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September 2016 Art Commission Report
Philadelphia's Art Commission is back in business after its summer break. Dave reports back from its first meeting. Are you ready for digital screens above subway entrances on Market Street? – Artblog Editor

Pilot screen installed at 15th and Market.
Pilot screen installed at 15th and Market.

The Art Commission is back! After Philadelphia’s yearly summer recess, the new-look Art Commission of the Kenney administration reconvened for their September meeting. This month’s proceedings brought the first real test of this Art Commission by way of a controversial proposal.

SEPTA and Intersection Consulting proposed new digital television screens above subway entrances at multiple locations along Market and Broad Streets. You’ve seen them in New York City and Boston–screens that display transit information, emergency notices, and paid advertisements. Heck, you’ve even seen them in Philadelphia. The program is being piloted at the 15th & Market and 34th & Market stops.

Pilot screen installed at 15th and Market.
Pilot screen installed at 15th and Market.

The proposal was first presented in July, where it sparked a heated debate. Commissioners lamented the addition of yet another screen to our cityscape, and critiqued the design of the monitors themselves. Two months removed from that disastrous presentation, the Intersection design teams returned with only minor changes–the casing would be upgraded to stainless steel, and a new skirt underneath the monitors would hide the bolt attachments to the concrete. Commissioners noted that the changes showed little effort, but Intersection responded that in fact, the lack of design was important for the monitors to eventually become invisible in the cityscape. Cities are sophisticated, SEPTA argued, because they adapt to change. And, besides, the 55” screens are smaller than what most of us have at home.

In yet another heated discussion, two concessions were touted by the SEPTA-Intersection brain trust. First, that each screen could be individually programmed so that SEPTA could offer free advertising for community organizations. Second, that at certain locations, SEPTA was working on slideshows to educate riders of the historic qualities of their neighborhood. Commissioners rightly wondered how community groups could utilize this program. But the conversation took a turn when opened to public comment.

First was Mary Tracy, the Director of Scenic Philadelphia. She made a plea for the scenic and historic value of Broad Street, and the effect on the scenery of these digital displays. She wondered about Broad Street’s historic value, and if this proposal may be subject to PennDOT and Historic Commission’s review. The Art Commission, she said, should hold their ruling until SEPTA could provide all the necessary approvals. Another woman, owner of a property on Broad Street, testified that tenants were not contacted, and she was concerned about the brightness of the display. Later, a third person, from the Managing Director’s Office of Transit, sauntered up to the microphone to say that their office has received no complaints about the digital bus shelter signs, that they’ve heard that riders want real-time info, and ultimately support this initiative.

Despite this, Mary Tracy pleaded with the Art Commission to remember their principles. She read a few lines from their charter, and reminded them that their duty is to preserve the aesthetic quality of the city and to protect the public from ‘the ugly.’ She asked that the Commission, through their aesthetic review, should please remember its inherent responsibility to improve the value of neighborhoods.

New Chair Alan Greenberger ended the proceedings with a summary that deflated the tension in the room. He reminded the Commissioners that City Council had already voted yes on this manner, already clearing the way for the installation of these screens. The Commission’s job was not to allow or not allow these monitors, but merely to advise on how they would be installed.

So at the end, Interstate received conceptual approval for the monitor skirts, and will return in the October meeting with a modified design. As Interstate said, “We’re partners with SEPTA, with the City of Philadelphia. We’re not going to go away.”

Other Notes:

  • Three new Commissioners were sworn in:
    Natalie Nixon, Professor at Philadelphia University
    Alan Urek, Ex-officio officer from the Department of Public Property
    Raed Nasser, Ex-officio officer from Parks & Recreation
  • Local artist Jennie Shanker received Conceptual Approval for her Percent for Art Project at the Maplewood Mall reconstruction in Germantown
  • Local artist Ava Blitz received Final Approval her Percent for Art project at the Martin Luther King Older Adult Center, at 2100 Cecil B. Moore Ave
  • The AMOR sculpture received Final Approval to be relocated from the PMA steps to Sister Cities Park

The next Art Commission meeting will be held on Wednesday, October 5th, at 9:30am on the 18th Floor of the One Parkway Building, 1515 Arch Street. The meeting is free and open to the public.


philadelphia, philadelphia art commission, septa