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Public art–there’s an app for that


I’ve done a lot of snarling at Philadelphia’s public art from time to time, but an unusually well thought out, user-friendly public art project has been unveiled recently that brings rhyme and reason plus history and art history to some of the sculptures that I’ve rejected or ignored over the years (not to mention to a bunch of favorites, like the Charioteer of Delphi, shown below). The city’s main tenders of public art, the Fairmount Park Art Association, have created a terrific audio tour–Museum Without Walls: AUDIO–of public sculptures. On the hoof or at home online, the tour works in many different ways–from technology gizmos like smart phones to plain old paper map and guide.

charioteer of delphi12
Charioteer of Delphi on the Museum Without Walls:AUDIO tour; images in post courtesy Fairmount Park Art Association except as noted below

But the best approach uses technology, whatever its level. The little podcasts are chockablock with interesting information. The audio about the Aero Memorial by Paul Manship, for instance–a sculpture in which I had no interest–suddenly made me understand why the sculpture exists. The segment is typical. The audio includes three voices–an art historian, an author and a member of the sculptor’s family. The multi-voice format is consistent through the audios, and the lengths vary from 3 to 5 minutes.

13.Aero Manship JA opt
Aero Memorial (1948) by Paul Manship (1855-1966

Each of the segments I listened to has some juicy tidbits. In the audio about the James Garfield Memorial, by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, forensic sculptor Frank Bender discusses death masks. The difficult relationship between St. Gaudens and the committee that hired him gets some discussion as well as the relationship between the sculptor’s choices and history.

In the LOVE sculpture audio, I learned that Robert Indiana came by his interest in typography honestly, as a poet, who had worked for a newspaper.  Indiana himself is one of the voices on this one! Mark DiSuvero and Joe Rishel are the voices on Rodin’s Thinker. Franklin Institute Chief Astronomer Derrick H. Pitts talks about Kopernik, a salute to Copernicus by sculptor Dudley Talcott.

Robert Indiana’s Love Sculpture is the first stop on the tour. Picture by Roberta.

Among the speakers in the series are a number of Philadelphia artists who, like Bender, have international stature, including Judith Schaechter, Sarah McEneaney and Donald Lipski. The inclusion of people who would bring more than textbook wisdom to the recordings lifts this tour to above the usual tourist fare. A full list of artists on the recordings, many of whom have some Philadelphia connection (some really do live here, some went to school here, etc.!) is at the end of the post.

I listened to a number of the talks on my computer, watching the accompanying slide shows. But there are better options to make the self-guided walking tours friendly to use–all based at the AUDIO website. So, smart-phone users, there’s an app for that, including an interactive map. iPod users, download the audios to hear the talks. And all cell phone users, there’s a dial-up program that works like the dial-up talks in the museums–come to a sculpture and dial the main number (215 399 9000) plus the sculpture ID (the map is online for you to print out and use as a numbered guided walking tour; or, a free map and guide is available at tourist information centers and at other cultural institutions in Philadelphia).

These talks, however you choose to listen, work. And they work wonders, offering multiple levels of information to suit for almost everyone, whether they’re familiar with the art or new to it. There are 35 stops along the route, covering 51 sculptures along a 1.5 mile route.

Here’s a list of artists, most with some Philadelphia connection, who contributed to the recorded talks  (list from FPAA Executive Director Penny Balkin Bach):

Jody Pinto on Remington and site-specific sculpture
Donald Lipski on Alexander “Sandy” Calder
Mark di Suvero on Rodin
Mei-Ling Hom on Henry Moore
Frank Bender on Saint-Gaudens and Garfield’s death mask
Hachivi Edgar Heap of Birds and Kate Brockman on John J. Boyle’s Stone Age in America
Richard Torchia on French/Potter and Grant
Phoebe Adams on Alexander Stirling Calder and the Swann Memorial Fountain
Judith Shea on Fremiet and Joan of Arc
Judith Schaechter on The Mounted Amazon Attacked by a Panther
Sarah McEneaney on Hermon Atkins MacNeil’s Civil War Memorial
Shane Stratton on bronze casting of the Charioteer
Eric Berg on Pennypacker Memorial and Albert Laessle’s animal sculpture
Damon Bonetti, actor and Shakespearean interpreter on the Shakespeare Memorial