CONNECTING THE PAST TO THE PRESENT. Sasha Suda is a Canadian art historian. Since 2022 the former director of the National Gallery of Canada has been the director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA), whose building is a civic landmark and whose encyclopedic collection is world-renowned.

You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.

Sasha Suda, what did you find when you arrived at your new job in Philadelphia?

I found the Philadelphia Museum of Art of my dreams, an institution that has lived in my imagination since I first visited it in the early 2000s. It makes an indelible mark on you when you first walk into the East Stair Hall, seeing Diana at the top of the steps, experiencing what American art institutions were about! They created an extraordinary experience that takes you somewhere else around the globe when they were founded and built 150 years ago.

Is the Metropolitan Museum in New York where you worked for a while, a similar kind of encyclopedic museum?

It’s completely the same kind of museum, but the PMA is much more approachable in the sense that you can walk through the whole thing in a day. It is one of my favourite museums in the world, not necessarily as an art historian, but as a museum lover. My top two museums for the last ten years are the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Louisiana Museum, because they’re just so unique.

Did the Board of PMA choose you because they recognized this love?

Ever since that first visit I wanted to be a part of the PMA. These things come out fairly quickly in the interview process, and they were interested in working with me because I was a medievalist with a love of all of art history, and I had this love of encyclopedic museums. There are few of these institutions, and also fewer people who have the experience of running them at this scale. It was a great match.

“At a recent mayoral debate four out of the five candidates said that the Philadelphia Museum of Art is their favourite civic building in the whole city.”

Sasha Suda

East Façade with Pride Flag. Photo by Timothy Tiebout. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

The Philadelphia Museum of Art was originally chartered in 1876 for the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. The main museum building was completed in 1928 on Fairmount, a hill located at the northwest end of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway at Eakins Oval. The museum administers collections containing over 240,000 objects including major holdings of European, American and Asian origin. The various classes of artwork include sculpture, paintings, prints, drawings, photographs, armor, and decorative arts. Besides being known for its architecture and collections, the Philadelphia Museum of Art has in recent decades become known due to the role it played in the Rocky films.

Sasha Suda, when you arrived the new north entrance of the museum had just been made by Frank Gehry. Was this a sign of innovation at the museum?

Historically, the two wings of The Philadelphia Museum of Art were built first. They didn’t have the budget to build the middle, but they knew that if they built the two sides they’d eventually have to build the middle that connects them. In a similar fashion, when Frank Gehry came in to do the project in 2018, he manifested the plans of Trumbauer, the original architects. Frank Gehry talks about it as an archaeological project and says he just brought to life the plans of Julian Abele, the very famous African-American architect, the first to graduate from Penn University, but of course he did more than that.

What did Frank Gehry do?

He used the stones from the quarry that Julian Abele and the Trumbauer firm sourced the stones for the original building from, but he took it one step further and created the Williams Forum. This is a big signature space at the centre of the renovation where we can now show contemporary art at a scale that we’ve never been able to. There’s more to come over the next decade and a half. We hope to have an additional 60,000 square feet of exhibition space for contemporary art and for exhibitions. Until then these spaces allow us to show contemporary art, to do art making, to do performance and to engage audiences in a new way. So it is very much innovation, but what’s fascinating to me is that it builds on something that was meant to happen over 100 years ago.

Is the PMA a publicly or a privately funded museum? 

It’s a combination. The building itself and all the property around it is owned by our landlords, the City of Philadelphia. The PMA is a civic institution and receives funding from the city, and relies on the city in order to thrive as well. At a recent mayoral debate four out of the five candidates said that the Philadelphia Museum of Art is their favourite civic building in the whole city. We’re funded by private donors to a large degree, but we also are very much a museum of the city, for the city.

What kind of city is Philadelphia today?

A delightful city, made up of some of the great universities and hospitals of the region and that many consider the birthplace of America. The almost mythological city of the Liberty Bell, people flock from around the world to see this place where America started. This history makes the city feel very comfortable in its own skin. It’s proudly the city of the cheesesteak. The advertisements for the city out in the international market say “Come for Philadelphia. Stay for Philly.” It’s extremely diverse. 50% of the population is African-American. It’s a city where you can love the Philadelphia Eagles and go to the football game but also embrace Marcel Duchamp’s legacy here at the PMA. Those two things often don’t live in the same sentence.

Which are some of collections for which the museum is well known?

When you visit our South Asian and East Asian departments some of the great objects of American collections are on view in a very earnest way, and just quietly have held those galleries for over 50 years. You go through the museum and it’s one region after another: China, Japan, India, Pakistan, incredible holdings of Western European art, a beloved collection of armour, and the amazing modern collection. You go from Marcel Duchamp to Brancusi to Cy Twombly, to Jasper Johns, to Ellsworth Kelly. These are some of the great single artist rooms in museums in the world.

How can you build on that?

We are working hard to bring in more women artists and, in the tradition of the PMA, to give those artists a say. The great thing about the Duchamp collection is how closely he worked with the curators as he installed those rooms. Étant donnés, his last work, was something he planned to have installed posthumously in this very mysterious, wonderful way. We need to bring a broader diversity of artistic voices.

“The PMA has a great advantage: it is an incredibly sited building and its approaching steps are iconic thanks to Rocky.”

Sasha Suda, Philadelphia is a city whose population is 50% African-American. Is their voice well represented?

We do have some excellent African holdings, but the continent of Africa really is not currently represented within our curatorial structure and it is underrepresented within our collections. We recently announced starting a centre for the Study of African and African Diasporic Art. One of our trustees, Ira Brind, the collector of classical African art, made a significant donation to endow the Brind Centre, and that program will help us connect in more meaningful ways with the community that we serve.

Do exhibitions like your retrospective of Giuseppe Penone, the Italian Arte Povera artist, bring people who are interested in Arte Povera to Philadelphia to see them and then they also get to know the whole museum?

That’s the dream. The PMA is a collection of its cumulative curatorial voices. Anne d’Harnoncourt, the former director, did her Ph.D. on Marcel Duchamp and in many ways brought that part of the collection to life as modern curator. We have one of the great, if not the great collections of American art in the world. Kathy Foster, who’s long been the head of the American department, has built that collection on the shoulders of those who came before her. These people spent their long careers at the institution and continue to round out those collections. So yes, people come to see Penone but stay for the rest, and increasingly in the art museum world people are saying they would like to see things that aren’t here, that tell the story that they have lived and that their ancestors lived.

What are you planning?

Carlos Basualdo, our chief curator, has been working hard with me to have a slate of exhibitions that really represents the broad diversity of the collection. Coming up this year we have a Mary Cassatt show, which is a reflection of how strong not just our American collections are, but she’s also a French painter fundamentally and tells the story about how our two countries were connected. After that, we have a very exciting major figurative painting show of African-American artists. The following year we’re planning on a couple of major partnerships with the Pompidou. We have a major Duchamp retrospective coming up, and in our South Asian department we’re working on a show about Indian weddings. We are trying to bring out all those connections between history and the present, in a way that only encyclopedic museums can.

There is also an important human aspect in your career, working not only as a community builder but also with museum unions?   

In Canada, the labor movement has a longer history in cultural institutions and possibly more broadly in the not-for-profit space than in America. Coming to Philadelphia was frankly quite different because we have one very established union, the Carpenters union, where we have our very important colleagues who help us build and realise exhibitions, but then we also have a new wall to wall union which basically touches all the departments of the institution. It didn’t create any anxiety for me, but it’s so new we’re going to take some time finding our way, because having a labor agreement requires you to do some things differently. We’re changing a lot of things in the institution, and this period is really an interesting one because we’re finding our footing.

What about community building?

If we don’t exist for people outside of the institution, why are we here? These institutions were founded to open the minds and the hearts of people who didn’t have the opportunity to travel around the world and that educational mandate was connected very much to scholarship and knowledge production, but that over time has evolved. Curators still do research and publish and make exhibitions that create knowledge and generate really important scholarship, but we also serve a public who feels – and frankly, understandably so – that they have experience that they bring into the galleries, that when they see things and have an emotional response or a reaction that that’s valuable too and that there’s value to art beyond its scholarly function. And isn’t that fantastic? Building a community that loves the place, that makes it absolutely irreplaceable within the city community and the many communities that make up that city, is a question of inviting people in and not feeling entitled to their time. That’s an honorable challenge, and crafting that invitation is an incredibly inspiring purpose.

Sasha Suda

Isaac Julien – “Lina Bo Bardi ­— A Marvellous Entanglement” in the Williams Forum. Photo by Timothy Tiebout. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Sasha Suda

Early American Art Galleries. Photo by Joseph Hu. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Sasha Suda

Staircase Group (Portrait of Raphaelle Peale and Titian Ramsay Peale I) in the Ross Family Gallery. Photo by Joseph Hu. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Sasha Suda

East Asian Galleries. Photo by Joseph Hu. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Sasha Suda

Contemporary Galleries, Sol Le Witt ceiling. Photo by Joseph Hu. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Sasha Suda

Martine Syms “Neural Swamp / The Future Fields Commission” in the Alter Gallery. Photo by Albert Yee. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

“I want to make the Philadelphia Museum of Art thrive on the world stage and for it to be a reflection of the city that it lives in.”

Sasha Suda, is the work of education difficult for your museum in this post-pandemic time of digital communication? 

At the end of the day nothing replaces a real work of art, and people want to be in something physically and experience it and transport themselves. We’re in a better position than we were prior to the pandemic as a place where people can experience something they can’t experience anywhere else. We have to work hard to make that true. We have to come to terms with the fact that we’re competing with the mall, because that’s become an experiential place for people to spend their free time.

What does that mean for you?

We’re still figuring it out. In some way the mall has replaced the museum as a civic space, but that sounds like a bigger statement than it really is. People love the museum. Over 90% of our pre-pandemic audience is back. People are coming to major shows in larger numbers than they were prior to the pandemic. People are eager to re-experience these places that they maybe took for granted before the pandemic. Focusing on that in-person experience as we build out a digital experience is critical. The PMA has a great advantage: it is an incredibly sited building and its approaching steps are iconic thanks to Rocky.

For many years museums were more the preserve of the elite. Nowadays is the museum much more popular and broader than it used to be?

Yes, and the way that you really see this is if you go on your social media platform of choice and do a location tag search for the Philadelphia Museum of Art, or any other museum. You will find hundreds of photographs of young people doing selfies and posing with works of art. That wouldn’t have happened a decade or two ago. They wear their best outfit and they come and do a fashion shoot and they share it with their followers. It’s completely foreign to me, but that’s a place where I go to see that all is not lost, that people love coming to the museum, and the fact that they want to come for half an hour or 45 minutes is totally fine.

What can you offer them in half an hour or 45 minutes so that they keep coming back?

These social media searches are fascinating.  Often young people go to places in the museum, posing with the Goya, posing with things that feel very strange and very distant to them. It shows their social media community that they are interested and that they’re connected to something different. It’s an exciting and a challenging time in museums as we try to find ourselves and everybody in the museum tries to reimagine their role within it.

Do museums now even have a kind of spiritual role, as religious attendance diminishes and people go to the museum instead?

The museum is a contemporary cathedral because it’s representative historically of so many works of religious art from around the globe, but it is also something bigger than that, which is that it’s a place where you can go, and there are things that one can believe in, beyond religion – and that is a very compelling idea, a conversation about who we are and who we’re becoming. 

What is your own priority?

I want to make the Philadelphia Museum of Art thrive on the world stage and for it to be a reflection of the city that it lives in. So it’s connecting Philadelphia to the world through our incredible collection and program.

Thank you very much for this interview.

Portrait of Sasha Suda, George D. Widener Director and CEO. Photo by Jason Varney. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.