They’re informally calling it “dance, walk, bike and light” — but what the new Fairmont Park Art Association program, Site Seeing, is really about is “celebrate.”
“It’s the latest in our continuing attempts to think of ways to reconnect people with the outdoor sculptures on and around the Benjamin Franklin Parkway,” says Penny Balkin Bach, director of the Association.
All told, some 50 sculptures — by everyone from Frederick Remington to Mark di Suvero — stand in the area. Two summers ago, they were loosely assembled under the Association’s rubric “Museum Without Walls: AUDIO.”
That program, which features signage, streaming audio, and apps, provides strollers with a better understanding of the context and significance of the works through the insights of experts such as museum curators, the artists themselves, and other prominent citizens. So far, the program’s made 25,000 “audience contacts,” according to Bach.
Coming this April, Site Seeing promises to up the action. The events will offer participants an “increased personal experience of the works,” says Bach. “Beyond looking, the public will be interacting with the sculptures.” All of the events are free.
The series kicks off on Thursday, April 5, with an evening of tango dancing and lessons at Alexander Stirling Calder’s Swann Memorial Fountain. “Public dance gatherings was a tradition during the 1920s,” Bach says, “and there was a huge one when the Fountain was dedicated in July 1924. We’re really excited about re-imagining that historic evening.”
On Saturday, April 14, Rob Armstrong, the department of Park & Recreation’s preservation and capital project manager — and biker extraordinaire — leads a three-hour, 10-mile loop from the Art Museum into West Fairmont Park and back. “The bikers who use the park regularly just whiz by the sculptures,” Armstrong says, “while drivers might notice them but not be able to get a great look. This way, we can open a lot more eyes to the quantity and quality of the work in the park.”
A shorter, more family-oriented ride will be offered that day, as well; and the two treks will be repeated on Sunday, April 29. On both days, Martin Luther King Drive will be closed to vehicular traffic. Bikers need to register in advance at museumwithoutwallsaudio.org, and space is limited. The events also introduce a new bike-friendly map of outdoor sculpture in the area, produced by the Association, Parks & Recreation, and the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.
For the two Saturdays in between — April 21 and April 28 — the Parkway will be festooned with giant balloons to mark the locations of 12 pieces via a “Public Art Pathway” that begins at Robert Indiana’s iconic LOVE sculpture. The intent is to mimic the feel of exploded Google maps, points out Bach. Ambassadors will be on hand to explain how the Association’s audio tours work, and to answer questions about the pieces.
Taking the notion of a “flash” mob literally, the most interesting idea of the series showcases di Suvero’s dramatic Iroquis in a whole new light. On Wednesday, April 25, at 8:30 pm or so, the abstract work, fired in the artist’s signature red, will be plunged into darkness, only to re-emerge in the shadows and angles cast by the flashlights of onlookers.
“We’ve chosen this piece for a reason,” says Bach. “Its shape invites onlookers to explore it from different sides — di Suvero intended that.” The bring-your-own-flashlight evening is just another way of “encouraging people to look more closely at the work,” Bach adds.
In contrast to the audio tours, it’s noteworthy that all of these events strive to bring people together to look at art. The pieces become part of a greater whole, no longer just background and a familiar bragging point for Philadelphia gains new life — and meaning — by putting the “public” back into public art.
There’s more to come from the Association, too. This includes the temporary installation of a large, light-specific piece on the Parkway — also involing public participation via technology like GPS — in September, overlapping the Fringe Festival and Design Philadelphia; and the expansion next year of Museum Without Walls: AUDIO into West Fairmont Park, City Hall, and Rittenhouse Square.
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