New Palmer Museum Of Art At Penn State Opens June 1, 2024, Amid A Unique Setting

Gallery spaces have been doubled. The new building has been made fully accessible. Parking improved. A spacious lobby, café, and museum store incorporated into the LEED-certified design. The Palmer Museum of Art at Penn State University in University Park, PA has everything visitors would expect of a museum opening in 2024.

It’s the totally unexpected that distinguishes the project.

The unexpected comes from the Palmer’s new location amid the Arboretum at Penn State, 370 on-campus acres of gardens, meadows, and woodlands. Right outside the museum’s walls, central Pennsylvania’s bucolic rolling hills, summer greenery, autumn color, and spring blooms foster a connection with the landscape, inspiring visitors to reflect on the relationship between art and nature in a direct, meaningful way.

“Setting the museum here is an opportunity to integrate art, architecture, and nature, and that’s ultimately what the new museum is all about,” Erin Coe, director of the Palmer Museum of Art opening June 1, told “What we wanted was the effect that as you’re walking through the building, it’s almost like you’re meandering through a garden. At the same time you’re looking at the art, you’re seeing a framed view of a section of the Arboretum beyond. It’s connecting you to the gardens, to a distant vista. It’s beautiful.”

To harmonize within its new home, the $85 million, 73,000-square-foot building has a low profile, only two stories at most.

“How do you integrate with an arboretum and with a natural setting? That was one of the primary goals guiding the design,” Coe said. “When you walk through the galleries, you get this ebb and flow. In some spaces, the ceilings are low, and then you walk into a pavilion and the ceilings are soaring. You get this effect of intimacy and then wonder.”

The new museum in no way restricts access to the Arboretum’s main entrance at the H.O. Smith Botanic Gardens, 10 acres of specialty and demonstration gardens, or the fields and trees beyond which provide hiking, biking, wildlife viewing, and educational opportunities for students and community members. Throughout design and construction, emphasis was placed on removing barriers between outdoors and in.

“Many education spaces and event spaces have outdoor terraces that connect to them, so now, activities can be both inside and outside–again, leveraging that connection between art and nature and architecture,” Coe added. “The museum design is essentially creating a series of courtyards, whether the courtyards are inside pavilions or outdoor terraces (acting as) gathering spaces–gathering spaces for people and for art, bringing them together.”

A sculpture path meanders behind and in front of the museum, adjacent to the botanic gardens.

Inside, nature is highlighted by Dale Chihuly’s “Lupine Blue Persian Wall,” a site-specific installation inspired by flowers in the Arboretum. The 13-foot artwork spans 35-feet and anchors the Museum’s feature staircase with 22 floral glass forms.

All The Better To See You With

The Palmer Museum of Art’s previous location at the heart of a busy campus populated by more than 45,000 students hemmed in aspirations to expand physically. Works in the collection have nearly doubled to roughly 11,000 in less than 10 years.

The old building was cramped and dark, hamstringing curatorial aspirations as well.

“There are great sightlines in this museum, something else that was very important to me as the director,” Coe explains. “Sightlines that take you from contemporary art looking into ceramics. Looking into African art from European art, looking into American art. There are these sightlines throughout the museum that connect you visually from collection type to collection type across time and space.”

Something else, too. Less tangible, but no less real.

“(The previous museum) was a bit formidable, a little bit intimidating and not easy to access,” Coe said. “I see the new museum as a new type of museum. I see it as a forum. We are going from the temple–you know what I mean–to the forum, and it’s really a civic space, that’s my hope for the museum.”

What Coe means is the 20th century museum as gatekeeper model. Marble and columns. Massive. Imposing. Intimidating.


Hallowed temples designed to signify prestige and cultural hierarchy as determined by colonial, patriarchal, white, wealthy, patrons and officials.

“We can now get works of art in conversation with each other, which is so important to visitor experience, having those intersections, having those moments of a little bit of disruption, pairing works of art that might not otherwise make sense together, trying to tell a story and tease out some meaning,” Coe added.

No more scowling security guards “shooshing” schoolkids.

Twenty-first century museums increasingly model themselves as equal parts gallery and community space. Accessibility–in every definition of the term–takes priority. Admission to the Palmer and the Arboretum remain free.

Airy, light filled, inviting.

Dare it be said, fun?

A Pennsylvania Museum

The Palmer Museum of Art is clad in a gorgeous regional sandstone, honed to be smooth to the touch.

“There’s 10,000 of these stones that animate the building and I insisted on sandstone from Pennsylvania,” Coe said. “Pennsylvania is rich in sandstone, so we worked with a local quarry about 45 minutes from here in Grampian, Pennsylvania. We wanted the building to literally be rooted in Pennsylvania and its rich geological history.”

The university has a College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. When the new museum was being planned, the school’s president was a geologist.

“It was important that the building material signaled that connection to nature and that rootedness in Pennsylvania because–we can go a step further–that connects to Penn State. It’s a land grant institution, its mission is teaching, research, and public service,” Coe explains. “It was exciting to think about a museum literally built, and of, Pennsylvania.”

While serving both university and community, the Palmer’s top priority remains to PSU’s students. The new building features first-time education spaces including an object study room and a teaching gallery opening the collection for close-up observation and learning across departments. It will offer studio classroom space, something else the old building didn’t have.

For the public, an event space has been added to host concerts, dance performances, yoga. Plein air painting classes are being planned.

“As an almost 30-year museum person, and as someone who goes to a lot of museums, I’ve never been in a museum like this,” Coe said.

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