Seen On The Street: Philadelphia Is One Big Outdoor Gallery

By Linda Arntzenius 

In terms of art, Philadelphia is a top destination, from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, from the Rodin Museum to the Barnes Collection. The first of these is the oldest art museum and school in the country and is a showcase for American masters, while the second boasts a collection of some 300,000 works spanning two millennia. Admirers of August Rodin can explore the largest collection of the artist’s sculptures outside of Paris and then pop into the Barnes to see one of the world’s finest gatherings of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings presented in a way that is unlike any other world-class museum on the planet.

Beyond the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, there’s even more to see; much of it for free. Artwork is on display all over the city, courtesy of the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, which marks its 30th anniversary this fall.

Ironically, the program that has given Philly its reputation as the “City of Murals” began as part of an effort to combat graffiti. The city’s first African American mayor Wilson Goode hired California muralist Jane Golden to combat the blight. But instead of painting over the “problem,” Golden reached out to graffiti writers. Their raw talent would ultimately transform the city.

In 1996, the Anti-Graffiti Network gave birth to the Mural Arts Program with Golden as its executive director. The now nationally recognized program and the nonprofit that supports it have since become a successful public/private partnership with over 3,600 murals cherished by residents and a must-see for Philadelphia visitors.

What may be the world’s largest outdoor art gallery can be toured by trolley car, by train, or on one of the walking tours that leave from the Mural Arts Program’s Tour Center located in The Gallery at Market East at 9th and Market Streets.

Advance reservations are recommended for the “Mural Mile Walking Tour,” which showcases the growing collection in Center City. There are now so many to see that the tour has been divided into two separate parts covering Mural Mile North (from north of Market Street into Old City, through Chinatown, and around City Hall) and Mural Mile South (from south of Market Street to Lombard Street and back along the recently revitalized 13th Street corridor).

Each of these walking tours takes about two hours but you can be left off at a number of predetermined stops along the route. The Mile North tour has 15 such stops. City visitors can park in garages nearby on 10th and 12th streets between Arch and Filbert, and the Reading Terminal Market is a great place for food after you have worked up an appetite.

Besides seeing the murals, you’ll learn about the grassroots collaborations that produced them. Your guide is sure to share stories of the streets and the people involved in these incredibly vibrant artworks, many of which spring directly from neighborhood residents and give voice to individual and collective concerns.

In addition to being an expression of culture and tradition, this is art with a mission. The Mural Arts Program has empowered thousands of at-risk Philly youth who take part in educational programs across the city every year.

Golden has put into practice her personal belief that “Art Saves Lives” with murals in neighborhoods with a past history of neglect. Their titles say it all, from the series, “Unifying the Neighborhoods” and “Cultures of Philadelphia,” to the “History of Chinatown,” depicting the work and struggles of Chinese immigrants. For the recent “Finding Home,” the city’s homeless were invited to write their thoughts of “home” on strips of cloth that were then folded and woven together. The three-dimensional mural has words that, depending on where you stand to view it, reveal themselves as “visible, or “in-visible,” “dignity” or “in-dignity.”

Some of the murals are complex and ambitious installations like the 85,000 square foot “How Philly Moves,” at the Philadelphia International Airport. One of the largest murals in the world, “How Philly Moves” was created by a team led by Jon Laidacker and incorporates images of dancers by photographer Jacques-Jean “JJ” Tiziou. It has turned the mundane exterior of the airport’s parking structure into a stunning gateway for the airport with swirling figures on a black background that serves to intensify their palpable energy.

“Love Letter” is a narrative series of 50 text-based rooftop murals that can be seen from the Market/Frankford El. Philadelphia native and former graffiti writer Stephen Powers painted them so that they could be read by a girlfriend on her way home from work.

“Philly Painting,” created in collaboration with Dutch artists Dre Urhahn and Jeroen Koolhaas, is designed to spur economic development of 60 buildings along a struggling commercial corridor into a vibrant district for locals and incoming businesses. Set in North Philadelphia, around Germantown and Lehigh Avenues, this is neighborhood beautification writ large.

Little wonder that Golden has received numerous awards for urban transformation, including the 2012 Governor’s Award for Innovation in the Arts and a Distinguished Daughter of Pennsylvania Award from former Governor Ed Rendell. She teaches at the University of Pennsylvania and has co-authored several books about the murals including, with David Updike, the new Mural Arts @ 30.

For more information on the Philadelphia Mural Arts Project, The Gallery Market East 9th and Market Streets, Level 3, call 215.925.3633, or visit: muralarts.org; for a tour schedule, visit: muralarts.org/tour/mural-mile-walking-tour. A cell phone App that provides a tour of the murals is also available.

AREA EXHIBITS

Arts Council of Princeton, 102 Witherspoon Street: Princeton Artists Alliance 25th Anniversary Show celebrates the founding of this local group with an exhibition of work by its members from October 11 to November 26. For more information, call 609.934.8777, or visit: www.artscouncilofprinceton.org.

Grounds for Sculpture, Seward Johnson: The Retrospective, the largest and most significant exhibition in the park’s history, presents work by its 83-year-old founder and features more than 150 of his sculptures, including “Forever Marilyn,” “The Awakening,” and “Unconditional Surrender,” through September 21. For more information, visit  www.groundsforsculpture.org.

James A. Michener Art Museum, 138 South Pine St., Doylestown, Pennsylvania: Out of this World: Works by Steve Tobin, through October 26. For more information, hours and admission, call 215.340.9800 or visit: www.MichenerArtMuseum.org.

Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum on the Rutgers campus in New Brunswick: Odessa’s Second Avant-Garde: City and Myth through October 19. For admission and hours, call 732.932.7237, ext. 610 or visit: www.zimmerlimuseum.rutgers.edu.

Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Vermeer’s “Young Woman Seated at a Virginal” on view through September 30; Making a Classic Modern: Frank Gehry’s Master Plan for the Philadelphia Museum of Art through September 1, examines the architects designs for the museum’s future renewal and expansion. For more information, call 215.763 8100, or visit: www.philamuseum.org.

Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library, 5105 Kennett Pike, Winterthur, Delaware: Costumes of Downton Abbey, designs from the award-winning television series through January 4, 2015. For more information, hours and admission, visit: www.winterthur.org.

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