Tag Archives: Philadelphia

Broad Strokes

A few years after college, in multiples of 40, I took every fifth grader in the five boroughs to Philadelphia to see Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, men sleeping on grates, Betsy Ross’s House, the Bourse (for lunch), the Mint (the U.S. Mint, not the Franklin Mint, which no longer seems to exist in three-dimensional space), Franklin Court,* and the Franklin Institute.

There was only One Child Left Behind out of thousands. It was the chaperones’ fault. Anyway, he was still there when we went back for him.

Over the three decades since, I’ve dropped in regularly. The Third (now Sixth) City hasn’t become second-nature to me the way that New York, D.C., and Baltimore have, but you might say I feel a brotherly love.

One of my sisters lived there and a cousin still does. That’s enough of a familial connection for me to detest the “With Love, Philadelphia XOXO” advertising (“Con Cariño” in the Spanish version) that for several years has been disfiguring billboards, magazines, and social media.

Visit Philadelphia—also the source of the Uwishunu blog and the slogan “Get Your History Straight and Your Nightlife Gay”—is very proud of the so-called love letter campaign, but it seems particularly unsuited to a town with…maybe not style, but taste. A noisy marriage of insincerity with ugliness, it reflects, I would guess, the tourism leadership’s impatience with the undemonstrative civility of the place (under which lurks, just to make things interesting, a certain amount of Mummerania, Balboa-tude, and other native traits).

A product of the to-thine-own-self-be-true school of tourism (my actual school of tourism was the New School for Social Research, as it was then known), I’m not big on reconstructive surgery. Whether you are Queens or Queensland, the less you affect to attract visitors and import to impress them, the better off you are in the long run, economically, socially, and—yes—competitively.

Those of you hanging on to your zip line for dear life, raise one hand (after checking that your harness is secure).

When I considered writing about Broad Street, Philadelphia’s Avenue of the Arts, as a case history of an operation that was successful though the patient died, I hesitated. Do I know Philadelphia well enough to make this call? (Maybe not.) And by doing so would I be harming a city I care about? (Not much of a worry given that my readership is a small subset of my Facebook friends.)

Then, Googling around, I found something called Liberty City Press, “an independent weekly newspaper distributed by the Philadelphia Multi-Cultural News Network whose members include Philadelphia Sunday Sun, The Philadelphia Gay News, Al Dia, The Jewish Exponent, The Metro Chinese Weekly and The Metro Viet News.”

Here’s an excerpt from a July 15 editorial in Liberty City Press, “Wherefore Art Now Part 1,” with the subhead “Black clouds along the Avenue of the Arts”:

The avenue, which runs from Broad to Lombard, hosts the Prince Music Theater, Kimmel Center, Merriam Theatre, Wilma Theater and Suzanne Roberts Theatre. And there can be little doubt that [former mayor and later governor Ed] Rendell’s vision transformed South Broad Street, perhaps not into the Great White Way of Philly, but into a catalyst for residential development in center city. The question now is whether the Avenue of the Arts is sustainable. Recent signs of trouble among the art institutions that anchor it make this question one city leaders need to address sooner rather than later.

We are not talking about the 900-pound gorillas on the avenue — the Kimmel Center and its tenant, the Philadelphia Orchestra. They are to the Philadelphia art scene what the school district has become to our education scene: unsustainable economic models perennially in need of greater public largesse. They have become too big too [sic] fail.

No, we are talking about the small theaters that transformed South Broad from the Academy of Music to, well, an Avenue of the Arts: one at the northern end, the Prince Music Theater, the other at the southern tip, the Suzanne Roberts Theatre.

(Part 2, published July 22, has the subhead “History Museums Sucking Wind on Independence Mall.” You think I’m provocative?)

To put the situation in the terms of last week’s post, “Edited Bunker in New Haven,” since 1993, when the nonprofit Avenue of the Arts, Inc., was created, several of Philadelphia’s cultural attractions have been extracted from their former neural pathways and transplanted to one—South Broad Street—that, despite a major upgrade, seems too weak at present to support them in their enlarged state.

Remember symbiosis? The plan, I’m sure, was (a) for the cultural organizations to benefit the Avenue by occupying existing buildings or building new ones on designated sites to which their current audiences would now be drawn, (b) for the Avenue to benefit the cultural organizations by raising their profiles and putting each near others with similar current and target audiences, and (c) for all to benefit from the economic activity generated as their audiences expand and “Live. Learn. Work. Shop. Play. Explore.”

It’s one thing, and by no means a sure thing, for a cultural organization to follow its dream (sometimes it’s the dream of a deep-pocketed board member). Examples of death by overreach are easy to point to in my own Baltimore backyard: the City Life Museums (d. 1997), Opera Vivente (d. 2011), the Contemporary Museum (d. 2012, reb. 2013).

(It usually takes much more than overreach to bring down a major institution such as, recently, New York City Opera, San Jose Rep, and the Corcoran.)

But what if an institution is the victim not of its own ambition, but of the ambition of a city’s political, corporate, and philanthropic leaders? In Baltimore, two nonprofit theater companies have recently relocated and expanded their operations to serve as cultural components of economic development plans.

Everyman Theatre went from 170 seats in an Off-Broadway-type space in the Station North Arts and Entertainment District on North Charles Street (just north of Mount Vernon—see “Table at the Stable,” two posts ago) to 250 seats in a long-vacant 1910 vaudeville-burlesque-movie theatre and sometime parking garage in the Bromo Tower Arts and Entertainment District west of downtown. (Nice how they didn’t have to replace the E on the façade, which originally stood for Empire. And smart to increase the seating by half instead of tenfold.)

On September 20, the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, formerly based a dozen miles from Baltimore in Ellicott City, will hold a grand opening gala in its new downtown home, the 1885 Mercantile Safe Deposit and Trust Company, most recently a nightclub. (From a Baltimore Sun article on the Velvet Rope club: In February of last year [2010], some 300 people tried to storm inside after a promoter oversold a Yo Gotti concert, attracting some 50 police officers and a helicopter to control the scene.)

I wish them both the best of luck, but if they do not survive, perhaps they should be considered collateral damage of Baltimore’s—and Maryland’s, in the case of Everyman—destination-building.

Definition review: A destination is place with a name connected to images in the minds of prospective visitors, accessible 24-7, and more than the sum of the attractions—gated experiences—it contains.

Philadelphia is a destination, and within it are others: Rittenhouse Square, Society Hill, South Street, Old City, Northern Liberties (Not For Tourists guide: Northern Liberties might be getting too hip for its own good–and it doesn’t help when people call it “NoLibs.” The post-hip yuppie types are moving in and rents are going up up up. Don’t let that scare you, though–it’s still a great ‘hood.)

But is an avenue of cultural bunkers, University of the Arts buildings, and hotels a destination? Don’t get me wrong. Downtown Philly is looking great these days, much better than most of downtown Baltimore, but I’d rather hang out on Chestnut Street than South Broad.

Most of us wouldn’t butt-surf from one performance to another even right next door on the same day (Tyler Perry at the Merriam Theater, 250 S. Broad, at 3 p.m. on Saturday, October 4, then Brandi Carlile in the Perelman Theater at the Kimmel Center, 300 S. Broad, at 8). And there aren’t so many simultaneous performances on the Avenue of the Arts that you can decide what to go to when you get there.

(Will TKTS fold up when we’ve all got an Apple Watch and Google Glass? Will physical space become optional, as it is for the Franklin Mint?)

One of Philadelphia’s art museums, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, is on the Avenue of the Arts, but on North Broad, on the other side of City Hall. Rather than go there, let’s plan to head west next week on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway—a bunker line-up every bit the equal of South Broad—for a date with a goddess.

* See post No. 9, “America: It’s Like Britain, Only With Buttons.”

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Busted! Ben’s Busted Bust on a Bus

We take you now to Elkton, Maryland. The date: September 21, 2012. A passenger on a bus from Mobile, Alabama, is apprehended by agents of the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. She is carrying a stolen bust of Benjamin Franklin, a plaster masterpiece by Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828).

Ironically, the town of Elkton (pop. 15,443) is located on the Colonial Highway of America.

Told not to touch the valuable bust the previous month while cleaning the residence of attorney George A. D’Angelo in Bryn Mawr (home of the nation’s most difficult to spell women’s college), the perpetratress returned a few days after being fired by the cleaning company. Once she and an accomplice pulled off the heist, they stashed the 25-pound bust—wrapped in a sheet to muffle cries for help—in a dumpster in West Philadelphia. Then, or on the trip to Alabama the following day, or in Alabama, or perhaps on the bus to Elkton, the chest of the bust was cracked.

Last May, Andrea Lawton was convicted and given a six-year prison term [cue Law & Order sound effect*].

I haven’t heard that the busted bust will go on public view after it’s repaired, but does this sordid story make you want to see it or other busts of Ben?

There are two versions by Houdon, who observed our hero in Paris but does not seem to have gotten him to pose. The first, from the late 1770s, shows him in Quaker dress (more or less) and the second, from the 1780s, in classical togs (a term that does in fact come from toga).

The terracotta original of the Quaker version is in the Louvre. The two marble busts of Quaker Ben by Houdon are in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Metropolitan. Other museums have original busts cast in tinted plaster to look like terracotta.

Though not a Quaker, Ben chose to wear simple attire and go wigless (with a fur cap) to represent the unpretentiousness and virtue of his brand-new republic. In a letter to a female friend, he wrote: “Think how this must appear among the Powder’d Heads of Paris.”

Along with its significance as an icon of the all-important support Dr. Franklin (honorary degrees from Harvard and Yale) procured from France, the bust is an example of Houdon’s brilliance as a portraitist. In Encountering Genius: Houdon’s Portraits of Benjamin Franklin, Jack Hinton writes of Houdon: “we recognize his daring in representing an often silent man as possibly about to speak.”

Encountering Genius was a publication connected with the Franklin Tercentenary in 2006, when the Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibited “the four finest documented versions” of the bust. The D’Angelo bust, which the octogenarian lawyer said has been in his family for a long time, was not one of them. Yet the news items about the stolen bust call it one of only four in the world (and worth $3 million). It may be one of the four plaster busts that Houdon gave to Franklin.

Why is it so difficult to learn more about the Bryn Mawr Ben? Why was the Philadelphia Museum of Art unwilling to be quoted? Wasn’t the Elkton Bus Bust a made-to-order publicity opportunity?

In Matthew Hart’s book Diamond (which I bought in the gift shop at the Janet Annenberg Hooker Hall of Geology, Gems, and Minerals at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History), he writes:

The auction of famous jewels adds to the perception of value, for if the rich will pay large sums for them, they must be worth it. But nothing brightens the charisma of diamonds so much as people stealing them.

According to Hart, since 1958, when Harry Winston gave it to the Smithsonian, “the Hope diamond has drawn more visitors than any other display or object.”

So let’s cling to HOPE as this week’s mnemonic acronym (then go for Greek food):

  • Historical significance 
  • One-of-a-kindness 
  • Provenance
  • Excellence

I’ll flesh these out in a future post, but think about them as they relate to Ben’s busts and, for comparison’s sake, the three-piece silk suit he wore as the first United States Ambassador to France. The Smithsonian purchased the suit last year from the Massachusetts Historical Society. (It had been on loan or maybe layaway.) Fragile, rarely displayed, and brown—but “originally a plum or claret color” according to The History Blog—it is undergoing conservation.

How does the Smithsonian HOPE to attract visitors to the suit? How will it be interpreted and contextualized?

The poor Smithsonian, under pressure to modernize, democratize, and sometimes politicize while carrying out its duty to collect, preserve, and display Sacred Cods (see last week’s post, “America: It’s Like Britain, Only With Buttons”). The Big S came under attack in “Why I Hate Museums,” an August 22 opinion piece by James Durston, a senior producer for CNN Travel:

“Souvenir Nation” showcases souvenirs from history and among its most noteworthy items are a brick from President Washington’s childhood home, a piece of Plymouth Rock chiseled off by a 19th-century tourist, locks of hair from former U.S presidents and a napkin belonging to Napoleon.

So this icon of world museums is now proudly displaying an old brick, an old piece of rock, some hair and a napkin.

You picked the wrong exhibition to pick on, Jimbo! The full title is “Souvenir Nation: Relics, Keepsakes, and Curios from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.” The show, displaying “fifty of the museum’s most eccentric objects,” is the Smithsonian’s look at the strange behavior of collectors and something of a tongue-in-cheek look at itself and its image as the nation’s attic.

And all publicity is good publicity, right? That’s next week’s topic.

* Wikipedia: “The Clang” is an amalgamation of nearly a dozen sounds, including an actual gavel, a jail door slamming, and five hundred Japanese monks walking across a hardwood floor. 

America: It’s Like Britain, Only With Buttons

Welcome to If the Founding Fathers were the Beatles. I’ll start:

George Washington = John
Thomas Jefferson = Paul
John Adams = George
Benjamin Franklin = Ringo

You may think that George should be George and John should be John, but only Ben could be Ringo—the regular guy, the tinkerer, the one who gets along with everyone, who doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously.

Think fast: This week’s title. Who said it? Poor Richard or Richard Starkey?

Benjamin Franklin is the approachable—even lovable—Founder. It’s hard to imagine any of the others with a cartoon sidekick like Skuggs, the squirrel in a white wig and wire rim glasses (Lennon-like, I admit), ready to “show your family around the Benjamin Franklin Museum.” (Ben did care enough about squirrels to write an elegy for one, but his name was Mungo.)

Not to be confused with the Franklin Institute, Franklin Court—an innovative if low-profile unit of Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia—was created for the Bicentennial by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. It reopened a week ago as the Benjamin Franklin Museum after a $24-million renovation by Carl Elefante of Quinn Evans Architects.

Riding shotgun for One If By Land Tours in the 1980s, I took thousands of New York City fifth-graders on Philadelphia daytrips. (I remember a Franklin Institute greeter who’d had enough asking me, “Don’t you have science museums in New York?”) My kids and I thought the original Franklin Court was terrific, charging down the ramp (no running!) to the underground museum and dialing up historic figures to hear what they had to say about Ben.

But the site lost its PoMo cool over the years and needed a makeover. Since it was originally a project of the legendary Venturi (Philadelphia-born, now 88), this was somewhat contentious. And the National Park Service was not in a position to fund it all, so money had to be raised from private sources (and there is now a fee, though I could bring my bus-fulls of eager beavers, if I still had any, for free).

The new museum retains most of Franklin Court’s above-ground features: the “ghost frames” and stone outlines marking where Franklin’s house, torn down in 1812, and his grandson’s printing shop stood, the periscope-like windows for foundation viewing, the house-related letter excerpts engraved onto flagstones. All new, however, are the interpretive approach and exhibitry underground, designed by a London firm, Casson Mann.

Plenty of families with young children were having fun last Sunday. They were watching animated woodcuts and Python-esque collages, playing historical video games (felled by typhus, I never reached Philadelphia), and turning plastic cogs to answer quizzes. Every few minutes, when someone got an answer right, you heard a recorded “Huzzah!” (said to be the 18th-century equivalent of “Awesome!”).

Apart from a small theater with an animation showing Ben writing his famous autobiography (nicely done, I would have liked more), the museum was conceptualized in five sections. Each makes use of a color-coded icon representing a facet of Ben’s character: a kite for Curious and Full of Wonder, a fire bucket for Motivated to Improve, a teacup for Ardent and Dutiful, an ink ball for Ambitious and Rebellious, and a chess rook for Strategic and Persuasive. (Skuggs also appeared from time to time—sort of like Clippy, the Microsoft Office Assistant of the late 1990s—but he seemed suppressed. The only Skuggs merchandise in the shop was an unaccessorized Conservation Creature for $8.95.)

Overall, I give it a “Huzzah!” The design team has created a family-friendly environment with well thought-out and creatively executed displays and activities rooted in scholarly research and authentic materials. You’d have to score on the Yale-Brown Obsessive Compulsive Scale to follow all those icons, but there is intelligence and wit—most appropriate for Franklin—and hardly any dumbing down, cutesypie-ism, or other wrong notes.

But was the children’s museum approach the way to go? My take is that the museum is too arcade-like for adults on their own and not edgy enough for older kids on their own. I felt kind of odd playing the games (not to mention losing) by myself. And if I were 15, I wouldn’t want to hang with this crowd. (You’re probably thinking there aren’t teenagers who would go to a museum by themselves anymore, but I wonder.)

Sidebar: One of the townhouse shells on Market Street was given a thorough archaeological autopsy. It’s just right for high school students, college students, and grown-ups who go for this kind of thing.

My other concern has to do with the mix of authentic artifacts, reproductions, and multimedia (we used to call them “interactives,” but this is perhaps no longer current). Below, Selden’s three-part Credo Of Display (or COD, as in the Sacred Cod hanging in the Massachusetts State House):

1. If it can exist independently on a computer or a mobile device, it doesn’t belong in an exhibition.
2. If it’s the real thing, give it top billing and provide context, including multimedia if appropriate.
3. If it’s a reproduction, don’t pretend it’s the real thing and if possible do something with it.

Re No. 1: I would migrate the touch-screen Franklin games onto the web and into mobile apps. That doesn’t mean visitors can’t try them out when they’re at the museum. Give them instructions how to do so in non-exhibition spaces.

Re No. 2: Original objects are “the goods.” Like the Sacred Cod, they possess magical powers, physically embodying the spirits of their creators and of the times and places of their creation. By contextualizing them—before, during, and after the actual encounter of visitor with object—the experience is magnified. Tasteful multimedia is ideal for this, whether it’s footage of African masks being “danced” or of costumes on the silver screen (would you agree that the Ballets Russes show now at the National Gallery is a bit media-heavy?).

Re No. 3: Reproductions passing for originals get my dander up. Without mentioning any names, I went to an exhibition about Renaissance Ireland earlier this year full of actual-size reproductions of painted portraits, framed as originals. How are people supposed to learn to appreciate the difference? And how are museums supposed to make the case for preserving and displaying original artwork and artifacts?

A very mild example: Near the exhibition exit in the Benjamin Franklin Museum, there is a sedan chair and a 1785 portrait of Franklin by Charles Willson Peale. But the sedan chair, while of the period, has no connection to Franklin (he rode in ones like it toward the end of his life) and the portrait is a reproduction. Score: Designers 2, Visitors 0.

Out by the restrooms there is a reproduction sedan chair that visitors can get into for fun and photos (a great way to use reproductions). And upstairs, outside, a Franklin impersonator was demonstrating how to do the kinds of experiments that Ben did using replicas of his apparatus (again, great). In the exhibition, there were two of Ben’s ink balls in a case. Nearby were two reproduction ink balls on a forme (I had to look that word up) of metal type, just waiting to be picked up and tried out, but you couldn’t. They were attached. There was a long line at the Ranger-staffed Franklin Print Shop that is also part of the site, however, because kids (and adults) still like to try out mechanical things.

Now that we’ve returned to the surface, let’s break for Labor Day weekend. Those of you waiting for the Busted Bust on a Bus, you’ve been very patient. I won’t disappoint you next week…