Art & Design

Exhibition Chronicles Women in Public Art

March 5, 2024 | by Kimberly Haas

Philadelphia is known as a city blessed with an abundance of public art. A recent exhibition highlights the significant roles women have played in that sphere as artists, leaders, and benefactors. Public Art in Philadelphia: A Legacy Shaped by Women, a collaboration between the Association for Public Art (aPA) and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP), is on display at 1300 Locust Street until March 15.

“We wanted to bring exhibits back,” explained Justina Barrett, HSP’s chief learning and engagement officer. “It’s a way to showcase our collection to a broader public beyond those who come here to do research.”

Smith Memorial Arch under construction in 1901 and on the monument’s 50th anniversary. | Images courtesy of the Association for Public Art

As they mark the institution’s 200th anniversary, HSP staff identified five themes that are central to their collection and sought five collaborators for a project for each. This first exhibit represents the theme of The Soul of America: Visual, Performing, and Literary Arts. While Philadelphia has a large number of arts organizations from which to choose, the aPA was a natural choice, as the HSP holds its archives from aPA’s beginnings as the Fairmount Park Art Association (FPAA) up through 1972.

It didn’t start out as a stronghold for the presence of women. Founded in 1872, a quarter of a century would pass before the FPAA began awarding commissions to women artists. The first two were part of the Smith Memorial Arch, the monument in West Fairmount Park with 14 sculptures of Pennsylvania Civil War heroes. Bessie Potter Vonnoh sculpted a bronze bust of Major General Samuel W. Crawford and a bust of General James Addams Beaver was created by Katherine M. Cohen.

Busts of Civil War heros by sculptors Bessie Potter Vonnoh and Katherine M. Cohen. | Images courtesy of the Association for Public Art

In the early part of the 20th century, philanthropist Ellen Phillips Samuel was a member of the FPAA. Upon her death in 1913 she became one of the institution’s most significant benefactors, bequeathing much of her estate, approximately $700,000 (roughly $20m today), for a series of sculptural monuments along the Schuylkill River, which, when completed in 1961 with 17 sculptures, was named the Ellen Phillips Samuel Memorial.

It would take many more years, however, for the institution to include women in its leadership. “Women were not allowed on the board until the 1970s,” noted Charlotte Cohen, aPA’s executive director. “Even Ellen Phillips Samuel, the organization’s benefactress, couldn’t serve.”

Following in the footsteps of those first women sculptors and leaders, women went on to having a significant representation in the aPA. Currently, it boasts an all-woman staff. Women artists, many with Philadelphia ties or exploring Philadelphia themes, are well represented in the works commissioned by the aPA.

The exhibit provides background on some of the most well-known public art in the city, along with lesser-known works and events. “It’s the first time we’ve shared our archives with the public,” explained Cohen. “150 years of archival material was researched.”

A drawing from the early 1980s by artist Jody Pinto, a rendering by KieranTimberlake, and a photograph from 1987 of Fingerspan Bridge in Wissahickon Valley Park upon its completion. | Images courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania

One display case takes the viewer through the creation of Jody Pinto’s 1987 sculpture Fingerspan, along the Wissahickon Creek, including photographs, plans, and correspondence between the sculptor and the architectural firm KieranTimberlake, the engineers for the 18,000-pound steel construction. “It’s an engineering feat,” said Cohen. “It’s part landscape, part structural, and part artwork.”

Barrett enjoyed assisting the aPA’s curators in finding such behind-the-scenes content. “There were stories they wanted to tell, and I looked for things in the archive about them,” she said. A favorite example is a 1974 flyer from the Philadelphia Police Department. Entitled “Stolen!”, it sought information about the theft of two bronze statues of fish, each weighing approximately 500 pounds. The statues were the work of Philadelphia sculptor Beatrice Fenton, commissioned to augment her 1920 Seaweed Girl Fountain, at that time located in East Fairmount Park along Sedgley Drive. “Seaweed Girl was there for a couple of decades, and it was decided that she was too small for the space,” explained Barrett, “So they commissioned Fenton to make the two fish sculptures.”

Sadly, they were never recovered. “While at [the Philadelphia Museum of Art], I worked with the historic houses, so I know what happens in Fairmount Park,” recalled Barrett. “Public art is public and it’s at the risk of everything that’s outside.” The aPA subsequently relocated Seaweed Girl to inside the greenhouse at the Fairmount Park Horticultural Center.

“STOLEN” flyer June 6, 1974. | Image courtesy of Fairmount Park Art Association Collection, Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Another theft had a happier, although puzzling, ending. The General James Addams Beaver bust, created by Katherine M. Cohen as part of the Smith Memorial Arch, was stolen, but was later found under I-95 near the Delaware River.

Just as other cities have grappled with the legacy of Confederate monuments, and Philadelphia with its statues of Frank Rizzo and Christopher Columbus, the aPA is deciding how to update one of its significant holdings, the Ellen Phillips Samuel Memorial. The three terraces of the sculpture garden, designed by Paul Philippe Cret, depict the settling and founding of the United States, but focus primarily on European immigrants without showing the contributions of Black and indigenous people. “Communities change. That’s what’s difficult about permanent public art,” admitted Cohen. “Temporary public art can speak to the times.”

Steel Bodies by Maren Hassinger along the Schuylkill River Trail. | Photo courtesy of the Association for Public Art

Temporary installations of more inclusive work are part of their intended updating of the memorial. Last year, the Steel Bodies series by Maren Hassinger was presented, marking the first time the work of a contemporary artist was shown there.

The aPA will be hosting another contemporary creative when Philadelphia-based fiber artist Xenobia Bailey gives a talk on March 13 about her research in the HSP archives on Philadelphia’s radical Black elite from the early 1800s. The organization has also commissioned her to create a banner series that will be installed at 13th and Locust Streets.


Public Art in Philadelphia: A Legacy Shaped by Women is on display at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1300 Locust Street, until March 15. The exhibition is free and open to the public. For hours of operation and more informations see the exhibition web page here: https://www.associationforpublicart.org/apa-now/news/public-art-in-philadelphia-a-legacy-shaped-by-women-exhibit



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About the Author

Kimberly Haas is a staff writer for Hidden City Daily. She is a long time radio journalist, both nationally and locally with WHYY and WXPN. In particular, she enjoys covering Philadelphia’s neighborhoods, culture and history, as well as urban sustainability and public policy, in both print and audio.

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