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Strengthening Ties and Raising the Visibility of Arts and Culture at Penn

Arts, Humanities and Society

One of the five academic priorities identified in Penn's new strategic plan, Building on Excellence, is Arts, Humanities and Society.  This area of study and practice is identified as one in which the University can, "[b]uild upon our special strengths to . . . differentiate Penn among international research universities of the first rank."

The specific goal is articulated as follows:

In order to capitalize on our academic strengths in the humanities and our unique cultural resources, Penn must build an infrastructure that supports innovative, interdisciplinary cultural programs and curricular development.

The plan notes that:

Penn is home to a remarkable collection of scholars dedicated to deciphering languages, literatures, and artistic expressions of peoples around the globe. We are also home to a number of premier cultural institutions capable of transmitting humanistic understandings to a broader public. In addition, Philadelphia itself contains outstanding cultural institutions that provide still more opportunities for research, learning, and outreach to a broader public.

Despite these potential strengths, Penn has not fully utilized its cultural institutions and those of the city, as well as its arts and humanities faculty, in enriching the education of its students and its interactions with the public. This underutilization is, in part, related to a lack of collaboration between Penn's academic departments and the cultural institutions of both Penn and the city. If implemented, the recommendations here will not only enhance the vitality and the visibility of our artistic and cultural institutions; but will assonant more importantly the intellectual and social fabric that makes us a university.

To accomplish the goal, the plan includes several recommendations:

  • Construct a broad arts and culture curriculum to better integrate the resources of local cultural institutions into enriched common experiences for all undergraduate students.
  • Develop graduate and upper-level undergraduate courses that will both contribute to and draw enhancement from our cultural institutions at Penn, as well as those of the Philadelphia region.
  • Strengthen ties between academic departments and cultural institutions, as well as those of the Philadelphia region.
  • Make possible, through short-term institutes, greater scholarly collaboration between arts and humanities faculty and those in the professional schools around issues of public values and world cultural diversity.
  • Establish a fund to provide support for new initiatives in the arts and humanities.

Prominent Penn Practitioners

As the plan notes, Penn has a long, if often underrecognized, tradition of excellence in the arts. Numerous alumni and faculty are prominent practitioners in a variety of artistic fields, including:

Lorene Cary: Writer, teacher and activist Lorene Cary received both her B.A. and M.A. from Penn. Her 1995 novel, The Price of a Child, was picked as the book in Philadelphia's first "One Book, One Philadelphia" project, in which all of the residents of the city are encouraged to read and discuss the same piece of literature. 

George Crumb: Born in West Virginia, George Crumb became one of the most influential American composers of the 20th century.  He came to Penn as an assistant professor in 1965, and retired from teaching in 1997 as the Annenberg Professor of the Humanities.

Louis Kahn: One of the most influential architects of the 20th century, Louis Kahn taught at Penn from 1955 until 1974. His elegant buildings of cast concrete transformed the international style of corporate modernism in a spiritual direction. 

Harold Prince: Director-producer Harold Prince graduated from Penn with a B.A. in 1948. Over the next several decades, he changed the face of Broadway by pioneering "concept musicals" such as A Little Night Music, Cabaret, West Side Story, The Phantom of the Opera, and Evita, among many others. He has received 20 Tony awards and was a 1994 Kennedy Center Honoree.

Neil Welliver: Born in rural Pennsylvania, Neil Welliver attended the Philadelphia Museum College of Art and ultimately founded the Graduate School of Fine Arts (now known as the School of Design) here at Penn in 1966. He has been called one of the best landscape painters in America and is an emeritus professor of fine arts at Penn. 

William Carlos Williams: Pulitzer Prize-winning poet William Carlos Williams earned his medical degree from Penn and practiced as a pediatrician in Rutherford, New Jersey. He is perhaps best known for his multi-volume epic, Paterson, one of the most influential long poems of the 20th century.

West Side Story,  one of Harold Prince's many award-winning  concept-musicals. Price of a Child, and Paterson, are examples of  Penn's literary legacy.

Burnt Stump and Wild Rose, oil on canvas, 1986, 60"x 60" by Neil Welliver.

Above, from Twin Suns, a typical score by George Crumb with often-unorthodox musical notations that create art as well as music.


The Richards Medical Research Laboratories on Hamilton Walk at Penn, designed  by Louis I. Kahn, redefined modern architecture.


Provost's Council on Arts and Culture

Over the past five years, the task of raising the visibility of arts and culture at Penn has been led by the Provost's Council on Arts and Culture, comprised of the directors of the University's arts and culture venues and several faculty engaged in the study of artistic and humanities fields.  The Council's mission statement reads, in part:

Through its museums, performance spaces, and literary and humanistic forums, Penn has the opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to culture and to the pleasures and responsible freedoms art entails. We can expose our students to moving and thought-provoking works, and at the same time describe how and why they are being presented. We can debate the matters they raise, and consider the value of that debate to the larger conversation among citizens of a democracy. We can learn from and teach the lessons of the past, allowing our students to appreciate the great diversity of human achievements as well as the commensurability of humankind. And we can demonstrate through specific actions that we are genuinely committed to freedom of expression and open to new arts and ideas.

The Council also includes representatives from Penn's Divisions of Business Services and Facilities, units which have provided invaluable support for the University's efforts in this area.

In May 2003, for the first time, Penn sponsored Arts Day, an opportunity for members of the Boards of Overseers of all the arts and culture venues to meet and learn about each other's activities. Arts Day '03 also involved extensive discussion about how to implement the goals pertaining to arts, culture and humanities outlined in the new strategic plan. Areas of specific focus were: a) fostering collaboration between arts and culture venues and academic units; b) supporting the Urban Agenda, and c) continuing to develop mutually beneficial arrangements between the business side of the University and the arts and culture venues.

Collegial Collaborations

Several units of the University have made substantial progress in moving these agenda items forward. Examples of collaborations with academic units include:

  • A program co-sponsored between the Film Studies program and the Bridge Cinema called, "Film Today." Each event features an introduction to a film, followed by a discussion, Q & A, and a reception in the lounge of The Bridge. 
  • Curatorial seminars sponsored by the History of Arts Department in conjunction with the ICA and the Arthur Ross Gallery.
  • The Big Picture: Mural Arts in Philadelphia, a class offered through the School of Design & the Urban Studies Department, co-sponsored by the Community Arts Partnership of the Center for Community Partnerships, in which the students worked with the community to design and paint a mural and clean-up a playground.
  • Anthropology courses that employ Museum curators and the collections, including Dr. Robert Schuyler's field work courses in southern New Jersey and Dr. Clark Erickson's courses involving the digitizing of rare objects from the collections.
  • A proposed collaboration between the ICA,  Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing and the Kelly Writers House, will create a year-long writing seminar for students who will learn to write about contemporary art practices and will produce a magazine featuring their work.
  • Proposed writing courses on "writing about performance" that involve Penn dance and music productions.
  • The College House Music Program, which co-sponsors private music instruction and ensemble coaching by professional musicians. College House Music Fellows also offer master classes and recitals in the Houses.
  • Undergraduate research sponsored by the Penn Humanities Forum (culminating in a undergraduate research conference).
  • "Brave Testimony," a sequence of readings by African-American poets that is a  collaboration between Kelly Writers House and the Center for Africana Studies.
  • Apprenticeships for undergraduate students at arts and culture venues, so they can connect what they learn in the classroom with the actual practice of the arts.

Children's Programming

One way arts and culture venues have supported the University's Urban Agenda is through programs for children. These include:

  • The Annenberg Center's daytime school day Student Discovery Series, tied into their regular Penn Presents programming. All programs are presented at 10:30 a.m. and teachers from local schools are invited to attend with their students. In addition, Annenberg Center typically also presents a number of children's shows booked exclusively for  young audiences. This year, these shows are associated with the 26th Annual Showcase of Performing Arts for Young People, which they hosted January 22-24, comprising roughly 18 performances. They also arrange a limited number of outreach programs into the schools, when artists' schedules permit.
  • The Annenberg Center's annual Philadelphia International Children's Festival is being expanded to seven days from the previous five-day norm.  This year's 20th annual Festival will take place April 25 to May 2, comprising roughly 50 performances indoor and outside, plus an outdoor crafts fair.

Children get into the act with the Give and Take Jugglers at the annual Children's Festival.

  • The University Museum has many school programs, both hosting schoolchildren at the Museum and with Museum staff going out to schools (the Museum on the Go program). They also host public programs: a summer camp, Saturday Children's workshops, exhibition openings and world culture family days with activities geared to kids and families. They also have the Pyramid Shop for children.
  • Kelly Writers House sponsors "Write-On!", a weekly program for fourth-graders from West Philadelphia where they meet with young writers from Penn and try their hands at creative writing.
  • The Center for Community Partnerships, under the aegis of their Community Arts Partnership (CAP) program, funded by a grant from the William Penn Foundation, sponsors numerous arts-related programs for children.
  • The Morris Arboretum sponsors numerous children's programs throughout the year, ranging from how to build a bird-feeder to puppet theater among the trees.


Support for Cultural Initiatives

The business side of the University continues to provide substantial support for the arts and culture initiative.  Examples of this include:

  • Underwriting and sponsorship of programs, such as Annenberg Center's holiday show with Philadanco in winter 2001.
  • Discounted parking for patrons of arts and culture venues that involve foregoing revenue and extending operating hours and administrative services.
  • Since 2000, financial investment in and marketing support for product development, Sumerian tablets from the Museum; scarves, ties, and note cards from the Arboretum, Museum, etc.
  • Consultation with the University Museum staff and further formal recommendations to its Board of Overseers on improving the Museum store's revenues and profitability.
  • Inclusion of Arts and Culture in Destination Penn literature and hotel concierge and service desk information.


The second Arts Day will take place on March 24, and will continue the work of the many students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends of the University who have already contributed to this important initiative.

--Peter Conn, Deputy Provost,
Chair, Provost's Council on Arts and Culture

Arts and Culture Centers at Penn include:
Annenberg Center, 3680 Walnut Street
Arthur Ross Gallery, Fisher Fine Arts Library
Institute of Contemporary Art, 118 S. 36th Street
Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk
Morris Arboretum, Chestnut Hill
Music Department, Music Building
PennDesign, 102 Meyerson Hall
Penn Humanities Forum, 3619 Locust Walk
Penn Museum, 3260 South Street
Penn Press, 4200 Pine Street
Van Pelt-Dietrich Library, 3420 Walnut Street
WXPN, 3905 Spruce Street




  Almanac, Vol. 50, No. 25, March 16, 2004