A grand split staircase inside the entrance to Leidy Labs invites visitors into the home of the School of Arts & Sciences’ Biology Department. As students ascend or descend on their way to lab meetings and classes, a set of faces looks down on them—not the old, gilt-framed portraits that long hung in the stairwell, but 14 new photos in chestnut-colored wooden frames, depicting scientists who have close connections to Penn and the department. The gallery now highlights a more diverse suite of individuals, such as Emily Gregory, the first female teaching fellow at Penn, and Roger Arliner Young, the first African American woman to earn a doctorate in zoology.
The new art is part of a collective effort by the department, working with guidance from the University Curator’s office, to rethink how portraiture and representation operate in the halls of their buildings. Many other University departments, schools, and leaders are in the process of undertaking similar initiatives, driven in part by the question: How can the walls of campus buildings better reflect the communities they serve?
“We have about 1,500 to 1,600 portraits in our collection,” says University curator Lynn Marsden-Atlass. “Most of them are paintings by white men of white men. Since I have been the University curator, my goal has really been to bring in more visible diversity to our art collection. And now we’ve been getting increasing numbers of requests, like from the Biology Department, to take on some of this themselves.”
The changes are meant to enhance a sense of inclusion for all at Penn, notably students, says history of art professor Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw. “There are certain contexts that students, in particular, want to assert that they belong,” she says, “that they are not just at Penn, but they’re of Penn.”
Pushing against homogeny
At Penn and many institutions like it, portraits find their way onto walls through a variety of means. Portraits honor department chairs, deans, or others who have ascended to the top ranks of the academy. Sometimes they depict thought leaders in a field, who may or may not have a direct connection to the University. And occasionally donors write into their gift agreement that a portrait will be hung in recognition of their philanthropy.
The result, however, can mean building walls that function like memorials or museums, highlighting the past but not the current community, or a hoped-for future one.
“I’ve had such an interesting set of conversations about what the walls of Penn are for,” says Dani Bassett, a professor in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. “We as an institution have used the walls to display our history. But there’s a sense in which the students who walk the halls feel that, especially when those faces are not diverse, this kind of art can be really oppressive, saying that, ‘This space is not for me, it’s only for white men.’ So, the question is, how do we venerate our history without hurting our students? Are our walls the place for history or the place for the future?”
In June 2020, amid widespread Black Lives Matter protests, Bassett, together with Junhyong Kim, chair of the Biology Department, as well as other faculty and staff, addressed an open letter requesting institutional and financial support for diversifying portraiture at Penn.
“Many spaces at Penn reflect its history but do not reflect our core values of diversity and inclusion, nor do they accurately reflect the student, staff, and faculty bodies that comprise the Penn of today, or those we envision to comprise the Penn of tomorrow,” they wrote. More than 430 members of the Penn community signed the letter.
Bassett has felt the need to act—and felt it most viscerally—when they interact with students, who have identified the issue of portraiture as an area that makes them feel uncomfortable, even unwelcome. For example, Bassett notes, one room in which students present their thesis proposals (and later defend their Ph.D. theses) is lined with portraits of white men. “The students walk into this room and think, ‘Here is this space where I will be evaluated and I will be evaluated, most likely, by people who are not like me,’” Bassett says. “It was those conversations with students that made me realize this is so important to address.”
For the Biology Department, the process of rethinking portraiture began in the fall of 2019. Joshua Darfler, department manager, recalls a conversation with professor Mecky Pohlschröder during which both realized they didn’t know who most of the people pictured in portraits in Leidy even were. After some investigating, Darfler found that many had no discernable connection to Penn whatsoever.
“In general, not only are some of these old portraits that don’t mean anything to anyone who is living, but they don’t really have a meaningful resonance with the Biology Department either,” Darfler says.
Though slowed slightly by the pandemic, by 2020, Darfler, Pohlschröder, and Robin Sherwood, the department’s academic manager, reached out to other members of the department community to involve them in a new art committee. The committee eventually grew to include graduate students, staff, and faculty.
“We closely considered the photos we had, did research into our history, into Penn’s history, asking the question, ‘Who should we know about?’” says Darfler. The committee wanted the people featured to span University history, though they wanted to avoid featuring current faculty members. “And we wanted to make sure we had a good representation of gender, race, and what stage they were in their career while at Penn,” Darfler says.
By the end of 2020, the committee developed a list of 14 individuals and obtained photos for each. Funds from the School of Arts & Sciences, with support from Kim and associate dean David Brainard, supported the costs to print and frame the new images, working with local company American Picture Framing. The artwork was installed in Leidy in December 2021.
“I love how visible they are,” Darfler says. “We were very intentional about putting them in the stairway that is fully accessible to students so they’re right there as you walk in through the main entrance.”
A Biology Department event, the 2022 Telfer Lectureship, to be held April 21, will celebrate the newly redesigned Leidy Portrait Gallery. Three scientists who are represented in the gallery will deliver lectures: George Langford, a former Penn postdoc, Gonzalo Castro de la Mata, who earned his graduate degree at Penn, and Ingrid Waldron, the first female professor to receive tenure in the department.
Taking out and adding in
The actions of the Biology Department are just one of the ways people at Penn have been contending with issues of representation through art. The Campus Iconography Group (CIG), which convened in 2020, was charged with considering these issues, particularly when it came to works of art that were considered to conflict with Penn’s values. That group, co-chaired by Joann Mitchell, senior vice president for institutional affairs and chief diversity officer, and Frederick Steiner, dean of the Stuart Weitzman School of Design, developed frameworks that lay out criteria for removing such artworks from campus grounds, as well as a set of guidelines for new acquisitions.
“We made a list of factors that should guide removal of iconography broadly, including portraiture,” Steiner says. “We borrowed best practices from several other universities, but we went a step further and also suggested how recognition could be added.”
Since issuing a report last spring, Mitchell and Steiner, along with other members of the CIG, have consulted and advised other entities, including the Perelman School of Medicine, the Carey Law School, and the Wharton School, to “elevate more diverse faces and stories in the pictures people see,” Mitchell says.
At the medical school, a Portrait Review Committee, co-chaired by Marisa Bartolomei and Michael Ostap, serves under the umbrella of the Action for Cultural Transformation initiative. Among other activities, that committee helped develop a new portrait display in Stemmler Hall recognizing the contributions of Helen Octavia Dickens, a physician and advocate for women’s health. The group is, in parallel, taking stock of all portraits displayed at the school to better understand who is represented and their stories.
Both removing and adding artwork comes with challenges and costs. Marsden-Atlass notes that she has no acquisition budget for art. And when items are taken down, they must be carefully—often professionally—handled and then stored, requiring significant financial resources and space.
“When you steward a collection it’s forever,” Marsden-Atlass says. “We do our best to bring things in that we think will be important to the collection in 50 years’ time.”
One proposal by the CIG was a way to provide institutional support for these processes. “One of our recommendations was a matching fund, between the central administration and schools and divisions,” says Mitchell. “If a school or division wanted to make changes, they may request a matching grant to cover the costs of the purchase.”
Kim says that both tracking down the provenance of the original Leidy stairway images and then identifying financial support to replace them presented a burden that delayed their removal.
“The cost can be non-trivial,” says Kim, who notes that he would like to replace or augment images still in a Leidy classroom. He hopes that, in addition to the guidance provided by CIG report, the University develops additional solutions and support “to nimbly solve local problems, which have disproportionate impact on students and local communities.”
Aside from funds, another challenge, says Shaw, is that historic portraits of people of color or women are sometimes difficult to come by.
“Historically, formal portraits, like paintings and sculpture busts, were really reserved for the elite,” she says. “Not everyone had a portrait made and not every family preserved portraits.”
Shaw faced this obstacle while at the National Portrait Gallery, where she took leave from Penn to serve as senior historian and director of history, research, and scholarly programs, also curating the “First Ladies” exhibition. Workarounds, she says, include using prints, which are often easier to come by than original artwork.
“This is the challenge at Penn, too,” Shaw says. “You want to increase representation of underrepresented individuals, whether they are white women, women of color, trans folks, what have you, it can be really challenging.”
Exhibits around campus are one means of celebrating a broader cross-section of people through portraits, as well as diverse artists. In a show last fall, guest curator artist Roberto Lugo juxtaposed historical portraits of George Washington and Ben Franklin on one wall with his own representations of people of color in his paintings and pots, including portraits of himself and his father, both of Puerto Rican heritage, on a wall opposite.
Another exhibit, currently on display in the Annenberg Center for Performing Arts’ Arts Lounge, a collaboration between the Sachs Program for Arts Innovation and Penn Live Arts, features 100 portraits by Mark Stockton that challenge the history of who has typically been made visible through portraiture. Among those featured in Stockton’s drawings are abolitionist Frederick Douglass, disability activist Alice Wong, and actor Riz Ahmed.
Steiner, Mitchell, Marsden-Atlass, and Shaw all note that Brick House, the striking, 16-foot sculpture by Simone Leigh that represents a Black woman and now sits at the corner of 34th and Walnut streets, exemplifies the kinds of gifts that are sought out from University donors and alumni.
“This piece is moving us forward and saying to people, of various nationalities and who self-identify as people of color and African American, that they belong here,” Marsden-Atlass says.
The future of University portraiture may look quite different from the traditional gilt-framed, painted images of its past. Diversifying portraiture may encompass a greater diversity of techniques and platforms, in addition to a more inclusive set of subjects.
“You can consider a multipronged approach,” Shaw says. “You can add some additional portraits, take some off the wall of certain individuals who no longer resonate. But you can also do things that reflect the contemporary community, which will constantly be changing because our society is constantly in flux.”
That’s where creative approaches to art and display may come into play, she says. “It may be really interesting to have portraiture represented in displays on campus that can be active, perhaps with an easily updatable digital platform or video installation, to give prominence to the changing nature of the community.” Shaw drew inspiration in this regard from an effort in the summer of 2020, led by Monument Lab at the site of the former Frank Rizzo mural at the 9th Street Italian Market. Monument Lab coordinated an event where images representing the contemporary South Philadelphia community were projected onto the site where the mural of Rizzo had stood.
Mitchell underscores the importance of considering ways to honor individuals, groups, and communities besides painting their portraits.
“There’s only so much wall space,” says Mitchell. “We encourage people to look at other innovative ways to diversify imagery and iconography around campus.” She points to initiatives such as the Penn & Slavery Project, which employed an augmented reality app to provide a campus tour, as one such example.
What’s more, such iconography, projects, or displays could celebrate “a spirit of collective scientific labor,” says Shaw. “So often portraits are about glorifying individual genius and achievement. But, especially in the sciences, that comes as part of a lot of group activity. Rather than celebrating one great professor with a portrait, what about something that shows a whole team?”
Portraiture is one expression of an evolving campus culture, led through both guidance from campus leaders and a groundswell of support and calls for action from the community at large.
“I think these kinds of grassroots efforts are wonderful because they make people aware and make people want to think about change and create the change in their own environment,” says Marsden-Atlass.
And at an educational institution like Penn, says Shaw, students should be part of the process.
“I think that if students want to be seen and feel included,” Shaw says, “then they should have some say in what is going to be done and also do some of the doing.”
Dani Bassett is the J. Peter Skirkanich Professor, with appointments in the Departments of Bioengineering and Electrical & Systems Engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, the Department of Physics & Astronomy in the School of Arts & Sciences, and the Departments of Neurology and Psychiatry in the Perelman School of Medicine.
Joshua Darfler is the manager of the Biology Department in the School of Arts & Sciences.
Junhyong Kim is chair of the Biology Department in the School of Arts & Sciences.
Lynn Marsden-Atlass is University Curator and executive director of the Arthur Ross Gallery.
Joann Mitchell is senior vice president for institutional affairs and chief diversity officer at Penn.
Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw is the Class of 1940 Bicentennial Term Associate Professor in the Department of the History of Art in the School of Arts & Sciences.
Frederick Steiner is dean, Paley Professor, and co-executive director of the Ian L. McHarg Center for Urbanism and Ecology at the Stuart Weitzman School of Design at Penn.