Big Ten media revenue, which is more than $50 million each year. When the conference last negotiated an increase in its media rights deals, university presidents agreed each school should use $4 million annually for difficult-to-fund campus projects.

The current museum will not be demolished once the new facility is built. Penn State said it’ll remain available and repurposed for academic use but has not elaborated on its plans.

During committee meetings Thursday, some trustees said the new museum is necessary to accommodate the growing Palmer collection, which spans more than 10,000 works of art today. Although the collection has grown by 185% from its original set, the Curtin Road museum’s display spaces have not changed.

The new museum at the Arboretum would let it display between 7 and 8% of the works in the Palmer collection. The Curtin Road museum allows for only 3 to 4% to be displayed.

Some trustees also said the current museum’s building systems have “exceeded their useful life” due to age. They cited struggling heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems as particularly troublesome since optimal conditions are required to keep works intact. The museum said it’s experienced “significant damage” due to water penetration issues.

Additionally, a more centralized location near the Arboretum is expected to help the new museum accommodate more guests. Trustees argued Thursday that the current museum’s location in the heart of campus makes it less accessible to guests, particularly schools, due to a lack of nearby parking.

“The new museum will help to strengthen the Palmer’s academic collaborations with faculty and foster exciting student engagement opportunities through experiential learning, creative activities, and spaces designed for innovative cross-disciplinary programs,” said Erin Coe, director of the Palmer Museum of Art. “As one of the largest art museums between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and the most significant academic art museum in the state, this new facility will help to advance the Palmer as a cultural destination and scholarly resource for the University, surrounding communities, and visitors from across Pennsylvania and beyond.”

In past meetings of the board’s committee on Finance, Business, and Capital Planning, some trustees argued the museum’s construction shouldn’t be prioritized while students face obstacles in their studies and personal lives.

“Yesterday, we heard a survey of students identified a third of the students had food insecurity,” said alumni-elected trustee Ted Brown, who voted against the proposal. “I’m in favor of the art museum. I love art museums…I don’t think now is the right time to approve an $85 million project when we have students surveyed saying they have fear of insecurity of food.”

On Thursday, others claimed constructing the new museum now would help Penn State move forward into the future and avoid losing focus on current concerns.

Plans submitted in late March provided clarity surrounding the new museum’s digs. Indoor galleries will be fitted with skylights to filter daylight and protect art that’s sensitive to sunlight, while some lobbies and ceramic and sculpture galleries will boast more transparent windows.

Additionally, the new museum will house a small cafe, a store, and an event space that even features a catering kitchen. An administrative wing will feature some classrooms, offices, and study lounges, too.

No new parking is included in the submitted plans for the museum’s construction.

Nathan Hamilton, who works for Allied Works Architecture, the firm that designed the new museum, said it should be fashioned to connect with existing Arboretum landscaping and serve as a “gateway” of sorts. He said a network of pathways will weave through and around the building to connect with Arboretum paths.

Hamilton also said that the space will be designed for LEED certification, which is widely used to rate sustainable building development. The museum is expected to exceed energy performance code requirements by 30% and feature infrastructure that could allow expansions for green roofs and other related sustainability features.

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About the Author

Matt DiSanto

Matt proudly served as Onward State’s managing editor for two years until graduating from Penn State in May 2022. Now, he’s off in the real world doing real things. Send him an email ([email protected]) or follow him on Twitter (@mattdisanto_) to stay in touch.

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