Harry Philbrick, a former fine-art painter and sculptor who now runs the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Conn., will become the museum director of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts on March 1.
The choice reflects PAFA’s goal to beef up its contemporary art collection. For most of its 206 years, PAFA’s teaching program has overshadowed its museum and its deep holdings of historic art.
It’s also unusual for a major art institute to tap someone with an artistic background, rather than an administrative background.
Philbrick, who originally trained as a studio artist, got into administration gradually through teaching and curating. He said it’s more important to connect museum-goers with artists than artistic trends and ideas.
“At its heart, the museum experience is a one-on-one experience between the viewer and the artists as reflected in the art object,” said Philbrick, who still sculpts on occasion but no longer exhibits his own work. “I view the museum’s role as framing that experience and trying to make that experience as easy as possible, and also as illuminating as possible.”
Philbrick was director of the Aldrich museum for 15 years. During that time, he led it through a $9 million capital campaign and an expansion project. He will replace David Brigham as museum director at PAFA.
Brigham, also the president of PAFA, has worn both hats since 2009. He said Philbrick’s scholarly chops match his creative background.
“He has a high regard for our historical collection,” said Brigham. “By bringing in a strong contemporary art person, we are by no means abandoning our important history. But he will provide complementary strength in the contemporary art realm.”
Brigham said, as the new director, Philbrick will be able to bring PAFA students deeper into the contemporary art scene nationally.