Art at Penn is Found Beyond Museum Walls

Art is an integral part of Penn’s campus. In the museums, yes, but also in more than 100 other locations, inside and out.

Penn’s non-museum permanent collection includes 8,000 artworks, and much of it is on display, says Lynn Marsden-Atlass, University curator. The collection is diverse, eclectic, and multicultural, and includes paintings, sculptures, photographs, prints, fiber art, decorative arts, furniture, even jewelry.

“In every one of our 12 schools at the University, you will find art,” says Marsden-Atlass, also director of Penn’s Arthur Ross Gallery. “Art inspires curiosity, creativity, and community. So everywhere you go at Penn you see art.”

Prominent are the enormous iconic sculptures: “LOVE,” “Split Button,” and “Benjamin Franklin” on College Green, and up on Locust Walk, the bronze known as “Ben on the Bench,” and the towering red “Covenant.”

Some are expected, like the formal portraits of Penn presidents and provosts lining the walls of College Hall, many by well-known artists, such as the famous Philadelphia Peale family. Others are not, like a silver tea set from India, part of a collection of 140 objects donated by Penn Dental’s earliest benefactor, Thomas W. Evans, and recently conserved by the University.

Many are memorable, like an enormous tapestry 20 yards wide, covering an entire wall in a new library reading room. And some are personal, like the artworks people choose to borrow from the Penn collection for their offices, including President Amy Gutmann.

“Art is incredibly important on Penn’s campus,” says Vice Provost Anita Allen, who chairs the provost’s Art Advisory Council. “Art enriches the human spirit and I believe every young person needs an opportunity to explore the many, many genres of art that can enlarge and expand of our common humanity.”

Much of the collection was given as gifts to the University. “Penn has an amazing permanent collection of art donated by our friends and people who know they can trust Penn to take care of their special and precious art objects,” says Allen. “It is very rewarding to know that we have the ability to conserve art and share art with the community.”

Some of the most recent additions to Penn’s collection are the 20 artworks featured at the Perry World House, donated by Richard and Lisa Perry from their personal collection.

“Art can create a mood. Art can define a space,” says Richard Perry, a Penn alumnus and a member of the University’s Board of Trustees.

Perry worked with Perry World House Director William Burke-White, Gutmann, and Marsden-Atlass to decide which pieces he should donate for the World House when it opened in 2016.

“I tried to focus on artists from all around the world,” Perry says, naming their many countries of origin, including England, France, Korea, Japan, India, Iran, as well as the United States. “I feel it can be a little bit of home for visiting students or teachers or whoever happens to come into the building.”

Especially powerful, he said, is the photograph of the Korean Demilitarized Zone, created with a long exposure over eight hours, now featured in the building’s entrance. “It looks very tranquil, but if you look closely you realize it is the most landmined area in the entire world,” Perry says.

A photograph by Iranian filmmaker and photographer Shirin Neshat features a woman in a partial hijab with tiny words written in Farsi over the entire image. “It’s the story of freedom,” Burke-White says. “Art speaks to all of the challenges we have in society and everything we do in an education institution.”

A favorite painting is a bright acrylic, “Totem,” by contemporary artist Michael Craig-Martin centered on the main, open stairwell. “It’s fun,” Marsden-Atlass says. “He does a visual riff of 20th century art and makes reference to artists Marcel Duchamps and Rene Magritte.”

The newest acquisition on Penn’s campus is “Fields of Transformation,” a silk-and-wool tapestry in cream, blue and yellow, created by Dutch artist Claudy Jongstra. The largest of the three works measures nearly 54 feet by 18 feet, filling from floor to ceiling the largest wall in the new Moelis Family Grand Reading Room in Penn’s Van Pelt-Dietrich Library.

“You can never say: I’ve seen all the art at Penn,” Allen says. “It’s changing all the time.”

Temporary exhibits are displayed in the galleries that are part of the Penn Libraries, the Abramson Cancer Center, the University Club, Claudia Cohen Hall, and Morris Arboretum, to name a few. And in addition to Penn’s permanent collection, its museums—Penn Museum, Arthur Ross Gallery, Institute of Contemporary Art—regularly present special exhibits.

Some items in the collection are made available to professors to use for teaching. Students don gloves and can closely examine the works of art up close in the Curator’s Office, part of “object-based learning,” Marsden-Atlass says. “It’s a wonderful way to teach and the best way for us to use the collection across disciplines,” she said.

A selection of the collection is also available for view online. “Unless you take a long walking tour of the campus, you can search our art collection website where nearly 1,000 photographs and 800 objects are on view,” Marsden-Atlass says.

This year art at Penn will gain a new focus campus-wide through the Sachs Arts Innovation Program, made possible through a “transformative” $15 million gift from alumni Keith and Katherine Sachs. The initiative is designed to visibly energize the arts, integrating art throughout the University in collaborative research, teaching, and practice.

“There has never been a more exciting moment for art at Penn,” says Allen, who also serves on the faculty of the philosophy department and Penn Law. “One of Penn’s goals is to be a truly multidisciplinary community and inclusive community that integrates art into everything we teach and learn.”

Photo: A favorite spot for selfies, this bronze sculpture of Penn founder Benjamin Franklin by George Lundeen near Locust Walk is fondly known as Ben on a Bench.

Ben on the Bench