The best free art show in the United States is in Philadelphia

By Michael Schuman

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, Aug. 17 2013 1:00 p.m. MDT

"Common Threads" is perhaps the most iconic mural on the Mural Arts Program tour.

Michael Schuman

PHILADELPHIA — Where can you see artistic images of Abraham Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt; a summer day in Perugia, Italy; Benjamin Franklin and Frank Zappa; Julius Erving; and a depiction of industry that would make Diego Rivera proud?

The Metropolitan Museum of Art? The Art Institute of Chicago? The Boston Museum of Fine Arts? None of the above. Not even the Philadelphia Museum of Art, although you’re getting close.

These are all images depicted in murals painted on the walls of Philadelphia buildings. Since 1984 more than 3,800 murals have been created on the sides of Philadelphia’s edifices, and one can see them by foot, car or bicycle, though my group opted for a guided trolley tour.

The Mural Arts Program tours take visitors on a variety of excursions highlighting outdoor art that depicts both the pensive and the silly. But all represent either the buildings on which they are painted or the neighborhoods where they proudly stand. For example, “Liberty,” at 15th and Arch Streets, is modeled after a sculpture at Philadelphia City Hall and features an 11-story-tall figure carrying the world. On the outskirts of Chinatown, “Colors of Light: Gateway to Chinatown,” includes a dragon, scroll and images of family. On the facade of the Central Library Annex of the Free Library of Philadelphia is a close-up of a girl poring over a storybook.

The program was started as a spinoff of the Anti-Graffiti Network started by Mayor Wilson Goode in 1984. Artist Jane Golden, executive director of the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, noticed that some graffiti artists possessed raw talent. She encouraged them to channel their abilities into something that would turn blight into beauty. When several graffiti artists were asked in the 1980s where they would be in five years, nearly all gave the same answer: in jail or dead.

Since then, professional artists, not all local, have been contracted to paint more murals. Evy Simon, my guide, said that while several cities have had similar murals tagged over with graffiti, the people of Philadelphia are too proud to mar theirs. Los Angeles-based muralist Kent Twitchell said in literature handed out on the tour that tagging has been a big problem in his hometown — but not usually in Philadelphia.

Simon also pointed out subtleties that might be missed without a professional tour guide. On the outer wall of chef Marc Vetri’s restaurant is “A Taste of Summer,” combining the landscapes of Perugia, Italy, and Lancaster County, Penn. While working on the project, artist Ann Northrup became friends with a parking lot attendant who moved to Philadelphia to take his job, leaving his daughter at home. Simon told our group to direct our eyes to the upper-right side of the painting. There is an image of a girl looking out a window. Northrup painted her in the mural to represent the parking lot attendant’s daughter, so she can symbolically watch over her father until they are united again.

Lightness, like summer landscapes, are the exception. Most murals have a social message: “Women of Progress,” is rife with depictions of numerous women from Ann Preston, one of the country’s first women doctors, to Roosevelt. “A People’s Progression Toward Equality,” boasts a standing Lincoln, with images of slavery and segregation at the bottom of the 16th president’s feet, while surrounding Lincoln’s head are people climbing ladders into the open air of equality.

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