Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Whose Art Is it Anyway?

There was an interesting article in yesterday's Philadelphia Inquirer surveying the recent issue of sales of public art. The near sale of Thomas Eakins' The Gross Clinic to the Walmart heiress roused the Philadelphia community's sense of cultural heritage, only to suffer the gut punch of the very quiet sale of Eakins' The Cello Player by the PAFA. What had become a rescue mission sadly turned into a hostage swap.

I was one of the many who made the pilgrimage to Jefferson University Hospital to see The Gross Clinic when the outcome was still in question. I'd seen it many times before, but it was like seeing an old friend on his deathbed (complete with the institutional hospital decor). I'm glad that the PAFA and the PMA will be ping-ponging The Gross Clinic back and forth for the time being, but the secret joy of being able to see it in its natural habitat (sometimes behind bars, like a zoo, when the guards wouldn't open the gallery up) can never be replaced.

I realize that art and cultural funding is a low priority in the United States right now, akin to worrying about the aluminum siding on a burning house, so federal funding is a longshot. I just wish that there was some remaining sense of noblisse oblige in today's moneyed elite that would allow them to save our cultural heritage rather than pillage it.

This entire episode reminds me of the soap opera that was Steve "I poked a hole in my Picasso" Wynn's attempt to buy Maxfield Parrish's The Dream Garden out of the Curtis Center in Center City Philadelphia (probably to install in a men's room of the Bellagio). Fortunately, the lords of Philadelphia city politics intervened and saved it from Vegas (and the less-advertised possibility of severe damage in transit). The Dream Garden holds a special place in my heart after having worked in the Curtis Center for many, many years. It was a welcome sight on dreary Monday mornings. My wife and I actually had our formal wedding photos taken in front of the mosaic, so it's an irreplaceable part of my family's history, something to show to the kids years from now (and, hopefully, for them to show to their kids someday).

I'm sure that The Dream Garden and other special pieces of Philadelphia art and history have inspired countless similar stories linking them to this place so powerfully than no amount of money could (or should) pull them away.

No comments: