Art + Nature + Architecture at the new Palmer Museum of Art | Town&Gown

When visitors enter the Palmer Museum of Art at its new location adjacent to The Arboretum at Penn State, one of the first things to greet them will be a portrait of Barbara and James Palmer, the couple for whom the fifty-two-year-old museum was named. 

“We got here because of these amazing benefactors, these patrons who believed in this museum and wanted to support it to the extent that donors like the Palmers did,” says Erin Coe, Palmer Museum of Art director.

Visitors will also notice the sweeping installation by internationally acclaimed glass artist Dale Chihuly that adorns the walls supporting the museum’s main staircase. Entitled Lupine Blue Persian Wall, the installation was commissioned in honor of Penn State President Emeritus Eric Barron and his wife, Molly Barron. It features twenty-two large blue and white glass forms, inspired by flowers at The Arboretum, that appear to float on a white background.

“Dr. Barron was such a big part of this. … It was his bold decision to build the new Palmer here at the Arboretum,” Coe says.

Visual tributes like the Palmer portrait and the Chihuly wall are just some of the many intentional ways Coe, her staff, Penn State officials, and the architects and engineers involved in the building process worked together to create “a whole new way of seeing the Palmer, and seeing it in a new light, still rooted in a legacy,”Coe says.

Erin Coe, Palmer Museum of Art director, in front of the “salon wall” in one of the Benjamin and Lillian K. Snows galleries dedicated to nineteenth-century American Art (Photo by David Silber)

Fifty-two Years in the Making

Penn State’s Museum of Art was first established in 1972 on Curtin Road. In 1988, the museum was renamed for James and Barbara Palmer to honor their lead gift that launched the campaign for the museum’s 1993 Charles Moore-designed expansion. 

At that time, the museum had 3,500 objects in its collection. Twenty years later, the collection had more than doubled, and with no more contiguous space in which to expand, the museum had clearly outgrown its walls.

The location was problematic in other ways, as well. There was no public parking nearby, no safe place for school buses to load and unload children, and the stairs to the entrance posed an accessibility limitation. The building also lacked space for things like teaching galleries, studio classrooms, and a large event space. 

In 2016, President Barron and the board of trustees announced a plan to create a cultural district consolidating all of the university’s museums near The Arboretum at Penn State. The possibility of building a new art museum from the ground up was central to Coe’s decision to leave her post as executive director at The Hyde Collection in upstate New York to take the helm at the Palmer in 2017, and she persuaded the trustees to make the art museum a priority in the development of the cultural district. 

Planning began in earnest with the hiring of the architecture firm, Allied Works, in 2019. A fundraising campaign kicked off and to date has raised more than $25 million to help fund the $85 million project, none of which is funded by tuition dollars.

Construction began in July 2021. The Curtin Road location remained fully operational until it closed in May 2023 to begin the moving process. During this transitional time, Coe spent many days at the construction site, holding meetings in a trailer and remaining heavily involved in the building process. It was a lot to juggle, but she says it was worth it.

“I am very pleased with the finished building, and I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished,” Coe says. “I’m very pleased also with the alignment of the design with the goals of the project that we set forth. One of the key goals was integration of art, nature, and architecture.”

Integrating Art with Nature

The two-story, 73,000-square-foot building is itself a work of art. The exterior is almost entirely clad in modular slabs of varying shades of sandstone from Grampian, Pennsylvania. The slabs also are used inside the lobby and other open areas of the museum, creating an integration between the indoors and outdoors. 

Glass is another major element in the exterior design. A glass bridge, known as the Dr. Keiko Miwa Ross Gateway, connects the two wings of the building: the educational and administrative wing and the exhibit wing. The outdoor walkway beneath the bridge offers pedestrians direct access to the Arboretum’s H.O. Smith Botanic Gardens. 

Dale Chihuly’s “Lupine Blue Persian Wall” along the Palmer Museum’s main staircase (Photo by David Silber)

Perforated stainless steel “lenses” serve as solar screens and thermal heat barriers on nine windows, while also serving a decorative purpose, breaking up the sandstone and adding an interesting ornamental dimension to the exterior.

Inside, the twenty galleries are thoughtfully laid out in interlocking pavilions of varying ceiling heights. Many are open to adjacent galleries to create an enfilade effect, allowing glimpses of what lies ahead.

“I think this effect of the design creates the sense of connecting the collections and cultures through time and space,” Coe says. “I hope it creates a sense of anticipation and excitement, and a feeling of discovery.”

One of the most noticeable features throughout the museum is the abundance of natural lighting. Thirty-three skylights and many windows allow daylight to flood the galleries—at least where it’s safe to do so. The Works on Paper gallery is one of several that does not open itself to natural light because of the damage sunlight could cause to the art. In other parts of the museum, art is protected by shades that automatically close and open throughout the day, depending on the angle of the sun.

When those shades are open, the views are spectacular. Windows open to courtyards in the botanic gardens, to views of the Arboretum, and to the rolling landscape beyond. 

“As you walk through the building, you’re constantly getting these glimpses of nature, and that furthers the sense of integration,” Coe says. “It’s my hope that visitors won’t discern a separation between architecture that contains the spaces of art, and the outside landscape. My hope is that they’re going to conceive of that as one continuous experience.” 

Another kind of integration can be found in the education and administration wing, where museum personnel occupy the second floor, while the Arboretum staff is housed on the first floor. 

“The integration goes beyond art, architecture, and nature; it goes to people. The people who work in this building serve both organizations and their audiences. I think that’s really important,” Coe says.

A large event space, which connects to the expansive lobby, will be available to rent out for weddings and other occasions, and the Museum Store and Café, named after benefactors Honey and Bill Jaffe, has the potential to become a popular lunch spot. 

Fulfilling the Land Grant Mission

The education wing includes classroom spaces and Coe believes educational outreach is absolutely crucial to the mission of a university art museum—particularly at a land grant university like Penn State. She feels strongly that the educational value offered by the Palmer, which is the largest art museum between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, has to extend beyond visual art and art history students to the entire university community, as well as to the general public.

“We are at our heart an academic museum. In this space, we are re-envisioning our mission, our vision, and our values, grounded in Penn State’s land grant mission of teaching, research, and public service,” she says. 

The new facility helps the Palmer fulfill this mission in many ways, Coe says. For one thing, just having additional space allows more students to work as interns or graduate assistants at the museum, going beyond the College of Arts and Architecture to include students from a variety of majors. 

The Palmer is also partnering with professors from different colleges to find ways to use art to teach their students in creative ways. From June until September, the new teaching gallery will host a show curated with Penn State’s College of Medicine entitled The Art of Teaching, in which works of art are used to help medical students build necessary skills such as communicating, dealing with death and grief, handling imposter syndrome, building trust, and more.

To further the education component, new interactive features throughout the museum will allow visitors of all ages to engage with and take deeper dives into the exhibits through digital interfaces. 

A new studio classroom will, for the first time, allow young museum visitors to become makers as well as viewers. With the addition of a bus drop-off location and with the proximity to the Arboretum—already a popular field trip destination—Coe expects the museum to double its K-12 outreach in the new space.

The Art

As Coe considered how to best launch the new museum, she felt strongly that the first special exhibition should emphasize the land grant mission and the connection to the commonwealth. Curated by Coe and Assistant Director Joyce Robinson and sponsored by Kish Bank, the inaugural special exhibition, Made in PA, will be held in the new special exhibition pavilion and features post-1945 artists affiliated with the state of Pennsylvania.

The approximately thirty-two works in the exhibition are organized into five thematic sections: Rooted in Realism, Pennsylvania Modern, The Land and its Legacies, Pop and Politics, and PA Now. Visitors can expect to see works by Pennsylvania artists like Andy Warhol, Andrew Wyeth, abstract expressionist Franz Kline from Wilkes-Barre, and many others.

The show will run until December 1. Simultaneously, the new Works on Paper gallery will hold a Made in PA on Paper exhibit, featuring watercolors, prints, and drawings covering a longer historical timeframe. This special exhibition will run until September 8.

The reinstallation of the permanent collection is called Roots & Renewal, a theme that seems fitting as the museum honors its past while heading into an exciting new future.

Coe explains that this installation includes some unexpected pairings to try to challenge perceptions or help viewers think of art in new ways. For example, a display of Santa Fe pueblo ceramics has been placed between Georgia O’Keefe and Marsden Hartley paintings to illustrate the American Southwest culture that influenced the work of both artists.

The first floor is devoted to American artists. The second floor includes for the first time a gallery devoted to African arts. Two galleries on the second floor are devoted to contemporary art. There are also galleries for studio glass, studio ceramics, ancient American art, Asian art, and European art.

The Palmer’s collection is now up to almost 11,000 objects. With exhibition space nearly doubling in size, visitors will still find many of their favorite works from the former space, as well as objects that have been hiding in storage and new acquisitions that the public has not yet seen. 

The museum will open its doors to the public on June 1, and Coe is ready to share the old and the new with the community. 

“I’m really excited for it to open.” 

Admission to the Palmer Museum of Art is always free. For more information, visit

Grand Opening Celebration

A family-friendly grand opening celebration at the Palmer Museum of Art is planned for Saturday, June 1, and Sunday, June 2.

-Saturday at 9:30 a.m.: Ribbon-cutting ceremony featuring Penn State President Neeli Bendapudi and museum Director Erin Coe

-Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m.: Guided tours of the museum and Arboretum, artmaking activities, refreshments (including Penn State Berkey Creamery ice cream) and other festivities

Admission is free, and free parking will be available in the Lewis Katz Building lot across from the museum and at the Arboretum throughout the weekend.

On Saturday, June 1, The Downtown State College Improvement District is sponsoring free bus shuttles from the Palmer Museum to the 200 block of Beaver Avenue, running continuous loops from noon to 5 p.m. T&G

Karen Walker is a freelance writer in State College.

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