Philadelphia Contemporary Hires Architectural Firm Johnston Marklee to Design Its First-Ever Space

Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee.


Philadelphia Contemporary, a nonprofit founded by Harry Philbrick in 2016, has enlisted the Los Angeles–based architecture firm Johnston Marklee to design its first permanent home in the City of Brotherly Love. The final design will be unveiled in 2019, and the space could open as soon as 2022. A specific location for it has not been announced.

Since its establishment, Philadelphia Contemporary has utilized a pop-up model, staging events, exhibitions, and installations throughout Philadelphia. The arts nonprofit has often partnered and collaborated with other groups, and a few of its past projects include a public poetry festival, a performance at the Barnes Foundation, and an exhibition at the Brandywine River Museum of Art in nearby Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.

In an interview with ARTnews, Nato Thompson, who joined Philadelphia Contemporary in 2017 as its artistic director, said that the building will function not only as an exhibition space for contemporary visual and performance art, but also as a site for civic engagement.

We want something that’s extremely open and public and inviting,” Thompson said. “I think really taking that lesson to heart has a lot of architectural implications. It will be a place where people see art and where art is being produced and worked through.”

Thompson said that the organization’s aim will be to continue to work on partnerships and present events in a variety of disciplines in and outside of the building.

Johnston Marklee, which was founded by partners Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee, will work in association with MGA Partners on the project. The architectural firm, which designed the soon-to-open Menil Drawing Institute in Houston, was selected through a process headed by David van der Leer, the executive director of the New York–based Van Alen Institute. A jury comprising 14 representatives, from Philadelphia Contemporary, the City of Philadelphia, and the local community, was involved in the search.

That jury included Michael Forman, the chairman and CEO of FS Investments; art consultant Jaime Frankfurt; architect Richard Gluckman; curator Mia Locks; attorney Carolyn Oakley Lowe; Philadelphia Contemporary’s senior adviser, Don Millinger; artist Pepón Osorio; Philbrick, who is the arts organization’s director and CEO; Vaughn Ross, deputy chief of staff to Philadelphia’s mayor; Zoë Ryan, chair and curator of architecture and design at the Art Institute of Chicago; Thompson; Nancy Rogo Trainer, university architect and associate vice president for facilities at Drexel University in Philadelphia; Yolanda Wisher, Philadelphia Contemporary’s curator of spoken word and the 2016–17 poet laureate of Philadelphia; and James Wright, the director of community, economic, and real estate development at the People’s Emergency Center CDC.

Philbrick, who is the former director of director of the Museum at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, said in a statement, “Twenty-first-century audiences are seeking new models for engaging culture, and Johnston Marklee and MGA will bring a rigor and curiosity to the process of meeting that demand that lines up perfectly with our vision.”

“The dream is to make the most amazing culturally relevant organization,” Thompson said. “We have big ambitions for this institution and I think we have a great advantage from starting from scratch to make something that can adapt to a very different cultural landscape from the early 20th-century. It’s the most exciting thing ever.”

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