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Okay, so Philly ain’t Florence. Point conceded. But the City of Brotherly Love, so close to New York, is still far enough away to have developed its own contemporary-art accent. And with its reinvigorated gallery scene and world-class museums, it’s well worth the 90-minute trip.
The Old City and Rittenhouse Square have long been gallery-rich neighborhoods, but thanks to the abundance of affordable real estate, excellent contemporary-art venues have been sprouting all over town. Some of the newer and most interesting are off the beaten track, like Spector in Queen Village (215-238-0840; spectorspector.com) and the Slought Foundation in West Philadelphia (215-222-9050; slought.org). Many of the local artists show a predilection for high-key color, craftsmanship, and unexpected materials (Virgil Marti’s exuberant Whitney Biennial installation is a case in point). Take a look at InLiquid.com before your trip for an overview of what’s going on at these and dozens of other galleries.
The city’s home to excellent museums, too: First-time visitors should make reservations now at the Barnes Foundation (610-667-0290)—where Impressionist paintings and early-American art hang eccentrically chockablock in a mansion in Merion, Pennsylvania—because it may eventually be moved to a new building in Philadelphia proper. The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s current exhibition “Manet and the Sea,” up through May 31, gathers some of the most sublime marine scenes ever painted by Manet and his contemporaries Whistler, Delacroix, Courbet, and others—and don’t miss the extraordinary Arensberg Collection, with its room of seminal Duchamps (215-763-8100; philamuseum.org). But what promises to be Philly’s most talked-about show of the spring and summer is “The Big Nothing” at the Institute of Contemporary Art (May 1–August 1), with works by Andy Warhol, Yves Klein, Louise Lawler, and others from the seventies to the present on the theme of nothingness. In an effort to make something out of “Nothing,” 36 venues have planned related talks, exhibitions, and film screenings (215-898-5911; icaphila.org).
The Sofitel Philadelphia near Rittenhouse Square (215-569-8300; sofitel.com; from $149) has everything an art lover could want, including a central location and good contemporary paintings on its walls. At El Vez (215-928-9800), fresh reinventions of classic Mexican dishes are served in a former bank that’s been turned into a celebration of seventies Mexican-American pop culture.