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Philadelphia: Where The Avenues Are Art

From its public murals and sculptures to its museums decked in Cézannes and Renoirs, Philadelphia’s rich art legacy embraces the modern age with bona fide verve.

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At The Barnes Foundation, take advantage of what once was the world’s largest private art collection. Photo by: Kyle Huff for PHLCVB

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Interactive Immersion

Philadelphia attracts a variety of exhibits that are all about exciting engagement. Notably, the World Premiere of “Harry Potter: The Exhibition” (through September 2022) at The Franklin Institute, a vast collection that explores the artistry involved in the franchise movie series, offers an unparalleled look at the sets, film props, and costume design that brought the magic of novels to the big screen. After visitors are welcomed into the world of wizardry by choosing their house and receiving a wand, they traverse thousands of square feet revealing features such as Hogwarts Castle and Hagrid’s Hut to the Ministry of Magic and Gringotts. In February 2023, a new exhibit celebrating 100 years of Disney comes to The Franklin Institute, featuring artefacts as well as an immersive environment of sight and sound spanning 15,000 square feet that will highlight stories and characters from The Walt Disney Company’s last century, courtesy of The Walt Disney Archives.

Also incredibly interactive is “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience,” running through the summer of 2022 at The Tower Theatre. Touted as a “20,000 square foot light and sound spectacular,” 360 degree, two-story projections of the artist’s iconic works unfold as digitally recreated avatars; the mastery of immersive storytelling includes a ‘Virtual Reality interactive,’ comprising ten minutes of “A day in the life of the artist,” where viewers virtually walk with the legend and witness the inspiration behind eight of his masterpieces, including “Starry Night Over The Rhone River.” However, cultural icons don’t have a monopoly on the immersive, multi-media themes in Philadelphia; the mysteries of the deep sea are the focus of Drexel University’s Academy of Natural SciencesExtreme Deep: Mission to the Abyss” (from April 2nd through July 24th, 2022). Ticket holders get to know recently discovered oceanic creatures that live in total darkness and interact with the technology behind travelling to chasmic seabeds: be it guiding a remotely operated apparatus over a model of the Titanic’s deck or using the robotic arm of a submersible. Wrap up the hands-on experiences by exploring the interactive, immersive, and incredibly Insta-worthy art installations–with a craft cocktail in hand– at the futuristic art gallery, Wonderspaces, located in the Fashion District Philadelphia.

Philadelphia: Where The Avenues Are Art

Catch the World Premiere of “Harry Potter: The Exhibition” at The Franklin Institute through September 2022. Photo Courtesy: Harry Potter™ The Exhibition

 

Curated Classics

As captivating as the many visiting exhibits are, the permanent exhibits and programming of the city are what make Philadelphia an unparalleled global arts destination. Just by City Hall, from the sparkling plumes of Logan Circle’s deco Swann Memorial Fountain–where children frolic and splash around during the summertime–to the behemoth Greek Revival bones of the Philadelphia Museum of Art–where enthusiastic adults run up the Rocky Steps–lies a mile-long stretch of magnificent museums. The eye-catching design of this tranche of the cityscape, complete with collonades of oaks that shade museum-goers, conjures up a similar majesty of its inspiration, the Champs-Élysées. Designed by French architects Paul Philippe Cret and Jacques Gréber, over a hundred years ago, its cachet goes beyond honouring Philadelphia’s longtime French connection, the thoroughfare’s premier function is reflected by its convenient cluster of cultural institutions; the art-filled artery, bestrewn with iconic statues and sculptures (including the much-Instagrammed Rocky Statue) adjoins an array of parks, The Parkway Central Library –outfitted with a stellar rare book department–and the brownstone Cathedral Basilica, in addition to its multitude of museums.

At The Barnes Foundation, take advantage of what once was the world’s largest private art collection. Renowned for its exceptional collection of modern European paintings—including magnificent works by Modigliani and Matisse—you’ll find Dr. Albert Barnes’ tradition of exhibiting his artworks as ‘ensembles’ or ‘wall installations.’ This style is underscored by displaying esoteric historical objects from around the world with the paintings; a significant amount of these objects include Navajo pottery, textiles, and jewellery that the founder collected in New Mexico.

The structure is a borderline pilgrimage for many art-lovers as its impressive collections are not permitted to travel, not to mention 2022’s exemplary special exhibits that celebrate the 100th anniversary of the institution’s establishment. This year’s Barnes on The Block, a free summer block party promoting the arts, runs concurrently with the June 19th opening of “Isaac Julien: Statues Never Die,” as well as Juneteenth (short for June nineteenth, the holiday commemorates the anniversary of the ending of slavery in the United States on June 19, 1865). The eminent British filmmaker will run his enveloping video installation until September 4th, which surveys the decades-long rapport between Founder Dr. Albert C. Barnes and Alain Locke, a cultural icon, scholar, and educator often referred to as the ‘Dean’ or ‘Father’ of the “Harlem Renaissance.” The already impressive list of the trademark elongated portraiture and modern paintings of Amedeo Modigliani that live at The Barnes gets even longer with loaned works from a network of impressive collections to create “Modigliani Up Close” (October 16th through January 29th, 2023): a deep dive into the methods and materials that transformed Amedeo into Modigliani.

Also along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway is the Rodin Museum, featuring, possibly, the finest collection of sculptor Auguste Rodin’s work outside of Paris. Even before you step inside, some of his most impressive work sets the tone for what awaits within the museum, including “The Thinker,” pondering life’s persistent questions upon the pavement steps; and, at the entrance, “The Gates of Hell” intricately writhes across the bronze cast doorway. Step in to explore the gripping “Rodin’s Hands” (through December 2023) exhibit, which examines how he uses these body parts as vehicles of intense sentiment and storytelling through sculpture.

Farther down the boulevard lies the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where general admission tickets offer two-day access to both the PMA and the Rodin Museum, best reserved in advance. The work of Sean Scully, deemed one of the leading abstract artists of our time, will be on display at the PMA. Opening April 11, “Sean Scully: The Shape of Ideas” will zero in on the artist’s unique contributions to contemporary art through his signature stripes and bold experimentation with scale and composition. The exhibition has been expanded to include additional paintings throughout several galleries, totalling more than 100 of Scully’s works, dating from the early 1970s to the present. “Sean Scully: The Shape of Ideas” will be on view through July 31, 2022.

 

Philadelphia: Where The Avenues Are Art

Head to the Instagram-worthy Rocky Statue for an art-filled afternoon. Photo Courtesy: Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau

 

In its stupendous entirety the museum holds 6,00,000 plus square feet decked out with 200 galleries, drawing from an archive of over 2,00,000 works of art spanning 2,000 years—including a recent 90,000 square foot redesign per Frank Gehry’s plans. See Rabindranath Tagores and Diego Riveras or an entire assembled, 16th- century Madurai mandapam (festival hall) and ceremonial Japanese tea house shifted from early 20th-century Tokyo.

Right near the eastern end of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) and its 53-foot high paintbrush sculpture protrude from the pavement. As America’s oldest art school, the academy has been exhibiting female artists since their first annual exhibition in 1811. The “Women in Motion” exhibit (through July 24, 2022), a survey of 50 female artists affiliated with PAFA from 1805 to the end of World War II, aptly brings attention to esteemed professional artists, many of whose work was likely sidelined over the years due to their race or gender.

 

Local Lens

Here, introspection is integral to the art scene. A glowing local gem is the NEON Museum of Philadelphia, in Kensington, which highlights the historic neon signage of Philadelphia, and the United States at large, positioning it as a pillar of community heritage. Dedicated preservation takes over the fluorescent tubes, which twist into the names of quintessential Philadelphian businesses, from the 1955 Pat’s Steaks sign to the crimson standard of McGillin’s Olde Ale House. Some of the most fascinating pieces on display are 1950s-and-‘60s-era, animated neon, from a leg-twisting Elvis to a comical toupee fitting. Demonstrations and classes can also be arranged, and are updated on their calendar.

Similarly, at The Mütter Museum—a remarkable institution long dedicated to studying the human body and what ails it—the confluence of science and art permeates the world of medicine within the erstwhile bones of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, founded in 1787. The museum provides an extraordinary opportunity to peruse the context of landmark scientific discoveries that provided cutting-edge insight into the human body, as well as better understand the obscure maladies the doctors affiliated with this institution determinedly tackled with the limited resources of their medical milieu. Anatomical models, human specimens, and medical objects make up the majority of the permanent collection, most from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century, though the range of the displays dates back to the seventh century BCE.

At the Museum of the American Revolution, “Liberty: Don Troiani’s Paintings of the Revolutionary War” bridges history and art–two telamons integral to Philadelphia’s rich cultural heritage–through the technical mastery of Troiani’s brush and his dedicated research of the United States of America’s battle for independence. In this premier major exhibition of Troiani’s original artwork, gallery-goers are rewarded by dramatic portrayals of the struggles and bravery that marked the era with striking verisimilitude.

 

Streetside Splendour

In Philadelphia, you never have to step inside an institution to see art. Since the 1980s the city has used public art as an avenue for community outreach and expression. The result? Over 4,000 murals swirl across the sides of the cityscape, offering a melange of subject matter, spectacular in scope and steeped in style. It’s an ever-changing exhibit, with new additions every year, each interacting with the city it’s painted on and the people it was painted for, celebrating the city’s icons like “Dr. J.”; asking questions about the social justice system in “Still Life”; standing in solidarity with migrant communities and Philadelphia’s status as a sanctuary city in “Families Belong Together”; or reminding passersby of the delicate balance of our ecosystems through “Water Gives Life.” Mural Arts Philadelphia hosts private, virtual, and self-guided tours.

Equally impressive is the city’s network of hundreds of massive mosaics created by artist Isaiah Zagar since the 1960s. His lifelong tribute to the city, a masterful living mosaics made from a mix of upcycled materials turned art supplies—including cracked ceramics, mirror fragments, broken bottles, handmade tiles, misshapen bicycle wheels, and international folk art—spangles brightest at his South Philly workshop. A majority of his work can be enjoyed in the South Philadelphia neighbourhood including the homage to Mike Matteo: Master Plumber found on Bainbridge Street a collection of works on South Schell Street,  and The Men Can Pledge,’ found on  West Berks Street.  The most well-known collection is found in —Zagar’s magnum opus transformed a few vacant lots into a castle-like cocoon of unrestrained creative expression (on a site that was then owned by some none too happy businessmen, and later preserved through a massive community outreach rally). Here, guests can book private morning tours, or experience the immersive art environment on their own.

 

Philadelphia: Where The Avenues Are Art

A confluence of science and art permeates the world of medicine at the Mutter Museum. Photo by: Kyle Huff for PHLCVB

 

Muses and Music

Here, the performing arts herald the city’s rich heritage of opera, orchestra, and ballet with productions that strive to engage an abundance of audiences. The Walnut Street Theatre (est. 1809), a National Historic Landmark and America’s oldest theatre, now operates as the State Theatre of Pennsylvania: still putting on acclaimed productions after 200 years of entertaining the world, and still using the original grid, rope, pulley and sandbag system, the mark of a rare surviving ‘hemp house’ theatre. The Academy of Music (est. 1857) is similarly distinguished by its tenure as the oldest opera house in America, a lively display of how a history of music is deeply rooted in Philadelphia’s performing arts culture; Opera Philadelphia now takes its stage, originally modelled after Milan’s famed La Scala, offering programming as riveting as Verdi’s Il Trovatore that first graced the opening its curtains. The Pennsylvania Ballet, recognized as one of America’s leading ballet companies, performs here too.

The Avenue of The Arts, where The Academy of Music lives, is one of Philadelphia’s premier cultural districts, marking South Broad Street as a corridor that shows off the sheer scope of performances to which the city plays host. There lies the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, a vast, glass-domed structure featuring the 2,500-seat Verizon Hall, designed to the tastes of The Philadelphia Orchestra, as well as the 650-seat Perelman Theater, hosting a wide array of smaller performances. The Kimmel Cultural Campus, which underscores the trove of theatre venues Philadelphia has to offer through its programming, includes the historic Forrest Theatre (est. 1927), a quintessential and refined “roadhouse” at Market and 21st Streets, the Merriam Theatre (est. 1918), on the Avenue of the Arts, honours its longtime Broadway touring tradition with visiting acts filling the 1,842-seat space, and The Academy of Music.

The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts hosts eight resident companies, featuring the likes of the Philly POPs (a celebrated popular music ensemble), PHILADANCO! (an innovative professional dance company), The Chamber Orchestra of  Philadelphia (a world-class orchestra playing intimate chamber music), and American Theater Arts for Youth (cultivating a new generation of passionate performers); alongside The Philadelphia Orchestra, well-known for its famous “Philadelphia Sound,” which brought the symphony to new and sustained heights in the 20th century under the leadership of Leopold Stokowski, an all-time legend of a conductor.

 

Philadelphia: Where The Avenues Are Art

The Met’s fine acoustics are attributed to the original design of Oscar Hammerstein. Photo Courtesy: Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau

 

Yet come summertime, the orchestra’s residency moves to The Mann Center, serenading panoramic views of the Philadelphia skyline in the heart of the Fairmount Park—balmy breezes gliding through the TD Pavilion’s 13,000 seat open-air, covered setting. Don’t feel like you have to tote Galilean theatre binoculars to join in on the fun; on July 23rd, The Philadelphia Orchestra performs John Williams’ incredible score to “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” as the whole film plays live on a 40-foot screen, high-definition screen!

And the live music doesn’t stop there, Met Philadelphia, an early 20th century, 4,000-seat theatre–whose fine acoustics are attributed to the original design of opera impresario, Oscar Hammerstein, who built the theatre in 1908–that’s been extensively renovated, has mega-performers such as Sting, Ringo Starr, Alicia Keys, and Philadelphia’s own Boyz II Men on its 2022 calendar. The Filmore Philadelphia, a staggering 25,000-square-foot industrial-style venue in a former metal factory in Fishtown, sees touring indie Aussie bands like The Chats and the legendary Scottish rock band Franz Ferdinand stir up scintillating sounds in the expansive main hall. It also holds the Foundry club—‘a club within a club’—a 450-seater venue dedicated to promoting up-and-comer, local artists.  Such trendy prestige is only equalled by Franklin Music Hall, a standing-room-only venue that has endeared itself to music-lovers for decades with its impressive roster of live acts, covering an eclectic span of tastes. Although smaller in size, Callowhill Street’s Underground Arts and South Street’s TLA (The Living Theater of Arts) both draw in exceptional local and global talent.

The preeminence of art in Philadelphia is that the entire city is connected by an eclectic and well-woven web of institutions and creators, curators and craftsmen. They form a fine filigree, interlinking a host of handsome theatres, pillared pantheons, and acoustically artful auditoriums, alongside side streets whose brickwork soars upwards in a gargantuan gossamer of epic graffiti and multistory murals–an outspread of unique latticework continuously laid by local legends since the outset of Philadelphia’s foundation. They all point to one truth, Philadelphia is a city that adores its art-lovers–and the feelings are clearly more than mutual.

 

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  • Julian Manning can usually be found eating a crisp ghee roast with extra podi. The rare times his hands aren’t busy with food, they are wrapped around a mystery novel or the handlebars of a motorcycle. He is Senior Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.

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