Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Philly Moms: Art and the City

Art and the City

Original post to Philadelphia Moms Blog

FairmountparkNightsculptureOne of the joys of working in Philadelphia is the public art that surprises you at every turn. From the iconic Alexander Milne Calder sculpture of William Penn atop City Hall’s tower to Robert Indiana’s equally iconic Love sculpture at 15th and JFK, the city has more public art than any other U.S. city, and there's something for every aesthetic.

Some of the city’s public artworks are part of our pop culture visual record: Walker Hancock’s Pennsylvania Railroad War Memorial in 30th Street Station towers over Lukas Haas’ young Amish boy on his first trip to the city in Peter Weir’s movie “Witness,” and in a reverse of the usual process, A. Thomas Schomberg’s bronze “Rocky” found a public home after figuring in the eponymous series of movies.

I’ll confess that many of my favorite public sculptures in the city have a personal connection. My mother (working under the name Joyce de Guatemala) has a sculpture, Mayan Game Group, on Howard St. between Huntingdon and Lehigh in the Kensington section of the city. Robin Fredenthal (Water, Ice, Fire at 1234 Market St.); Arlene Love (Face Fragment at 3500 Market St.); Joe Bailey (Gift of the Winds at 5th and Market Sts.); Chuck Fahlen (Major at 8th and Locust Sts.); Lily Yeh (Ile-Ife Park at 2544 Germantown Ave.) and Edna Andrade (Belgian Block Courtyard at Broad St. between Fairmount and Brown) are all local artists I met during the few years I worked at the Marian Locks Gallery (now the Locks Gallery on Rittenhouse) and whose diverse aesthetic adds to Philadelphia’s cultural patrimony and character.

Through Jane Golden and the Mural Arts Program, the city landscape is also dotted – from Girard Avenue to the Schuylkill Expressway – with colorful and varied large-scale two-dimensional art works. Better yet, the program has engaged hundreds of children in the artmaking process – bringing groups of them in to collaborate with mural artists in producing the public works of art. Now, the innovative program has joined forces with city government to put art on wheels: Philadelphia’s recycling trucks will be tooling around the city with art on their sides. I love this, and can’t wait for other cities to emulate the effort.
Not surprisingly – given that I'm the daughter of a sculptor – I believe in the value of making art accessible and available to children, pedestrians and motorists and people transiting through the city streets with other things on their minds. Happening upon a previously unnoticed or unstudied work of art can shift you into a different mental space altogether. And it can create indelible memories.

The first time my family went to Sakura Sunday at Fairmount Park (see blog post here) my daughter’s meanderings brought me face to face with Edward Stauch’s 19th-century bronze, Night, near the Horticultural Center, Now, our annual visit includes a visit to this lovely and demure sculpture (that’s my daughter’s photo of it at the top of this post). Likewise, a shopping expedition with my daughter (see blog post here) brought me face to face with Christopher Ray’s Wissahickon Valley Gate on Chestnut Street between 17th and 18th streets. I can no longer pass it without noticing it – it’s inextricably entwined with my memories of a great afternoon spent with my daughter – and it has become one of my favorite places to pause during my lunch hour strolls.

A truly valuable guide to the city’s public sculptures is Penny Balkin Bach’s book “Public Art in Philadelphia” (Temple University Press, 1992), For a guide to the city’s murals, the Mural Arts Program web site (here) gives suggested tours through the different sections of the city have been enlivened by the program’s effort to create art in community.

We don’t engage with art and artists enough. Cuts in funding to schools have eliminated most visiting artists programs. Shrinking funding for public art and the nonprofit arts organizations that keep art accessible to all of us has had an impact on our vital city’s vital art tradition. People tend to think of art as a luxury, but really, should what feeds the soul, adds beauty to the world and builds community be considered a luxury?

There is an opportunity in June for any and all of us to experience art and meet some of the artists who make it at "Art in the Open Philadelphia." From June 9 to 12 more than 30 artists will make art along the banks of the Schuylkill River. Art stations will be set so that visitors can try their hand at creative expression, and a number of arts and cultural institutions will offer free public programs. Also, the first Sunday of every month the Philadelphia Museum of Art has "pay what you want admission" and other galleries and arts non-profits sponsor low-cost or no-cost events throughout the summer, so keep your eyes open.

As the commercial says, just do it. Make art a part of life. This is the city for it.

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