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Celebrating the past with art

December 13, 2009

Art gives us a new way to see the thing that we’ve seen before.

Art is a wonderful tool to interpret or engage with history.

The artist, creating, can take invisible stories and give them presence.  Thinking must go on about the place, the people, the meaning, and the collapse of time.

The viewer sees layers previously obscured and makes new connections with the place.

There are several Philadelphia venues that engage this intriguing nexus of place, history and art.

Eastern State Penitentiary’s evocative urban stone “ruin” makes a perfect setting for its annual haunted house and a wide range of artist installations (see complete art timeline here).  Current work includes Linda Brenner’s beloved “Ghost Cats” referencing the cats that populated the grounds when the prison closed its giant portcullis in 1971.  Mary Jo Bole’s “Purge Incomplete” explores the history of plumbing at Eastern State, which “had running water before the White House.”  Bole has used resin, frosted glass and brass to recreate elements of architect John Haviland’s original plumbing designs.  [ESP has scheduled artist orientation visits and will be accepting applications for the 2010 installations.  More info here.]

Society for the Preservation of Landmarks, which manages four historic properties including the Powel House in Society Hill near Independence Hall, has added a contemporary art element to their programming.  I addressed my personal experience with one of their installations in my thesis, Dead Men Tell No Tales, noting that the docent had no understanding of the intended purpose or theme of the work.  Her knowledge was limited to which doorknob in the room was authentic and the origin of the knife boxes that once belonged to Samuel Powel, Philadelphia’s “patriot mayor.”  The video screens and fiber optic displays on the mantel seemed more of a nuisance than a new layer of meaning for the site.  When implementing art to tell a tale, staff needs to become as familiar with the story and its new filter as the artist.

Founders Hall, Girard College, photograph copyright Joseph E.B. Elliott, Art installation is "nothing but what is therein contained" by Steve Rodin

Everyone loves a festival and HiddenCity Philadelphia launched as a festival of secret spaces made “accessible” in all the different meanings of that word.  Who wouldn’t be captivated by the notion of an arts performance in a space where hard hats are required?  Patrons rediscovered neighborhood landmarks through dance, music, sculpture, video, print, and mixed media pieces inspired by the history and architecture.  Clever spin-off products included a card game, photographs, buttons and hard hats.

I believe even sites with limited resources can benefit from a partnership with art.  How uplifting and refreshing to see a place through someone else’s eyes, its meaning expressed in new forms and colors.  How evocative and educational to see what parts of the story resonate with a new audience — whether artist or viewer.

The seven historic mansions in Fairmount Park formed a partnership with the Moore College of Art and challenged both students and graduates to interpret the sites through art.  A jury of local artists and architectural historians selected the winners and an exhibition was mounted in City Hall.  “Fairmount Park’s Colonial Elite” inspired numerous works that can be used by the sites as part of on-site exhibits, as greeting cards, or potentially sold as part of a fundraiser.  The winning works included

  • a photographic collage of ships inspired by the life of John Macpherson, a sea captain and former owner of Mount Pleasant
  • a garment “Retro Lemon Dress” interpreting the decadence of materials found in Lemon Hill
  • a watercolor and pencil interpretation of Woodford Mansion depicting the many layers of history embedded in its architecture

Associated costs were defrayed by bringing on several sponsors, including a paint company with a line of  historic paints and several area restaurants.

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