Art cities: How Philadelphia’s collaborative spirit has fuelled its artistic renaissance
Long blessed with magnificent institutions, Philadelphia is now attracting artists with its low rents and proximity to New York City — and by encouraging them to take risks. As Alastair Smart reports, the effects have been transformative
‘Last week I went to Philadelphia, but it was closed,’ quipped the comedian W.C. Fields in one of many digs at the city of his birth. It reflected a pejorative view of Philadelphia that existed for much of the 20th century: of a place lacking nightlife and cutting edge, whose major cultural contribution was arguably the cheesesteak sandwich.
In recent years, however, there has been a marked upswing in Philly’s reputation. In December 2018, it was named ‘City of the Year’ by GQ magazine — on the grounds that ‘it just feels… different in Philadelphia these days. Downright victorious, even.’ Two years earlier, the travel guide Lonely Planet had named the city the best place to visit in the United States.
How is one to explain such a turnaround? Well, art has certainly played its part. There was much fanfare in 2012, when one of Philadelphia’s main museums, The Barnes Foundation, moved into a $150 million building in the city centre, after decades in the nearby suburb of Merion.
Founded in 1922 by the local chemist-cum-collector, Dr. Albert C. Barnes, the foundation boasts a magnificent set of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings. Its change of location to the tree-lined boulevard, Benjamin Franklin Parkway, meant that Philadelphia now had a concentration of first-rate museums to match anywhere in the world.
Dubbed ‘Museum Mile’ by locals, Benjamin Franklin Parkway is home to more than a dozen cultural institutions, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art (the third-largest museum in the US); the Rodin Museum (the largest collection of Rodin’s sculpture outside Paris); and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (which dates back to 1805).
‘This is a city rich in history, at least in American terms,’ says Timothy Rub, Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. ‘The historical and contemporary interweave in all sorts of fascinating ways. In terms of art, there are several museums’ worth of work to inspire the new generations of creative people coming through’.
Philadelphia, of course, is where the United States Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776. As well as its age, though, Rub cites the city’s compact size (population: 1.6 million) as a positive: ‘To me, Philadelphia has more the feel of a large town than it does a city. At least, in the relationship between its institutions, which tends to be one of collaboration rather than competition’.
A notable example of such collaboration was 2017’s Philadelphia Assembled, in which the museum commissioned a series of 60 ‘artistic interventions’ across the city on the subject of what it’s like to live in Philadelphia today.
Rub is currently overseeing a major renovation and expansion of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It’s being designed by architect Frank Gehry and set for completion in late 2020. Thanks pretty much exclusively to local money, the $525 million fundraising target is well on the way to being reached.
Philadelphia’s collaborative spirit
‘I think the Quaker values of coming together and helping others are strong in this city,’ Rub says, ‘dating right back to its founding in the 1680s by William Penn [the English nobleman and Quaker].’
Penn actually lends his name to one of the city’s three big, non-governmental backers of culture projects: the William Penn Foundation, the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, and the John S. & James L. Knight Foundation. The significance of these has only increased in recent years, as financial support from the public sector has dropped.
‘They play an important role, but not only for museums,’ says Danny Orendorff, Executive Director of the art collective, Vox Populi, which has received backing from all three organisations over the years. ‘Philadelphia is a thriving place for young and up-and-coming artists. Rents — for apartments, studios, etc — are only a fraction of what they are in a big city like New York, and that has resulted in a huge number of artists settling here recently’.
A city that encourages artists to take risks
There’s a distance of just 80 miles between the two cities, yet Orendorff feels Philadelphia and New York couldn’t be farther apart in terms of artistic outlook. ‘Work made here tends to be much more experimental and socially engaged. The local element counts, whereas in New York there’s a huge infrastructure of commercial galleries, which generally makes artists more beholden to the mainstream and followers of trends dictated by the market’.
Founded in 1988, Vox Populi boasts a rotating membership of 20 artists who occupy a 4,500-square-foot space in Philadelphia’s Chinatown North area. Its exhibitions tend to be multi-disciplinary affairs, such as the recent offering, Shadow from a World Apart, which involved communal eating. Magicians and dancers have worked alongside film-makers in the past, too, and there was even a photography exhibition accompanied throughout by the scent of flowers.
‘Like Philadelphia as a whole,’ says Orendorff, ‘we don’t tend to do straightforward, visual arts at Vox Populi. Our mission is to offer diverse programming and provide a supportive environment for artists to take risks.’
Artist collectives and co-operatives
In the 19th century, Philadelphia was a manufacturing hub — renowned for its locomotives, ships and textiles, above all. The city thrived. Between 1850 and 1900, its population grew from 121,000 to 1.3 million.
A process of deindustrialisation in the second half of the 20th century, however, hit the city hard. Historic manufacturing neighbourhoods such as Kensington became synonymous with crime, unemployment and, ultimately, abandonment. (According to the historian, Robert Fairbanks II, Kensington was ‘one of the most blighted pockets of spatially concentrated poverty in the United States’.)
Interestingly, however, in the past decade or so, Kensington has been revitalised. ‘In short, artists and creatives have moved in,’ says Harry Philbrick, the founding director of Philadelphia Contemporary. ‘Philadelphia doesn’t have a gallery scene in the way New York does. What it has instead are plenty of artist collectives and artist co-operatives, and increasing numbers of these have been setting up in Kensington.
‘Because of all the people who left the city in its dark days, what we’re seeing now isn’t over-saturation but a filling up of old space again. There’s still lots of property available, which means things are still affordable for artists — unlike a city such as, say, San Francisco, where there's really no room left to move.’
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Philadelphia Contemporary is an organisation dedicated to the visual and performance arts that Philbrick founded three years ago. So far it has staged only pop-up events, but the plan is to have a permanent home from 2022 onwards — with rumours that that home might be in Kensington.
The Mural Arts Program
The roots of Philadelphia’s artistic renaissance can arguably be traced back to the early 1980s, when the Mural Arts Program was launched. This was part of a crackdown by the then mayor, Wilson Goode, against graffiti that was appearing across town.
The idea was to get taggers to redirect their artistic energies into official projects on public walls instead — and around 3,600 murals exist today as a result. (Such is their popularity, the Philadelphia tourist board has even started promoting tours to see them.)
It’s difficult to quantify how much of a transformative effect the arts have on a community. What we can say with certainty, though, is that the cultural sector in Philadelphia generated $4.1 billion in 2017 (according to a study by the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance) — a marked increase on the $3.3 billion in 2012.
‘Whether it’s to live, work or play,’ Philbrick says, ‘this is a wonderful place to be right now. There’s such a sense of possibility.' One suspects that, if the late W.C. Fields were able to see his city today, he’d find a lot more to enjoy — and a lot less to joke about.