Philadelphia arts scene often missed by Penn students

Art history professors are working to encourage students to become more involved

· October 14, 2012, 11:55 pm

Maegan Cadet | DP

The Barnes Foundation moved to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in May 2012, adding to the Parkway’s large museum scene.


Philadelphia is a city well known for its arts and culture, but Penn students may fail to take advantage of what it has to offer.

The world-renowed Barnes Foundation moved to Philadelphia in May 2012, adding to the already rich cultural area on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The move had been controversial as it went against the will of founder Albert Barnes — who graduated from Penn’s Medical School in 1892.

But despite the new prime location near Penn’s campus, some feel there hasn’t been a rising interest among students to visit the institution.

“The move won’t necessarily impact Penn students,” said anthropology professor Marilynne Diggs-Thompson. “[The Barnes] ranks as one of the most important collections in the world, but the bottom line is students have to want to go and be able to appreciate what they are seeing.”

The Parkway is also home to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the newly-renovated Rodin Museum, which showcases the work of French sculptor Auguste Rodin.

“In general, arts and culture get lost here,” Thompson said.

“I don’t think the University does enough to promote the arts,” art history professor David Brownlee said. “We haven’t made the fullest use of resources on campus and in the Philadelphia area.”

Toni Thomas, a tour guide at the PMA, explained that the overwhelming majority of students who visit the museum only come in order to fulfill a class requirement.

While many attend Penn’s New Student Orientation event at the museum, many don’t think to go back.

College junior Hillary Halter, an art history major who interns at the Barnes Foundation through a new Penn fellowship program, explained that while Penn encourages students to get internships and other pre-professional experience, students are not as equally encouraged to take advantage of Philadelphia’s cultural institutions.

Halter is a Curatorial Fellow at the Barnes this year. For the first time, the Department of the History of Art selected five students to refine their curatorial skills in Philadelphia museums. Other partner institutions include the PMA and the Rosenbach Museum and Library.

Even Penn’s Institute of Contemporary Art, at 36th and Sansom streets, struggles to attract Penn students.

“I think there could be more of an interest among students,” said Jill Katz, director of marketing and communications at the ICA.

Katz believes that Penn should begin to promote the arts to freshmen as soon as they arrive on campus.

“It begins with incoming students,” Katz said. “Sometimes the ICA isn’t even mentioned to them and students are not aware that we’re here.”

Professors are starting to take matters into their own hands in order to increase art appreciation on campus.

Art history professor Karen Beckman is spearheading a new initiative in collaboration with the Office of the Provost and the School of Arts and Sciences, which aims to “raise the visibility of the arts and arts-related disciplines at Penn,” Beckman said.

In addition to targeting current students, Beckman is also working with the Admissions Office to increase prospective students’ knowledge of what Philadelphia has to offer.

“We are working on all kinds of things: emails to prospective students, brochures, art maps, websites and an online arts magazine,” she said.

With travel seminars, curators, artists and hands-on museum experience available, “we should have no trouble attracting the world’s most promising arts-interested students,” Beckman said.

Further changes within the Department of the History of Art are being made in order to increase student exposure to the nearby museums.

Next semester, the introductory art history course “Renaissance to Contemporary,” which will be taught by Brownlee, will inaugurate a shuttle service in order to transport students to museums on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The class will meet at various museums for seven weeks out of the semester.

“It’s been an oversight. There is a focus on Penn on other things,” Brownlee said. “But it’s pretty easy to fix.”

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