Home Historical art Philadelphia Athenaeum reopens after renovations

Philadelphia Athenaeum reopens after renovations


The Athenaeum has around 1,300 members, who have access to around 70,000 traditional books and 80,000 e-books. Hessel said that over the past few years membership has grown at an increasing rate, with around 30 or 40 new people joining each month. She believes her popularity is growing due to a desire for direct interaction with a community of people, a desire that began long before the pandemic forced everyone into self-isolation for a period of time.

“The original mission of the Athenaeum when it was established in 1814 was to create a space for conversation and recreation with a chess and learning room with periodicals and a reading room,” Hessel said. “We remain so today, as a community of people who care about arts and culture, literature, music, the built environment, history, anything Philadelphia related. “

The new Members’ Lounge of the Philadelphia Athenaeum occupies former offices on the first floor of the Library Building on South Sixth Street. (Emma Lee/WHY)

The Athenaeum reopens to the public with a gallery exhibition of a rare set of prints by Henri Matisse, the same French modernist artist whose work is currently on display in a major exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, “Matisse in the Years 1930”.

Francis and Michael Baylson, Matisse collectors and members of the Athenaeum, lent 20 prints of “Jazz,” a 1947 artist’s book in which Matisse developed his signature collage technique, which involved cutting colored paper into shapes and to compose works by moving them.

A person hangs pictures in a room with gray walls and blue carpet.
Jim Carroll organizes an exhibition of Henri Matisse’s “Jazz” in the renovated Dorothy W. and F. Otto Haas Gallery of the Philadelphia Athenaeum. Renovations included reopening the gallery’s bricked-up windows. (Emma Lee/WHY)

The works are geometric abstractions, including circus scenes, myths and fairy tales, lagoon landscapes and even funerals.

“Jazz” is not about music nor does it attempt to portray music, but rather draws inspiration from the improvisational nature of jazz. Mattise worked in collage in the 1940s after being diagnosed and treated for abdominal cancer which left him bedridden for long periods, unable to paint.

The Athenaeum Library is known for its material related to architecture and design, particularly the built environment in Philadelphia. While a French modernist’s collage art may seem out of place with the reputation of the Athénée, Hessel disagrees.

“We think it fits perfectly with the Athenaeum,” she said. “It’s a book and we’re a library. We celebrate all the different forms of the book.

A person stands in the middle of a room being renovated, looking upwards.
Beth Hessel, executive director of the Philadelphia Athenaeum, walks through the library’s reading room, which is being renovated. (Emma Lee/WHY)

Matisse’s “Jazz” exhibition is part of the larger Matisse exhibition at the Art Museum and will take place at the same time, on January 29.

Visitors, members and non-members, can see the Matisse exhibition for free. Non-members can take guided tours of the building, attend programming events, or purchase a day pass to explore the space and collection on their own. Memberships range from $35 annual dues for students, to $75 for young adults 18-35, to regular subscribers for $150 per year and up.