Percent for Art Programs


Philadelphia was the first American city, in the wake of various influences—including publicly supported art in post-World War II Italian cities—to establish “percent for art” programs, which require building developers to designate funds for public art. Philadelphia’s programs became models for other communities and a means of improving neighborhood aesthetics.  Although the programs experienced resistance from developers and others who balked at their costs and rules, subsequent accommodations to political and aesthetic objections allowed them to persevere and thrive.

Philadelphia’s initiatives largely derived from lawyer Michael von Moschzisker (1918-95) and his concerns with what he saw as aesthetically drab post-World War II urban renewal, driving his belief that “efficiency experts now find that beauty increases productivity” so “that true functionalism in man-made edifices must include artistic expression.” In 1959, as chairman of the city’s quasi-governmental Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (PRA), he began a percent policy that constituted the first city-government related program in the nation to fund public art.  Shortly thereafter, Philadelphia’s city government passed a law that initiated the second “percent” program in urban America. Both efforts mandated that developers had to supply up to 1 percent of the cost of various redevelopments for public art at their sites, respectively for work on land owned wholly or partially by the PRA and building undertaken with city funding.

Photograph shows a large silver metal sculpture of a clothespin.
“Clothespin,” an icon of the Pop Art movement, was acquired through Philadelphia’s “percent for art” program . (Photograph by Josh Silver)

The program’s early decades brought successes such as “Family of Bears” in Society Hill, by sculptor Sherl Joseph Winter (1934-2020), and the monumental “Clothespin” by Claes Oldenburg (1929-2022) across from Philadelphia’s City Hall, both of which became beloved works.

Despite these advances, political headwinds emerged against the percent programs, often in terms of proposed works seen as artistically elitist—as with the now-legendary sculpture “Government of the People” by Jacques Lipchitz (1891-1973).  Program costs also encountered resistance from developers, as occurred with the work “Open Air Aquarium,” at the Dockside residences on the Delaware River.

Photograph depicts an outdoor art installation showing fish-like scultpures suspended by rods in the air.
Magdalena Abakanowicz’s “Open Air Aquarium,” a “percent for art” sculpture near the Delaware River , was created and installed despite conflict with local businessmen. (Photograph by Josh Silver)

Budgetary Challenges

Officials also questioned the cost and practicality of art. During the 1970s, Mayor Frank Rizzo (1920-91), noting the city’s population decline, resultant losses in its tax base, and increased social service and labor expenses, concluded that public art was a luxury the city could not afford. In 2004 Mayor John Street (b. 1943) closed the city’s Office of Arts and Culture following a major budgetary challenge, although it was revived in a new form four years later.

Additionally, internal limitations of percent programs undercut their effectiveness. For example, for many years architects and developers could choose any artist they wanted, which led to a lack of competition for artists.

While the PRA required spending of 1 percent or more, the city mandate’s requirement of spending up to 1 percent on art led at times to weaker efforts to uphold its law. At the same time, both programs have been understaffed, limiting their capacity for advice and oversight.

Photograph depicts a large exterior silver metal sculpture made up of twisting limbs stacked upon one another.
In the 1960s, sculptor Jacques Lipchitz was commissioned to create a sculpture for Philadelphia’s “percent for art” program. Despite Mayor Frank Rizzo’s objections to the style of the work, “Government of the People” was created in time for the nation’s Bicentennial. (Photograph by Josh Silver)

Still, support for percent programs remained, with perhaps the main reason being awareness of the arts as economic engines. Key examples of this came in the 1980s through the early twenty-first century during the mayoral administrations of W. Wilson Goode (b. 1938), Edward G. Rendell (b. 1944), and Michael Nutter (b. 1957).

In another evolution, the PRA experimented with new ways of presenting art, including community-based performances instead of traditional static art. Additionally, it began to choose the majority of its artists through “requests for qualifications” instead of “curated selection,” thus allowing consideration of more artists. It also divided larger percent projects into smaller ones to increase the number of artists at a site. Achievements in the city’s percent program included streamlining paperwork to realize more projects, successfully lobbying for older artworks’ conservation, and a 2015 guidebook to promote Philadelphia’s public art.

Image depicts a colorful gate with sculptures of performers dancing along the top.
“El Gran Teatro de la Luna” was first installed in Fairhill Square Park in 1982. Although removed seventeen years later due to deteriorating conditions in the park, it was reinstalled in 2013. (Photograph by Josh Silver)

By bringing high-quality art to low-income communities and/or those of color, percent programs have contributed to social equity. In recent years, working-class residents gained more influence in art choices, largely with the PRA initiating a community education and participation requirement for its public art in 2010.

Philadelphia’s measures have influenced other governments to fund art.  Although examples of other programs in the Philadelphia area are rare—including a public art component in the city of Lancaster and the state of New Jersey’s “Arts Inclusion” program—the city’s requirements have set a template for at least 350 programs nationwide.

In 2019 both of Philadelphia’s programs celebrated their sixtieth anniversaries, but their existence was endangered by a budget deficit due to the public health crisis that begin in 2020. Still, they persevered. City activities were relocated within the city Managing Director’s Office, and PRA art pursuits were placed within the Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation.  As of early 2022, more than 350 works had been achieved through PRA/PHDC pursuits and completed within the city’s public art enterprise.

Joshua Silver is a historical researcher, occasional blogger on urban subjects, and a longtime guide to historical sites and public art in Philadelphia. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2023, Rutgers University.


Ninth Street Post Office Façade

Although Philadelphia was the first city in the United States with a policy to fund public art, its government was by no means the first to do so, as this example from the Robert N.C. Nix Federal Courthouse in Philadelphia demonstrates. For this former post office building, the two heroic reliefs symbolize the postal service in the South (to the left) and the North (to the right). They were created by sculptor Edmond Romulus Amateis (1897-1981) and date from 1941, near the end of a flourishing period for art under the federal government, which included a percent-for-art provision within a Treasury Department program. The resulting art that survives at facilities such as the courthouse and former post office here, on Ninth Street at Market Street, stemmed from efforts to assist unemployed artists during the Great Depression. (Photograph by Josh Silver)

Philadelphia City Councilman Henry Sawyer

Chestnut Hill Conservancy

Henry Sawyer (1918-99) was a Philadelphia city councilman, civil rights activist, and prominent lawyer. He was one of several pioneers of “percent for art” in Philadelphia who added their support to the program’s best-known initiator, Michael von Moschzisker. Over several years in the 1950s, Sawyer discussed Philadelphia starting such a funding mechanism with a core group of Philadelphians including fellow City Councilman Donald Rubel (1900-80); John Canaday (1907-85), later a legendary New York Times art critic); and Joseph Greenberg (1915-91), a native Philadelphian and sculptor. Greenberg lived in Italy for four years, from 1949 to 1953, and upon returning to the U.S. enthusiastically shared his appreciation for the plentiful public art in that country’s cities and his desire for more support for art in American cities.

After Sawyer pushed for a vote on a “percent” program for the city, the City Council made it a law on December 24,1959. Sawyer, who was about to retire from City Council, quipped that the new legislation was a “going-away present.”

John Bogle’s Nicetown Park Sculpture

This tower, designed by sculptor John Bogle (b. 1940), is composed of a sinuous, circular set of eight aluminum panels. Located in Nicetown Park at Germantown Avenue and St. Paul Street in North Philadelphia, it was once the centerpiece of a fountain whose hardware has since been dismantled. When the tower was installed in 1974 it was hailed as “durable and not easily defaced.” (Photograph by Josh Silver)

Three Bears Park, 319 Delancey Street

Delancey Park, more often known as “Three Bears Park,” has made a memorable impact on three generations of children. This is one of several pieces in a large-scale redevelopment of Society Hill, overseen largely by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority in the Washington Square East Urban Renewal Area. The area includes several “percent” artworks. The Friends of Three Bears Park, founded in 1989, remains dedicated to maintaining the park for more generations of children to enjoy. (Photograph by Josh Silver)

“Government of the People,” North Broad Street, Philadelphia

“Government of the People” is arguably the best example of controversy and the clash of tastes in the history of Philadelphia’s “percent” regulations, largely because of the outspoken and colorful nature of a larger-than-life mayor, Frank Rizzo. Rizzo, a polarizing figure, said the sculpture looked like a pile of plaster. His taste for representative art clashed with what he saw as elitist art choices under percent programs. In the 1960s, sculptor Jacques Lipchitz was commissioned to provide an artwork for the Municipal Services Building across from City Hall, but a few years later Rizzo, as a new mayor, refused to release city funds for its completion and placement. This led to protest from the local arts community, and the sculpture—Lipchitz’s last— was incomplete when the artist died in 1973. Later that year, the Fairmount Park Art Association (later renamed the Association for Public Art) decided to take charge of the project so that it could be dedicated in time for the nation’s Bicentennial in 1976. (Photograph by Josh Silver)

The “Clothespin” at Centre Square, 1500 Market Street, Philadelphia

The “Clothespin,” an icon of the Pop Art movement, is the most prominent piece in what may be the greatest achievement of the “percent” program—the acquisition for one development of works by three twentieth-century masters: Claes Oldenburg (1929-2022), Jean Dubuffet (1901-85), and Alexander Calder (1898-1976). Selected by art collector and developer Jack Wolgin, the cost of the works totaled about $800,000, or 1 percent of the $80 million Centre Square office complex that rises across Fifteenth Street from Philadelphia City Hall. Besides Oldenburg’s “Clothespin,” the art for this project included Dubuffet’s “Milord La Chamarre” (or, loosely, “My Lord of the Fancy Vest”) and eight banners designed by Calder. After years of display, the banners were put in storage, thought to be lost, then recovered and given to the Free Library of Philadelphia, where they were to be displayed after restoration. (Photograph by Josh Silver)

“El Gran Teatro de la Luna” in Fairhill Square Park

“El Gran Teatro de la Luna,” a 1982 work whose title translates to “The Big Theater of the Moon,” was not initially in the “percent” portfolio, but later became the responsibility of the city’s program under its Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy. It represents a small achievement against the realities that plague much of public art. It was donated to the city by the venerable non-profit Fairmount Park Art Association, since renamed the Association for Public Art.

The artist behind “El Gran Teatro de la Luna,” Rafael Ferrer (b. 1933), was born in Puerto Rico. Shortly after he drafted the sculpture’s fantastical array of figures including a juggler, acrobats and a big cat, among other players, he learned that his work’s intended spot had been taken by a utilities structure including restrooms. Ferrer’s initial surprise was supplanted by the happiness that this plain structure could give his work great height, which would impressively display its 156-feet span and figures as high as 13 feet above its base. The next 16 years were not so grand, as this accidental pedestal became a magnet for drug dealing and was destroyed by the city. “El Gran Teatro de la Luna” was put into “temporary” storage which lasted for nearly fourteen years due to a lack of money to reinsert it into the park. Finally, the city’s “percent” program provided $35,000 as part of the total needed to replace the work within the park on top of the trellis seen here in 2013. (Photograph by Josh Silver)

The Northern Segment of the “Open Air Aquarium”

The sculptural ensemble known as “Open Air Aquarium,” whose northern segment is seen here, provides an example of times when developers have resisted the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority’s “percent” policy. In this case, Peter DePaul, of suburban Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, initially approved spending $500,000¬—or 1 percent of a $50 million budget for his proposed Dockside condominiums—for art, through a representative. Later, in 2001, he balked at the cost for “percent,” and the Redevelopment Authority considered a compromise with him, such as a park in front of Dockside instead of art. Arts groups, including the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, protested through letters, a community meeting, and other means, and DePaul returned to a percent plan. The result, in homage to the adjacent river, was thirty sculptures of fish, each different, created by Polish-born sculptor Magdalena Abakanowicz (1930-2017). (Photograph by Josh Silver)

“MVP” sculpture in Smith Park

The sculpture “MVP” (“most valuable player”), was the first freestanding sculpture in Philadelphia to portray an individual Black girl. Representatives of the city’s “percent” program heralded it as pointing the way forward for more diversity of cultural representation in city-sponsored public art as well as making it a focal point of events for the sixtieth anniversary of “one percent for art” programs. The sculpture stands at Smith Playground, a South Philadelphia playground serving a largely African American population, and its portrayal of a young athlete at a pivotal moment of decision-making on the basketball court evokes the potential of young people. While the model for the sculpture was a girl named Scottlynn Johnson who lived near the studio of its Indianapolis artist, Brian McCutcheon (b. 1965), the work was inspired by Ora Washington (1898-1971), a pioneering Black basketball and tennis player in Philadelphia. (Photograph by Josh Silver)

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Related Reading

Bach, Penny Balkin. Public Art in Philadelphia. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992.

Berg, Margot. A Guide to Philadelphia’s Public Art. City of Philadelphia, Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, 2015.

Penn Praxis. Philadelphia Public Art: The Full Spectrum. Philadelphia: 2009. [PDF]

Philadelphia Code, Section § 16-103, “Aesthetic Ornamentation of City Structures.”

Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation. The Percent for Art Program Policy. Revised Amendment Approved by the Board of the Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation on September 15, 2021, Resolution No. 091521-715. [PDF]

Public Art Review, Issue 9, Vol. 5 No. 1 / Fall-Winter 1993, pp. 4-14. (Three articles offering commentary and history on “percent for art” programs: Kilroy, Mary. “Public Art for the Nineties / Re-sharpening the Cutting Edge,” by Mary Kilroy; “A Brief History of Percent-for-Art in America,” by John Wetenhall; and “Percent-for-Art / Variations on a Theme,” by Claire WIckersham.

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