By Peter Crimmins, WHYY

The Pennsylvania Convention Center has the tricky circumstance of being a public building — but not really. Although built with about $1.3 billion of taxpayer money, it’s a building for hire so access is restricted depending on who is renting space at any given time.

It has just completed acquiring and permanently installing a 127-piece collection of contemporary art, at a cost of about $1.5 million. Few members of the public are likely to have access to see all of it.

And that is a shame, because it’s really good.

The center was literally built for art; its architects designed seating nooks shaped and sized to better display artwork, including hidden lighting tracks to discreetly illuminate paintings. It also has huge walls overlooking vast corridors that beg for grand gestures.

The center expansion took five years to complete in 2011. It took longer than that — almost seven years — to outfit it with artwork.

“Of course, the art comes last,” said center president John McNichol. “It’s like when you buy a house — you build, you finished the house, the last thing to go on the walls is the artwork. That, plus the tedious and very deliberate process we took, is what took so much time to get the art procured, secured, insured, and then hung on the walls.”

The complex selection process involved a blind jury of Pennsylvania art professionals. It nominated worthy artwork to another committee populated by more art professionals, which made decided on acquisitions.

The process started in 2014 with an open call to any artist residing in Pennsylvania.

“The open call was widely popular,” said project manager Tara Waltenbaugh. “We received 1,550 submissions. Each artist was allowed to submit five pieces — 1,550 times five — it took a lot of time.”

Ultimately the center bought 125 pieces, some that had been seen before. A giant assemblage of recycled HVAC ductwork by the Dufala brothers, arranged to spell the word “Fresh,” debuted in 2010 at Haverford College. Some of the quilted textile wall hangings by Kay Healy was previously installed at the Free Library. A group of small terra cotta sculptures by Nicholas Kripal, who died last year, was originally installed at the Philadelphia airport as “Swarm.”

Some pieces are decades old. Photographer Tony Ward submitted five portraits, taken between 1976 and 1980, of congregants at the United House of Prayer for All People, a nondenominational church at 16th and Fitzwater. It’s where Ward’s grandmother worshipped at the time.

The selection committee accepted four of them. As a blind jury, shielded from knowing anything about the artists, it did not know that the fifth, rejected photo was of Ward’s grandmother.

Muralist Michele Ortiz — known locally for making public work related to immigration — submitted a personal piece, featuring large, painted portraits of her Colombian mother, grandmother and uncle. In front of each picture is a pair of shoes cast in clay — on an illuminated pedestal — representing their respective immigration journeys.

The work is a challenge, both politically and physically. The imposing size of the installation had to be altered so that conventioneers would not accidentally stumble into it.

There is whimsy, too. A kinetic sculpture on the second floor along Broad Street by Bradley N. Litwin, “Large Sway of Public Opinion,” is a row of bicycle wheels running along an undulating copper track. The viewer starts the motor running via a button on the case. Although it seems to be tucked away in a corner far from the flow of foot traffic, a wandering visitor is sure to be attracted to the spinning plaything.

The center commissioned the creation of two pieces by renowned artists Moe Brooker and Astrid Bowlby. Each was made specifically for the location where it is installed.

Brooker chose a spot on the second floor of the Center, near a bank of windows along Arch Street. The spot forced him to create a brightly colored abstraction on a vertically aligned canvas, which he found unwieldy.

“At some point Moe said to me that he thought about canceling the contract. He just couldn’t get his head around it,” said Waltenbaugh. “That speaks to the name of the piece, why eventually he called it ‘Amazing Grace.’ He signed the piece ‘Brooker 2017 T.T.G.G.’ So I asked him, ‘Moe, what’s the T.T.G.G. about?’ He said “especially with this piece” it’s all to the glory of God.”

Astrid Bowlby chose a hallway on the first floor, just off the center’s grandiose Broad Street entrance. She made ink drawings of tens of thousands of flowers, cut them all out individually, then layered them atop one another for a collage installation 7 feet high and 100 feet long.

“The committee had a lot of concerns, because it’s basically ink drawings on a cotton rag paper,” said Waltenbaugh. “Originally, she had wanted to glue all the pieces to the wall. Our chief engineer almost had a heart attack.”

Part of the acquisition process was to compile detailed records of the materials used to make the art for future conservation work and extensive biographies of the artists. To set up a museum-quality records archive, the center entered into partnerships with the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

“So we were really following the script from the professionals,” said McNichol. “We’re not a museum — we’re not a museum of art — but we worked with those partners to make sure we’re acting that way, in respect not only to the artists but to the artwork itself.

Next year, the 25th anniversary of the original Convention Center, public tours of the art collection will be offered. Those will be a rare opportunity to see the extent of the state’s newest contemporary art collection.