Penn art project tells the story of Philadelphia through monuments

Walking in Center City soon after joining the PennDesign faculty five years ago, Vancouver-born artist Ken Lum happened upon a blue and gold historical marker recognizing Billie Holiday, a jazz legend and Philadelphia native. Then he saw a bronze statue of John Wanamaker, a noted Philadelphia businessman, on the eastern skirt of the grounds of City Hall. 

“I remember thinking, ‘John Wanamaker? How come he gets a statue and Billie Holiday, who was a far greater figure, gets only a marker?’” Lum says.

Now chair of the Fine Arts Department at PennDesign, Lum is co-curator of “Monument Lab,” a citywide public art and history project that seeks to answer the question, “What makes a monument in the 21st Century?”

As part of Monument Lab, three PennDesign Fine Arts professors—David Hartt, Sharon Hayes, and Shira Walinsky—are among 22 artists and teams creating temporary art installations in public squares and parks throughout Philadelphia this fall. The project will include sculptures, performances, projections, and murals.

Along with the art displays, large shipping containers will be converted to event spaces with presentations and talks. Youth art guides, including Penn undergraduates, will host interactive pop-up labs and engage the public in dialogue about the installations. They will also distribute information and collect future Philadelphia monument proposals to be scanned and exhibited at a central hub at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Based at the Penn Institute for Urban Research (Penn IUR), Monument Lab is a collaboration between Mural Arts Philadelphia; the City of Philadelphia Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy; Philadelphia Parks and Recreation; and other organizations, with major support from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.

Monument Lab will run from Sept. 16 through Nov. 19 in five public squares of Philadelphia and in five neighborhood parks.

The Monument Lab roster consists of diverse artists representing varying perspectives and strong Philadelphia ties. PennDesign alumna Kaitlin Pomerantz, who graduated last year, and artist Zoe Strauss are among them.

Projects will address engagement of public space, equality and social justice, refugee and immigrant issues, opioid addiction and recovery, gentrification and land use, indigenous history, recycling and sustainability, the youth voice, Philadelphia music, and neighborhood culture.

“Sharon Hayes will address the lack of women in public art,” says Ken Lum. “David Hartt and Shira Walinsky’s work deals with history and suppression of histories.”

The first Monument Lab in 2015 featured one installation, an abstract sculpture of a schoolhouse created by the late Terry Adkins, an award-winning artist and PennDesign faculty member. Eugenie Birch, co-director of Penn IUR and the Lawrence C. Nussdorf Professor of Urban Research and Education in the Department of City & Regional Planning at PennDesign, says 35,000 people participated and approximately 400 ideas were generated.

This year’s project again asks people to probe deeply about what a monument is, who and what it represents, and where it should be placed.

“We have built monuments to military, political, and civic heroes or symbols,” Birch says. “Emblematic are the Pennsylvania Railroad World War II Memorial in 30th Street Station or the Liberty Bell. But in the 21st Century, we may want to develop other kinds of monuments, ones that are more provocative or representative. These monuments might call attention to progress, inequality, immigration—new kinds of heroes and symbols that have meaning to Philadelphians.”

monument lab