Calder Gardens in Philadelphia to honor an Aboriginal son

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ROXBURY, Conn. – The future of Calder Gardens, a Philadelphia cultural project slated to open in early 2024, was planned on a sunny June day here on the lush Litchfield County estate where famed sculptor Alexander Calder lived and work. .

It was there that Alexander SC Rower, Calder’s grandson and president of the Calder Foundation, met Piet Oudolf, the Dutch landscape artist known for his work on New York’s High Line. They reviewed the $70 million project, the design of which was announced on Wednesday.

Calder Gardens, as the renderings show, will be on the scale of a jewel box and an untraditional art space in many ways, more of an oasis than a shiny new attraction.

“A garden can move you, like art can, in an emotional way,” said Oudolf, who is designing a plan for the 1.8-acre Calder Gardens site on Benjamin Franklin Parkway between 21st and 22nd streets.

Its landscaping will surround an 18,000-square-foot shed-like building designed by Pritzker Prize-winning firm Herzog & de Meuron, which hides its main exhibition spaces underground.

Calder (1898-1976) was a Philadelphia native whom the city’s philanthropists had long wanted to honor. At 30, he began to create his first moving sculptures, which Marcel Duchamp called mobiles. His twisted, brightly colored mobiles and towering, graceful stabiles made him a titan of 20th-century art, often imitated but never equalled. Calder’s auction prices reached $25.9 million at Christie’s in 2014 for “Flying Fish”, a mobile with a long animated puzzle-like tail, made in 1957.

But the new structure is not a museum.

“I was approached by a group from Philadelphia saying they wanted to do something for Calder and I said, ‘Great, but I don’t want to do a museum,'” said Rower, the grandson of the artist. “It’s too old-fashioned, too 19th century.”

He added, “I would rather create a place for introspection, where you can be with art.”

Calder Gardens will show works from the foundation in long-term installations, rather than frequently rotating exhibits. (“We don’t do ‘Calder in Paris,'” Rower said.)

It will face the Rodin Museum and the Barnes Foundation on the other side of the promenade, the city’s main cultural artery. The Barnes will participate in the management of Calder Gardens through an operating agreement that will merge their administrative functions. (Calder Gardens is established as an independent non-profit organization with its own endowment and board of directors. Rower and the Calder Foundation will oversee the conservation of the art, and Calder Gardens will also hire its own staff.)

“We’ll save so much money doing it this way,” said Thomas Collins, executive director and chairman of Barnes. “It will be very collaborative,” he added, but Calder Gardens “will have its own brand identity and curatorial identity.”

The project “celebrates a Philadelphia story,” Collins said. Evidence of deep family roots is lined up at various points along the walk.

Calder’s grandfather, Alexander Milne Calder, carved the figure of William Penn (c. 1886-1894) atop City Hall, and his father, Alexander Stirling Calder, designed the Swann Memorial Fountain (1924) at Logan Circle. Calder himself created the “Ghost” mobile (1964) which hangs in a large hall in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The artist had a sense of humor about the weight of legacy as reflected in these three works. “So now they say they have ‘Father, Son, and Unholy Spirit,’ or words to that effect,” Calder once joked.

The site of the future Calder Gardens, now a vacant lot, is the “missing tooth in a beautiful mouth,” said Joseph Neubauer, the Philadelphia philanthropist who is the project’s main instigator.

The Neubauer Family Foundation gave about a quarter of the funding for Calder Gardens and Neubauer coordinated substantial donations from benefactors including the Pew Charitable Trusts and the estate of HF Lenfest, known as Gerry, a key donor behind the expansion and Barnes’ 2012 move (as did Neubauer, his friend).

Administrator of the Barnes, Neubauer particularly wanted to ensure that Calder Gardens could afford the programming once it was built. “I don’t build anything without an endowment,” he said of the $20 million set aside for this purpose, with the remaining $50 million of the total cost going towards construction.

Although the building planned for Calder Gardens is small compared to Herzog & de Meuron’s cultural projects – which include the de Young Museum, part of the San Francisco Fine Arts Museums, and an addition to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis – the company’s co-founder, Jacques Herzog, was eager to take over Calder Gardens.

“It’s a massive project for me, in terms of intensity,” Herzog said of his feelings about Calder as an artist and the value of the new structure. And, partly because of his respect for Calder, he didn’t try to compete with the master.

“Calder worked so much with volume, shape and color, that’s all I wanted to avoid,” he said.

Herzog and his team therefore opted for a shed-like structure clad in subtle reflective metal that will serve as the entrance portal and sit above the larger underground galleries.

“We use a barn because it’s kind of an object-non-object,” he said, adding that it was an “innocent” type of building.

Given the limited area, “You have to go underground,” Herzog said. Directly below the barn is a double-height gallery, and the other art spaces will be varied, united by their lack of right angles. Work will also spill into stairwells and other unconventional places. There will be two outdoor spaces in the basement, the Sunken Garden and the Vestige Garden.

Herzog said he was satisfied with Oudolf’s choice because “he is the least architectural landscape painter. He takes care of the plants.

A discussion of flora was certainly prompted by the setting of the Connecticut estate, some 300 acres comprising land owned by the Calder Foundation and the Calder family, with a huge sculpture of Calder on a green lawn and another in a field. .

The sculptor and his wife, Louisa James Calder, purchased the first plot and home here in 1933. His studios became his primary workspaces, and their home attracted surrealists and other creative types living in Connecticut. The family continued to winter in New York until the late 1940s, then bought a house in France’s Loire Valley and made it their primary residence.

Oudolf and Rower visited Calder’s charming studio, a former dairy barn, which was full of the artist’s rustic old tools and some carvings. Calder ate a boiled egg every morning before going to the studio and designing his great works. From the rafters, he creates his own system of pulleys, to hoist mobiles or canvases.

Oudolf, based in Hummelo, the Netherlands, can be considered the most famous landscape artist in the world, and he is particularly known for his work on perennial grasses. He was only in the northeast for two days, part of that time being spent checking the High Line.

Oudolf explained the main elements of his Calder Gardens plan for Philadelphia: it will have a prairie-like matrix (his term for a wild-looking variety that doesn’t seem designed) called Parkway Garden; block planting (similar flora grouped together) and hanging plants for the Sunken Garden.

“The main garden will make you feel like you’re in a wild prairie, with lots of native American plants,” he said.

His work, he said, was notable for its progression. “There is a narrative, with chapters.”

But Oudolf said it may be his last American project. “I’m almost 78,” he said. “I want to relax from all the stress and responsibility.”

When Rower mentioned across the table that his grandparents loved bougainvillea, he seemed to float the thought of seeing Oudolf’s reaction to whether they would work at Calder Gardens.

Oudolf tried to sound polite saying that while he liked them, “they can be a cliché”.

When a reporter cautiously suggested delphiniums instead, Oudolf seemed relieved.

“Well, delphiniums! ” he said. “There you are. We would do some of the smaller blooms. America has some good species that we could put in a meadow.


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