As a frequent traveller, I am often asked about my favourite place. Flippantly perhaps, I say the Business Class section of a long-haul flight going anywhere. Sitting back with a beverage on the AMERICAN AIRLINES flight from Glasgow to Philadelphia is no exception. But I digress.
Once the largest city in “British North America”, Philadelphia was founded in 1682 by the English Quaker William Penn, who gave it the Greek name for ‘city of brotherly love’ to reflect his views on religious tolerance. Within a century independence was declared in the city in 1776 and it served as the new nation’s capital while Washington DC was being built.
Unlike most US cities, Philadelphia has retained many of its original 17th and 18th century buildings, and in the Old City district some of the narrow, cobbled streets lined with red brick houses do a fair impersonation of Edwardian England. One of Philadelphia’s most imposing buildings, City Hall, reflects Philly’s extraordinary love for public art. No fewer than 250 sculptures adorn it, none of military figures (respecting William Penn’s pacifism) and all created by Scottish-born Alexander Milne Calder, whose grandson, also named Alexander and known as Sandy, became one of America’s most important 20th century sculptors, particularly famed for his mobiles. City Hall is topped off by a 37-foot high statue of Penn, the tallest on any building in the world.
Stretching out from City Hall (and past the magnificent Swann Memorial Fountain, designed by Alexander Stirling Calder, father of Sandy) the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, named after the American polymath and one of the nation’s Founding Fathers, is a broad, Paris-inspired boulevard which leads past two of the city’s main art museums and culminates at its grandest.
The first major addition to the Parkway in over 60 years, the BARNES FOUNDATION debuted in its new home in 2012 after decades of controversy. The Barnes was conceived as “a gallery in a garden and a garden in a gallery”. The exterior is clad in fossilised limestone crowned by a luminous light box and set in an inviting public garden with an arboretum of cedars and Japanese maples. Approaching the entrance, visitors pass a 40-foot abstract sculpture by the late Ellsworth Kelly, which overlooks a reflecting pool.
The contemplative atmosphere continues inside, where the rooms replicate the dimensions and shapes of the collection’s original home, a mansion in the suburbs. Each artwork is in exactly the same place as before and a helpful brochure in each room identifies every piece on the walls.
The Barnes is home to one of the world’s finest collections of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Early Modern paintings. It boasts a number of world superlatives, including the largest single group of Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s works (181), the largest single group of Paul Cézanne paintings (69) and the largest collection of Modigliani paintings (12, a number equalled only by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC). Throw in 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos and works by (deep breath) Degas, Van Gogh, Seurat, Rousseau, Soutine, Monet, Manet, El Greco, Rubens, Titian and Veronese, among many others, and you have a collection numbering over 3,000 pieces fit to rival any art museum in the world.
The paintings are displayed alongside African sculpture, masks and tools, ceramics (including by Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s son, Jean, the French film-maker), Native American fine crafts, medieval manuscripts and sculptures, ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman art and American and European decorative arts.
A stroll further up Benjamin Franklin Parkway brings the visitor to the RODIN MUSEUM, which with its elegant, light-filled, Beaux Arts-style building and formal French garden might have been transplanted from Paris.
Opened in 1929, the museum houses the largest Rodin collection outside Paris, with nearly 150 bronzes, marbles and plasters representing every career phase of the artist widely regarded as the father of modern sculpture.
Visitors are first greeted by ‘The Thinker’, while at the side of the building the six figures of ‘The Burghers of Calais’ appear to be walking to their seemingly imminent martyrdom. The towering bronze doors at the entrance are ‘The Gates of Hell’, originally commissioned for a decorative arts museum in Paris which was never realised. Left in plaster at Rodin’s death, the first two bronze casts were made for Jules Mastbaum, the founder of the Rodin Museum. The second was given to the Musée Rodin in Paris.
The current installation explores the artist’s intimate depictions of romantic love. Couples embracing, kissing, tumbling and wrestling fascinated Rodin. His most famous pair of lovers, ‘The Kiss’, is surrounded by works representing a variety of fleeting, erotic moments.
For a long time Philadelphia’s unrivalled premier art museum – it is now getting a run for its money from the Barnes Foundation – the monumental, Greek-style PHILADELPHIA MUSEUM OF ART stands proudly at the top of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, its three adjoining ‘temples’ with fluted columns supporting a blue-tiled roof topped by bronze griffins. (Film fans may recognise it as the finishing point of Sylvester “Rocky” Stallone’s training regime.)
One of the country’s largest art museums, the PMA has 200 galleries showing nearly 250,000 works spanning 2,000 years and every continent and including painting, sculpture, decorative arts and architectural settings. These include an Indian Hindu temple, a Japanese Buddhist temple and entire American Period rooms furnished from historic houses.
The modern and contemporary collections include works by the likes of Picasso, O’Keeffe, Matisse, Duchamp (the world’s largest collection), de Kooning and Pollock, while in the 19th century European and Impressionist galleries you will find Brancusi, Degas, Renoir, Manet, Van Gogh and a host of others. Other galleries are devoted to American Art, Prints, Asian Art and Drawing and Photographs. Selections from the permanent collection are accompanied by an ongoing series of special exhibitions.
Don’t forget to walk around the one-acre Anne d’Harnoncourt Sculpture Garden or visit the nearby PERELMAN BUILDING, the Art Deco annex with its own exhibition programme and the first phase of a master plan to expand and modernise the Museum.
The only institution in the US devoted to creating work in new materials and media, the FABRIC WORKSHOP & MUSEUM presents a series of exhibitions by invited artists from a variety of disciplines, including sculpture, installation, video, painting, ceramics and architecture. They also run a major artist in residence programme which enables artists at all stages of their career to experiment with new materials in the well-equipped studios and workshops. These are accessible to the public to see artwork from conception to completion. The 5,000-piece permanent collection includes works by Louise Bourgeois and Anish Kapoor.
Founded in 1805, the PENNSYLVANIA ACADEMY OF THE FINE ARTS was the first art museum and school in the US. Many prominent American artists trained there, including Mary Cassatt, Maxfield Parrish, Thomas Eakins, the film-maker David Lynch and Alexander Calder. The Academy occupies two buildings. Its former Victorian Gothic home is an architectural jewel admired for its floral motifs, stained glass, exposed iron beams, marble and coloured sculptural features (polychromy). It is now a museum housing an internationally known collection of 19th and 20th century American paintings, sculptures and works on paper. Next door is the modern school.
Philadelphia is home to the the country’s largest public arts programme. Dubbed “the mural capital of the world” or “the world’s largest outdoor art gallery,” its vacant lots, many used as temporary parking areas, are often overlooked by huge murals covering the whole side of a neighbouring building.
Philadelphia murals are community projects. When a space becomes available, permission to paint on it must be obtained from the wall owner, who then also becomes the owner of the mural. (This can lead to uncertainty when a building changes hands.) The local neighbourhood then decides what kind of art they would like to see, whereupon artists are then invited to submit ideas, with the community having final approval of the design.
Locals help to create the mural, woking under the artist’s direction using a kind of ‘colour by numbers’ system. The murals are 35 per cent City-funded (it’s an expensive process, what with scaffolding, cherry-pickers and the materials themselves) and no political messages are permitted.
Both established and emerging practising artists are commissioned, while their helpers can be low income persons, the unemployed or ex-offenders keen to learn basic work skills to make themselves more employable.
Over the years some 4,000 murals have been created, of which around 3,200 still survive. The average life of a mural is 10-15 years, although more recent ones last longer due to newer paints which better withstand the elements and a special solvent which both cleans and refreshes the colours. Reassuringly, there is virtually no graffiti or other defacement. The little which does occur is reported immediately and removed.
There are regular mural tours of various neighbourhoods by public trolley (tram), train. Segway or on foot. Guides share in-depth stories about the people and communities which inspired and shaped each project and describe the mural-making process. MURAL MILE CENTER CITY WALKING TOUR is a particular favourite with visitors. Self-guided tours are made easier with the help of plaques attached to the wall next to each mural with a telephone number visitors can call and listen to its story.
Along with its murals, Philadelphia has possibly the largest collection of indoor and outdoor public artworks in the US. In 1959 Philadelphia pioneered the Percent for Art programme, which requires the inclusion of site-specific public art in new construction or major redevelopment projects. This ground-breaking model has resulted in over 600 public artworks and has been replicated in cities across the country.
A few highlights include: Robert Indiana’s ‘Love’ sculpture, an icon of American pop culture, at JFK Plaza; Claes Oldenburg’s huge ‘Clothespin’ (or is it lovers embracing?) opposite City Hall; Jordan Griska’s ‘Grumman Greenhouse’, a decommissioned Grumman S2F Tracker airplane, which seems to have crashed into the ground next to the PENNSYLVANIA ACADEMY OF THE FINE ARTS (and now houses plants); and, also next to the Academy, Claes Oldenburg’s 51-foot high ‘Paint Torch’, a giant paintbrush with paint on the tip and a huge ‘blob’ below, both of which light up at night in changing colours.
Spanning half a block on Philadelphia’s hip South Street, the MAGIC GARDENS is an immersive, labyrinthine outdoor art installation using non-traditional materials such as folk art statues, found objects, bicycle wheels, colourful glass bottles, hand-made tiles and thousands of mirror fragments. The life’s work of Philadelphia-born mosaic mural artist Isaiah Zagar, the eye-popping permanent display is accompanied by a series of exhibitions by other artists. Zagar’s work is also held in the permanent collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
HOW TO GET THERE
AMERICAN AIRLINES flies daily between Glasgow and Philadelphia throughout the peak summer season. Prices start from £797 return p.p. in Economy and £ 1,406 return p.p. in Business Class.
WHERE TO STAY
Located on the lively Avenue of the Arts, the city’s main performing arts thoroughfare, the CAMBRIA HOTEL PHILADELPHIA DOWNTOWN CENTER reflects its surroundings with jazz-influenced motifs throughout.