Philadelphia may be famous for its cheesesteaks, Rocky, and the Liberty Bell, but those aren’t the only attractions in this sprawling metropolis. You might be surprised to learn that Philadelphia is a top travel destination for art lovers from around the world. In fact, National Geographic named it the top city to visit — of 25 fascinating global destinations — in 2020.
The city hasn’t always been held in such high esteem. Despite its early glory days, Philadelphia’s reputation as a dangerous, decaying urban center persists in some quarters, despite the revival that budded in the 1970s and ’80s and was in full bloom by the mid-1990s.
Like many cities in decline after the Great Depression, Philadelphia hit hard times in the post-WWII era of industrial restructuring and suburbanization. The middle class flocked to burgeoning residential developments west of the city and in New Jersey to escape high taxes, crime, and substandard schools. Jobs became scarce, and leadership was more interested in political infighting than life support. By 1992, bankruptcy was imminent, and “Philadelphia was on the verge of total collapse.”
The only direction Philadelphia could go was up. And through it all, the city’s globally-respected art collections, art centers, and museums continued their steady hum in the background, ready to play a major role in the revival to come.
Art in Philadelphia and Revival
Despite the problems, Philadelphia — Philly to anyone in the region — had the cards in its favor. Its historical significance, universities, and proximity to New York City and Washington, DC., plus a well-established public transit system, formed a strong foundation.
But it was art that pulled Philadelphia back up. The Mural Arts Program established in 1984 was a seed that took root in fertile soil. Under then-mayor Wilson Goode’s directive, graffiti artists were supported as agents of change instead of being punished as petty criminals. The movement to embrace graffiti as public art was a “powerful tool for generating dialogue, building relationships, empowering communities, and sparking economic revitalization.”
A little later, in the 1990s, former mayor Ed Rendell initiated a center city revitalization strategy focused on the arts in general. South Broad Street — Avenue of the Arts — became a mecca of cultural centers, including the Kimmel Center, Wilma Theater, and Academy of Music, a Philadelphia icon since 1857. University of the Arts, with its beginnings in the 1870s, was also part of the rehabilitation efforts, as well as many other projects.
A Brief History of Art in Philadelphia
How could art — of all things — play such an important role in Philadelphia’s economic recovery?
Imagine, if you will, a dilapidated house. If the foundation is crumbling, all the paint and fixing up in the world and even a new roof won’t bring it back to life. You might as well knock it down and build a new one. But if the foundation is solid, you can rebuild.
Philadelphia’s foundation has always been firm in its love of art, and that love is unwavering.
Philadelphia's Recent Art History
The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), for example, was established in 1805 as the first art museum and art school in the U.S. It continues to flourish as a National Historic Landmark that showcases world-class exhibitions of contemporary art and much more.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) sits serene and majestic as it overlooks the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Founded in 1876, exhibits include a full representation of art from around the world, from Ancient Classical and Renaissance art to Modern and Contemporary. Black artists, indigenous artists, Asian collections, and a brand-new space that “rethinks the story of Philadelphia and the nation” make the Philadelphia Museum of Art the “cultural heart of a great city.”
The Barnes Foundation Museum opened in 1922 and is another important art center in Philadelphia. Located within walking distance of the PMA, exhibits focus mainly on Impressionism (19th century), as well as Post-Impressionism and Modernism (both late 19th and early 20th centuries).
The Rodin Museum features one of the largest exhibits of world-renowned Auguste Rodin’s sculptures. The doors to the elegant building opened in 1929, and it displays almost 150 pieces. Just outside the museum, you can appreciate Rodin’s most famous sculpture, The Thinker.
Art in Philadelphia's Early Years
Art in Philadelphia goes back even further. Swedish painter Gustavus Hesselius (1682-1755), for instance, made his home in Philadelphia and painted portraits of Native Americans and wealthy Philadelphians in the early-mid 1700s. His Philadelphia-born son John took the same path, along with many other artists, long before organized art centers or museums were established.
Perhaps better known is Benjamin West (1738-1820), a friend of Benjamin Franklin, who became president of the Royal Academy of Arts in London and returned to teach young Philadelphian artists. Charles Wilson Peale is yet another influential artist who helped establish art in Philadelphia as a tradition synonymous with the city itself. Many in his family were respected artists, including his son Raphaelle, who became the first professional still life painter in the U.S., and two nieces, Anna and Sarah Peale, who were elected academic artists at PAFA.
Through the 19th and 20th centuries, hundreds of Philadelphia artists cemented the city’s reputation in the art world. The Ash Can painters, the New Deal artists, and the Abstract Expressionists made their mark, and Midcentury Modern art (think architect Frank Lloyd Wright) and Midcentury Abstraction were big movements in the post-WWII decades.
It all paved the way for what was soon to come.
Philadelphia Art Today
The art scene in Philadelphia is truly unique. New York City, as a comparison, has always been known for its artists, museums, and galleries, and some might feel it’s somehow better.
Sure, New York City has Bansky murals and those of the late Basquiat and Keith Haring, and so much more. But Philadelphia has the “only Keith Haring collaborative public mural remaining intact and on its original site.”
Regardless, Philly doesn’t compete with New York. It doesn’t have to. True art doesn’t imitate, and Philadelphia definitely has its own way of doing things.
Public Art in Philadelphia
Today, if you drive around Philadelphia, you’ll be surrounded by public art. This is especially true in Center City, along Museum Mile (Benjamin Franklin Parkway), on Kelly Drive through Fairmount Park, and all around University City.
But what is public art? Essentially, it’s art that can be viewed by anyone, indoors in public spaces or outdoors. It can be sculptures, statues, mosaics, light displays, murals, walkways, ice sculptures, topiaries — even the William Penn statue on top of City Hall. The building itself is public art, and it can be almost anything of any shape, size, or form. According to the Association for Public Art, it’s created as “a reflection of how we see the world — the artist’s response to our time and place combined with our own sense of who we are.”
Check out this map and hover over each pin for the name of the piece, and click for more information. At the green pins, you can listen to Museum Without WallsTM: AUDIO on the web from home or while viewing via mobile phone, app, or download.
The Mural Capital of the World
One of Philadelphia’s defining characteristics is its murals — over 4000 — and, like other forms of public art in the city, they’re almost everywhere. Many are breathtaking and so skillfully wrought they look like trompe l’oeil: an illusion, a trick of the eye.
Possibly the most well-known mural is “Philadelphia Muses” at 13th and Locust Streets. Over in University City, the “Silent Watcher” has moved more than one viewer to tears. And “Water Gives Life” is bigger than a blue whale and creates a garden in a previously unremarkable visual space.
Philadelphia Art Walks
First Friday is an enormously popular event in Philadelphia. Each month, art galleries open their doors to the crowds of art lovers eager to take in what’s new.
The atmosphere is party-like, with attendees enjoying their favorite restaurants, live music, and special sales before and after the gallery visits. And mingling in the light-hearted crowd, you can find the true collectors and investors searching for that special something.
With over 30 fine art galleries and showrooms, there are far too many to list here. But you can check out the upcoming First Friday schedule and explore the galleries online. Mark your calendar! There’s something for everyone in Philadelphia.