Philadelphia Museum of Art presents ‘Philadelphia Assembled’

Calling all collaborators

My morning at the Philadelphia Museum of Art began with a chef named Acorn.

Portrait of culinary artist Kristin Schwab, one of 12 cooks who share food and stories with guests during communal lunches in the Perelman Café. (Photo courtesy of Rashid Zakat and creative director Shanti Myers.)

Acorn Swiggum is one of 12 culinary artists featured in the food component of Philadelphia Assembled, the newest exhibition at the Ruth and Raymond G. Perelman Building. They walked me through the first of three menus. I tasted “Survival” recipes; the “Resistance” and “Victory” menus would follow later in the exhibition’s tenure. In between my thoughtful munching on a second helping of warm pumpkin bread with seeds and scheming to sneak a third portion into my purse, Acorn apprised me of Philadelphia Assembled’s broad scope from smaller details, like local, handmade pottery (by Miki Palchick) holding the tables’ condiments and the expansive four-year journey lead artist Jeanne van Heeswijk embarked on to create the morning’s experience.

Over 150 collaborators

And what an experience it is.

When van Heeswijk began her latest “social practice” project with the museum, she was tasked with discovering and capturing the spirit of Philadelphia in a tangible exhibition. Four years, 150+ collaborators, and a variety of organized events later, Philadelphia Assembled formed to take over the Perelman Building as perhaps one of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s most ambitious and community-connected exhibitions to date. Geared toward civic engagement, the museum and van Heeswijk seek to redefine art’s role in radical community building. 

Sculptures at the African Art Forum, 52nd Street, Philadelphia. The Forum's products are available in the Perelman Building's PHLA store. (Photo by Timothy Tiebout, Philadelphia Museum of Art.)
Sculptures at the African Art Forum, 52nd Street, Philadelphia. The Forum's products are available in the Perelman Building's PHLA store. (Photo by Timothy Tiebout, Philadelphia Museum of Art.)

Van Heeswijk’s work began with a series of simple conversations with community members all over the city. She noted that “as the conversations deepened, the complexities of Philadelphia revealed themselves.” From these talks, van Heeswijk and her ever-growing team of collaborators set out to create a snapshot of Philadelphia, attempting to hold the city’s various identities and cultures, its past and its futures, all in this tiny corner of the metropolis.

"Emphasis on overwhelming"

The whole shebang is broken down into five themes, or “atmospheres of democracy”: reconstructions, sovereignty, sanctuary, futures, and movement. There is a rabbit-hole feeling to each theme, with all of them covering enormous ground the further you explore. Pieces examine the effects of incarceration, gentrification, displacement, definitions of sanctuary cities, reclamation of histories, and more, and the rooms of the Perelman are bursting with some of the most important quandaries facing Philadelphia. Working from these larger prompts, the team filled the museum with films, installations, sanctuary tents, paintings, and much more.

The Philadelphia Mobile Futures Institute and collaborator Howard Bailey will host community conversations outside the Perelman Building. (Photo by Timothy Tiebout, Philadelphia Museum of Art.)
The Philadelphia Mobile Futures Institute and collaborator Howard Bailey will host community conversations outside the Perelman Building. (Photo by Timothy Tiebout, Philadelphia Museum of Art.)

Walking into the Perelman Building, there is an overwhelming sense of the epic nature of van Heeswijk and her collaborators’ endeavors — emphasis on overwhelming. Frankly, it feels impossible to break down all that lives within the work of Philadelphia Assembled, a project that continues to grow even with this formal showing. Between the rotating food partners, the army of contributors, and the ongoing presentations and events, it’s easy to feel swallowed up by all this project has to offer.

But any intimidation is thrown off by the crackling warmth and spirit of the artists and community partners. The tireless work of van Heeswijk’s collective and the museum workers metamorphosed the Perelman Building into a living organism and an homage to the underserved and underappreciated in Philadelphia. They point out the struggles and the triumphs of these communities and invite us all to confront realities and challenge our perceptions of what we believe to be “other.” Plus, with a “pay what you wish” policy and an extended showcasing period of three months, there’s never been a better time to return to this museum again and again to interact with Philadelphia Assembled. And did I mention the scrumptious pumpkin bread?    

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