Arts and Culture

The following panel discussion took place during the Encyclopedia’s Civic Partnership and Planning Workshop, held April 16-17, 2009, at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Please join in the discussion by adding your thoughts below.

Derick Dreher from the Rosenbach Library and Museum chaired the panel and introduced its members.

Stephan Salisbury from the Philadelphia Inquirer advised that as newspapers shrink there are increasingly fewer writers to focus on artistic and cultural activities. During his thirty years in the city he has seen it transformed from very limited arts and cultural activity to an explosion in the city’s offerings. He argued that there are several reasons for these positive changes. First, the art world itself has changed. Second, public money has infused cultural activity starting with the initiatives of former Mayor Rendell. Finally, rents in New York City became so expensive that Philadelphia became an attractive alternative and artist cooperatives and galleries opened throughout the city. This resulted in art collectors beginning to gravitate to Philadelphia to make purchases for their collections.

Sandra Turner Barnes from the Camden County Cultural and Heritage Commission pointed out that there are many jewels to be found in the Philadelphia region and their story should be told in the Encyclopedia. She cited as an example the Belmont Mansion, which is a beautiful and historically significant site and one of the stops on the Underground Railroad. She quickly pointed out that there are many well-known poets and writers with local ties such as Whitman and Poe but that there are many lesser-known talents whose works deserve recognition. She was quick to remind the audience that history can often be found in the pages of literature where writers capture the essence of times and events. The tradition of jazz in this city is long and rich, according to Turner Barnes, and other noteworthy local performers include Bill Cosby and Patty Labelle. A recounting or the story of the early abolition movement in Philadelphia and its impact on the end of slavery in America is a proud moment in this city’s history and deserves to be told in the Encyclopedia, according to this speaker.

Kenneth Finkel from Temple University was the next presenter. He reminded the audience that “there can be no untouchable subject” for the Encyclopedia. He recounted many of the cultural institutions in the region which had sold precious items from their collections. There is a critical role for the arts and humanities to assume a place in the revitalization of the city’s citizenry. He cautioned that a quality Encyclopedia is bound to “ruffle feathers” and that is to be expected as a price to be paid for openness and transparency.

David Brigham from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts recounted Philadelphia’s role as an American cultural center dating back several centuries. The Peale Museum was a model for early museums. The public arts programs in Philadelphia including the private commissions, Mural Arts Program, outdoor sculptures, etc. have made the arts accessible to everyone. He then detailed the very important role of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in the flourishing art environment in the city. Many prominent African American and female artists were born, educated or lived here for extended periods. A history of art in this city would not be complete, according to Brigham, without mentioning the WPA projects which thrived in this city as well as the Pyramid Club,which thrived for two decades (1941-1959) in Philadelphia and which ran racially integrated exhibits at a time when this was virtually unheard of.

Damon Sinclair, who is currently filming a documentary with Sam Katz, elaborated that his demo film will focus on the 1855-1865 period in Philadelphia. There is hope that this will be available as part of a series to be underwritten and shown by PBS nationally. One of the most poignant moments in Philadelphia history centers on the two days when President Lincoln’s body laid in state at Independence Hall while it was heading to Springfield for burial. The lines to see the casket stretched from independence Hall to the Schuylkill River, according to the speaker.

Dialogue: The audience then engaged in a lively discussion with the panel. Several people mentioned the rich tradition of theater in the city. The contribution of the Philadelphia Film Office to the growth in he number of films shot on location in the city was detailed. The role of the Mummers and their parade is an often overlooked local contribution to the national experience and would be worthy of examination in the encyclopedia.
There seemed to be a consensus that Philadelphia has served as an incubator for new trends in American art. The reasons for this phenomena should be further explored. Several questions need to be examined: What is the role of local art collectors and patrons in the development of art and culture in Philadelphia? Did some artists have to leave the area as there was no market for their work? Were the collecting habits of local collectors different than the national trends?

Several institutions made tremendous contributions to the city’s arts and culture. The Freedom Theater, University of the Arts, and High School of the Arts are among this group. Additionally, the story of the development of Industrial Arts in the late 1800s in this city needs to be explored as it was a national leader in this field.

Finally, several of the presenters and audience members wanted to caution the editors to avoid the trap which many residents of the city frequently fall into, that is to focus on the things that Philadelphia doesn’t have rather than those things for which it is well known and respected. As one audience member put it, “the focus of the Encyclopedia should be on who we are, not who we are not.”

What are the region’s information needs in the area of arts and culture? Add your thoughts below.

Connecting the Past with the Present, Building Community, Creating a Legacy