Art for All

  • November 21, 2014
  • by Tom Infield

For a quarter of a century, Pew has enlivened Philadelphia’s cultural life, bringing art to ever-wider audiences.

Pew arts fellow Zoe Strauss' "Antoinette Conti" was one of 54 photos on billboards across Philadelphia in an exhibit loosely based on Homer's Odyssey.  

Asphalt Orchestra performed in 2010 at the Philadelphia Bang on a Can Marathon, presented by FringeArts, which brings cutting-edge artists from around the world to the city.

Former members of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company performed during the Philadelphia Museum of Art's 2012 exhibition "Dancing Around the Bride," which explored the American legacy of painter Marcel Duchamp,

Amtrak riders arriving in Philadelphia from the north pass through the remains of the city’s once-mighty industrial corridor, flashing past empty factories and graffiti.  Leaders with the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program had an inspiration: What if this gray vista could be enlivened by unexpected splashes of mural-art color? Might it call needed attention to blight that many passers-by would prefer to ignore?  Might it even provoke the question “What is art?”

The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage embraced the idea and in 2013 provided a supporting grant for the project. Paula Marincola, the center’s executive director, says the murals fulfill one of Pew’s objectives in its commitment to art in Philadelphia: to make art available to the general public. Art, Marincola says, doesn’t flourish only in great civic institutions such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art; it also can be found in venues as ordinary as a railroad right of way.

So, since May 2014, rail passengers glancing out the windows as they zip through North Philadelphia have seen massive eruptions of greens, oranges, and pinks on once-dreary walls, old tires, dumped appliances, dead weed trees, and brush. Gone in seconds, the color bursts designed by German artist Katharina Grosse reappear once, twice, a third time, with entire stretches  along the tracks spray-painted in neon brightness. The impact on the first-time viewer is jarring, almost unnerving.

Even the project name is provocative: “psychylustro.”


Katharina Grosse’s “psychylustro” painted the landscape along the railway into North Philadelphia, becoming one of the most accessible art exhibits in Philadelphia. -Steve Weinik

The title is meant to convey the psyche and illumination  and to intensify how viewers experience the landscape, the organizers say. Each day, those viewers—an estimated 34,000 riders, not just on Amtrak, but also on regional rail lines operated by New Jersey Transit and the Southeast Pennsylvania Transportation Authority—pass by “psychylustro,” making it one of the most widely accessible art exhibits in Philadelphia.

I think it takes people out of their day-to-day reality. For a moment, you’re in a new universe,” says Jane Golden, executive director of the Mural Arts Program. “Art can transport us, and that is what this does.”

From the Opera to the Zoo

The mural project illustrates the sort of innovation and excellence that Pew has sought to foster in Philadelphia’s rich cultural scene. As part of a long-standing effort to enhance the region’s cultural and economic vitality, Pew since 1989 has provided competitive grants and fellowships to the arts in Philadelphia and its four Pennsylvania suburban counties. The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, created in 2005, is now the institution’s focal point for supporting the arts.

“Pew believes in the importance of the arts in their own right and as part of the civic health of a region,” says Michael Dahl, a Pew senior vice president who directs the institution’s Philadelphia program. “At the same time, the arts and arts tourism have been an important economic driver for the city.  In almost every study or poll we conduct, quality of life is one of the main things that attracts millennials to a major urban center.  And one of the huge components of that quality is the city’s arts and cultural offerings.”

In 2014 alone, The Center for Arts & Heritage awarded more than $9 million in the form of grants of up to $300,000, plus as much as $60,000 to defray overhead, given to 35 arts projects. These included a U.S. theater premiere at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, a retrospective of works by a major postmodern choreographer at Bryn Mawr College, and a community-driven exhibit on “the concept of home and homelessness” organized by the Asian Arts Initiative.

In addition, 12 artists were chosen to receive fellowships of $60,000 each, over one or two years, to enable them to pursue their craft. The new fellows are four poets, two visual artists, a filmmaker, a pianist and composer, a harpist, a vocal artist, a choreographer, and a scenic designer. And in a new funding category for 2014, the center also awarded two advancement grants of $500,000 each.  One went to Opera Philadelphia to help it reinvent itself in an era when the audience for classical music is aging and when busy people are less likely to commit themselves to season-long subscriptions. “Opera Philadelphia is at the forefront of trying to address the challenges facing performing arts organizations, particularly traditional performing arts organizations,” says Doug Bohr, of Pew’s Philadelphia program. The opera used the funding to commission sophisticated audience research on ways to reach people in venues beyond the concert hall, generate new support, and sustain its traditional fans.

The other advancement grant went to the Philadelphia Zoo to help it expand an innovative effort called Zoo360. The initiative has drawn national and international attention for getting animals out of confined habitats and letting them safely explore the larger zoo in wire-mesh tubes and trailways 14 feet over the heads of visitors.

Philadelphia Zoo

Animals and visitors see each other in new ways at the Philadelphia Zoo, which with Pew’s support is now “a kind of living museum”

Pew’s philosophy in designating funds for the arts has evolved. At one time, the institution set aside money in seven categories. But because it found that dance might be particularly strong one year and theater the next, Pew leaders felt it made sense to adopt broader categories and more flexible funding.  In the case of Opera Philadelphia and the zoo, Pew was also looking to help organizations that have strong leadership and clear plans for the future.

“We typically don't support business as usual,” Marincola says. “That doesn’t mean everything we support has to be cutting-edge, avant-garde work. It can be a reinterpretation, a rethinking of a Chekhov play, for instance. It can be something that is a recognized masterpiece but interpreted in a new way.”

Hugs and Kisses, Too

The “psychylustro” project, with its emphasis on bringing art to the widest possible audience, is compatible with other outdoor visual-arts projects Pew has backed in recent years. One of these brought together a traditional institution and a street artist from the city’s Mayfair section, Zoe Strauss.

Strauss’ art has focused on the lives of working-class people in the neighborhoods she knows well. In 2001, she mounted a one-day exhibition of her photos on the pillars under an Interstate 95 overpass in South Philadelphia. The exhibition was up for only a few hours, after which she invited residents of the neighborhood to take home any photo they wanted, free of charge.

The show became an annual event that soon attracted the attention of Philadelphia’s art community. In 2005, Strauss received a Pew arts fellowship, which enabled her to devote all her time to her photography. In 2010, the 10th and final year of the underpass exhibitions, The Philadelphia Inquirer hailed the “unusual egalitarianism” of the event: “For free you could walk to an unexpected place and gaze at a couple of hundred photographs. For $5, you could walk away with a signed Strauss. Hugs and kisses from the photographer, no extra charge.”

Although thousands of people had seen Strauss’ work under I-95, the Philadelphia Museum of Art thought it deserved even greater attention and asked The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage for a grant to do its own showing of Strauss’ work. With Pew’s support, a four-month exhibit titled “Zoe Strauss: Ten Years” opened in January 2012 in the Grecian-style building at the head of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

In keeping with the egalitarian theme, the Strauss photographs hung not only in the museum’s galleries but spread down the hallways and onto the streets of the city. The images appeared on 50 large billboards scattered throughout Philadelphia and its suburbs.

Strauss says Pew’s support changed the trajectory of her life and career.  She used her fellowship money to fund a 2005 trip to Louisiana to photograph the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina—work that later was featured in the biennial exhibit of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

“I don't come from a high-art background,” Strauss says. “I wouldn’t have had access to any number of things—ideas, people, connections, places—without the support of Pew. I wouldn’t have a career as a working artist without the support they’ve given me throughout the years. It’s not just the money. It’s also the kind of gravitas—the weight—that the Pew fellowship gave to me.”

Since 1992, Pew has funded 299 fellows in Philadelphia, many of whom have gone on to national and even international recognition. Jennifer Higdon, a 1999 fellow, won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for music for her Violin Concerto. She won a 2010 Grammy Award for a different work, Percussion Concerto, and she received the Pennsylvania Governor’s Award for the Arts in September 2014.

Higdon says the Pew fellowship provided her with a lengthy period in which she didn’t need to struggle to make a living and enabled her to devote all of her energy to enlarging her understanding of long-form orchestral music. “It made all the difference in the world to me,”

It’s Philly, Not New York

Fellows are not selected by Pew’s staff or even the local art community. Rather, they are chosen by outside panels of experts from across the nation.

Jock Reynolds, director of the Yale University Art Gallery and a former panelist, says Pew’s impact in Philadelphia has been magnified by the steadfastness of its support for the arts over the long haul. Some funders have short attention spans, Reynolds says, and will launch an initiative but then lose interest and move on to something else. “Pew has stayed with its commitment,” he says.

He believes Pew has significantly boosted Philadelphia’s art community. “I think Philadelphia—which has a great university and art-school culture and some of the greatest museum collections in the country—has become a very active art community,” he says. “We have students from Yale now regularly moving to Philadelphia rather than to New York.”

The center’s Marincola, a lifelong Philadelphian, attests to the change. Artists have long moved to Philadelphia because apartments and studio space are cheaper than in New York. But now, she says, the art scene has become a magnet.

“My belief has always been that Philadelphia shouldn't feel second to any city in terms of arts and culture and that great work can happen anywhere,” Marincola says.

Finding Excellence

At every step, The Center for Arts & Heritage has sought to expand the audience for all types of art.  “You need to have both the large and the small; you need to have both the traditional and the more avant-garde,” Pew’s Michael Dahl says. “You need to reach out to the changing demographics of the city. You need to assure that, as the city changes, the arts scene changes as well. You don’t invest all of your eggs in one basket. Rather, you try to pursue excellence wherever you find it.”

One of the places where Pew looked was WXPN, the radio station at the University of Pennsylvania, which sought funding for a yearlong initiative to bring Louisiana zydeco music to Philadelphia. Pew previously helped the station produce a live concert series by Mississippi blues artists.  

Why zydeco? Why Mississippi blues? Why not just stick with Philadelphia music?  Because “this is going to broaden our diversity of performers and music,” says station manager Roger LaMay. “We regularly present music from our area. So we try to use these grants to do something we wouldn't otherwise be able to do.”

Pew is also helping to bring together musical performers from different global cultures. Thanks to a 2014 grant, an Arab cultural organization in Philadelphia called Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture has commissioned two works of music by Arab-American composers to be jointly performed by Al-Bustan's Takht Ensemble and a Western choir, the Crossing, which will sing in Arabic.

The project “creates a framework for non-Arabs to connect to Arabic music,” says Hazami Sayed, founder and director of Al-Bustan, “and it also gives those accustomed to listening to Arab music something different.”

“Something different” might also describe The Center for Arts & Heritage’s support for the Philadelphia Zoo, perhaps an unexpected venue for an arts funder. But Dahl points to the zoo’s role in the city’s heritage—chartered in 1859, it was the country’s first zoo—and calls it “a nontraditional art form, as a kind of living museum.”

With 42 acres, the Philadelphia Zoo is smaller than many large-city zoos.  The Pew advancement grant will enable it to make maximum use of space by dramatically expanding the system of overhead passageways for animals. Officials from other zoos have traveled to learn what Philadelphia is doing, and city zoo leaders have gone to China to share their innovation.

So far, the zoo has opened three sets of animal trails: one for treetop animals such as monkeys and lemurs, one for large primates such as orangutans, and one for big cats. “It’s almost like you're sharing a space with them in nature,” says Angie Micciolo, a visitor from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, looking at the 600-pound tigers strolling 14 feet above her on a September day.

Andrew Baker, the zoo’s chief operating officer, says Pew’s support will enable the Zoo360 initiative to include a greater variety of animals, starting with zebras, giraffes, and a rhino. The eventual goal is to give most of the large animals in the zoo wider room to roam. This should enhance the zoo-going experience for human visitors, but “the biggest impact is going to be on the quality of life for the animals,” Baker says.

Impact—that's what The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage is always aiming for.

Reynolds, the Yale museum director, says Pew’s long-lasting commitment to the arts is especially vital at a time when government and corporate support has waned.

“The fact that Pew resources have been there continuously has helped to make what is produced in the city stronger and stronger,” he says. “Philadelphia is a very healthy arts community, and Pew has had a lot to do with that.”

Tom Infield, a former reporter and editor for The Philadelphia Inquirer, last wrote for Trust about Pew’s report on the city’s middle class.