Philadelphia has long been one of the United States’ most thriving creative hubs. Yet, probably due to the fact that it’s just a few hours away from New York, Philly’s art scene doesn’t quite get the recognition it deserves. Nevertheless, in addition to stunning murals, the city is also home to a plethora of galleries for art lovers of all tastes.
In the following guide, we’ll go over some of the best museums and galleries to check out during your time in the city. The art spaces below cover a wide variety of styles, including traditional fine arts, modernist paintings, abstract compositions and ‘found object’ sculptures. And the Philadelphia art spaces featured below are, for the most part, easily accessible from the city center.
Central Philadelphia Art Spaces
First chartered in 1876 in celebration of the USA’s 100th anniversary, the Philadelphia Museum of Art is arguably the city’s best known museum and art space. It first opened its doors in 1928, and it still remains one of the largest museums in the entire country.
Inside, the art museum features a fantastic and diverse collection of paintings and artifacts from throughout ancient Asia and Europe. And there’s also a sizable modern art collection which features works by Picasso and Dali, in addition to some of North America’s top contemporary artists.
Aside from being an excellent museum, the building is also famous for its steps. Commonly known as the ‘Rocky steps,’ they’re featured prominently in the workout montage from the first 1976 film (and supposedly, each subsequent film in the series). There’s even a statue of Rocky Balboa outside the entrance which makes for a popular photo op for visitors.
Note that while normal admission for adults cost $20, every Wednesday night, in addition to the first Sunday of every month, goes by a ‘Pay What You Wish’ system. Just be prepared for everyone else in line to overhear your donation amount!
Located on Broad Street, the Academy was completed in 1876 as part of the Philadelphia Exposition, which marked the 100th birthday of the United States. The museum largely focuses on the American fine arts, and it’s one of the best places to experience prominent painters from the 19th century onward.
The museum does, however, host contemporary exhibitions as well. A recent exhibition by New York-based Chitra Ginesh, for example, featured the artist’s colorful and evocative sculptures spread out amongst the more refined traditional paintings, making for a rather unique contrast.
The Academy is also renowned for its architecture. Designed by architects Frank Furness and George Hewitt, it’s a fusion of Gothic Revival and Renaissance Revival styles, among others.
One of Philadelphia’s most prestigious art museums, the Barnes Foundation displays works from the private collection of Albert C. Barnes (1872-1951). Dr. Barnes, an avid art lover, amassed his wealth from the pharmaceutical industry and spent much of it on acquiring art.
The Barnes Foundation was established in 1922 as an art school and gallery in Merion, Pennsylvania before it moved to Philadelphia in 2012. The current building, designed by architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, is widely regarded as one of the city’s finest.
The museum features a wide array of paintings and antiquities from various places and eras. Unlike a typical art museum, the works are not displayed according to time period or country, but are arranged according to Barnes’ personal preference. Though seemingly random at times, the different works are meant to complement or contrast each other in order to help educate people about various artists and styles.
You’ll encounter Impressionist and Modernist paintings in addition to rare artifacts from Asia and ancient Greece. The gallery features works by Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cézanne and many other prominent artists from the 19th and 20th centuries.
While regular admission costs $25, all visitors can enjoy the collection for free on the first Sunday of every month. You can easily combine a visit with the Philadelphia Museum of Art down the street.
Crane Arts, home to numerous art galleries and studio spaces for rent, is one of Philadelphia’s premier creative spaces. It’s situated within the Crane Company Building, constructed in 1905 by the Ballinger & Perrot architectural firm. And before becoming known as an art hub, the building was used as a plumbing warehouse and seafood processing plant.
Crane Arts founders Ricardo Hicko and Nicholas Kripal later had the historic building renovated and transformed into a hub for artists. In addition to the individual galleries within (more below), there are also numerous works on display out in the main hallway. The building is also sometimes used for things like musical performances and poetry readings.
InLiquid is just one of several galleries to explore within Crane Arts, but this is arguably the building’s top highlight. Founded by local artist Rachel Zimmerman, the gallery has just celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2019. InLiquid was established with the goal of showcasing undiscovered and overlooked artists from throughout the Philadelphia area.
The small gallery features numerous paintings and sculptures on display, while gallery’s web site is also a great resource on Philly’s local art scene. In addition, the gallery has things like art books and jewelry for sale.
bahdeebahdu is among Philadelphia’s most unconventional, yet most intriguing art spaces. Run by local artists Warren Muller and RJ Thornburg, it functions as a cross between an interior design studio and an art gallery. Muller creates unique chandeliers comprised of various found objects, while Thornburg designs interiors and furniture. It’s pretty remarkable how well the abstract and unconventional light sculptures fit together with the sleek and modern room designs.
More Around North Philly
Elsewhere within the Crane Arts building, you can find the Indigo Arts Gallery, which focuses on folk art from various places in Latin America, Asia and Africa. Photography fans, meanwhile, shouldn’t miss the Philadelphia Photos Arts Center down the hall.
Visitors to the Old City district should definitely take a look inside the Larry Becker Contemporary Art gallery. Established in 1988, the gallery hosts exhibitions by prominent contemporary artists from around the United States and occasionally the world. Stylistically, the work on display here generally follows an abstract and minimal aesthetic.
One of Philadelphia’s leading contemporary art galleries, Pentimenti Gallery showcases art in a variety of mediums. Inside, you’ll encounter both paintings and three-dimensional pieces made from unconventional materials. Established over two decades ago, the gallery generally focuses on abstract art. And many of the artists showcased at Pentimenti utilize vibrant colors which should delight fans of a more ‘psychedelic’ aesthetic.
The gallery is just down the road from Larry Becker Contemporary art and numerous other art spaces around the Old City district.
More Around the Old CIty
The are plenty more art spaces to pop into during your time in the Old City. The historic area features a plethora of small galleries, most of which are dedicated to one particular style.
While the art spaces mentioned above shouldn’t be missed, other highlights include Arch Enemy Arts, Muse Gallery, the Wexler Gallery, the Center for Art in Wood and the Artjaz Gallery, among many others.
Philadelphia's Magic Gardens
One of the most unique and whimsical Philadelphia art spaces, the Magic Gardens are worth a visit even for those who don’t normally frequent art galleries. Started by local artist Isaiah Zagar in the early 1990s, the Magic Gardens is not so easy to categorize. It’s part art gallery and part sculpture garden, yet not quite one or the other.
Zagar first started decorating buildings with mosaics in the ’60s, and this is just one place of many throughout the city to see his trademark style. But Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, at over 3,000 square feet, is easily the largest and most prominent of Zagar’s projects,
The real highlight of Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens is its outdoor space. While you won’t find any plants here, the various sculptures on display are what gives the ‘Gardens’ its name. As you would expect, the entire area is covered in mosaics. But aside from the tiles, you’ll also find colorful bottles, bicycle wheels (sourced from a local bicycle shop) and folk art figurines from around the world.
More Around South Street
The bohemian South Street has always been a favorite among art lovers. Not only is the area one of Philly’s top places for street art, but it’s also home to numerous art shops like the South Street Art Mart.
One of the area’s most respected art spaces is Paradigm Gallery, a gallery and studio which focuses on artists from the local community. And a number of artworks are also available for sale.
Associated with the University of Pennsylvania, the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) was founded back in 1963, making it one of the oldest institutions on this list. In fact, the space was even the location of Andy Warhol’s first-ever solo exhibition in 1965.
The spacious museum features various rooms, many of which showcase a variety of artistic mediums. You can expect to find everything from paintings to sculptures to audiovisual pieces.
Note that you can easily combine a visit with the nearby Penn Museum. And with free entry, there’s no reason not to stop in for a look.
When it come to touring Philadelphia architecture, one of the best places to stay would be Society Hill. It’s one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods and is full of well-preserved architecture from the colonial era. Just to the north are Independence Hall and Liberty Square. And to the south of the neighborhood is South Street, one of Philly’s most popular districts for nightlife and the arts.
Also consider staying somewhere nearby City Hall. It’s located on Broad Street, Philadelphia’s busiest street where you can find a number of major landmarks and also metro stations. Also nearby is the historical Old City district.
Other popular areas include Rittenhouse Square and Chinatown. And just to the west of downtown, the University City area, home to the Penn Museum and Drexel University, is also worthy of consideration.
All of the above-mentioned neighborhoods could be considered central Philadelphia. In general, the central area of the city is clean, safe and pleasant to explore. If you want to stay further away, though, be sure to do thorough research on that area. Philly has a lot of rough neighborhoods that you’re better off avoiding altogether.