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Building Bridges with Art
The Foundation community arts initiative. By
Welcome to the Foundation!
Make yourself at homegrab a chair or just find a spot on the carpeted
floor. There is food in the back, next to Bernard, the artist whos creating
new works during tonights performance. The show hasnt started yet,
but the evening is well underway. Penn students and local residents sit alongside
one another, striking up conversations. Folks have come from all over the city
for tonights performance of the VERGE vocal arts ensemble. Tonights
host Stef Renee (Stephanie R. McNeal W91), takes the stage and brings
you along on an entrancing, other-worldly journey of words and music.
The VERGE is just one example of the outstanding community
programs going on weekly at the Foundation. The Foundation has already been
the subject of feature articles in The Daily Pennsylvanian, Philadelphia
Weekly, City Paper, and the Peoples Emergency Center Newsletter.
MTV Online has recognized the Foundation as one of the Top 19 Local Events of
1999 for the entire nation (www.mtv.com, MTV Local section). The Foundation
is kicking off a second semester of innovative performances, including an after-school
arts education program and forays into jazz and experimental and film music.
As the Foundations director, I am working hard on securing additional
funding and a permanent home on 40th street.
A year ago
I would never have believed it all possible. I was a junior in one of Penns
many academically based community service (ABCS) courses. The professorsDr.
Ira Harkavy, associate vice president and director of the Center for Community
Partnerships, and Dr. Lee Benson, emeritus professor of historyhad challenged
me to use my music
internship experiences to conceive an idea for an arts venue in University City.
They presented me with some research that former students had done into the
subject; my mind was bursting with ideas on how to modify and further their
proposal. My experiences working at WXPN and attending arts events all over
the city led me to the realization that many musicians live in University City
but have to commute to other locations to perform. Why not simply present them
closer to home, and let them collaborate on putting together their own events?
I decided that the only viable model was one that incorporated virtually all
genres of music and art found in the local community.
With the help
of fellow undergrads Jon Herrmann W00, Noah Bilenker C99, Swapnil
Shah C/W99 and Micah Westerman C01, I set out to convince the University.
I found strong allies in the vice provost for university life, Dr. Valarie Swain-Cade
McCoullum, as well as the managing director for real estate, Tom Lussenhop,
and Dr. Al Filreis, the Class of 1942 Professor of English and the Kelly Writers
House faculty director. By April 1999, we had put together two trial events:
a jazz concert featuring two local groups and an evening of underground hip-hop.
These events were a tremendous success, and the Foundation was granted a budget
and a temporary home in the Rotunda, a former church building at 40th and Walnut
The rest is
history-in-the-making. I feel that I have no business trying to single-handedly
plan shows for a community that I have so recently joined. Therefore, in the
spirit of true university-community collaboration, I have enlisted the help
of a few respected arts figures. Earle Brown of radio station WRTI and the Summit
Partnership put together jazz shows that drew record numbers, including our
season premiere with the Fortune Vinson Cruse Band. DJ Spaceling, creator of
the Philadelphia Ambient Consortium, hosted a series of experimental music events.
Some of the artists who performed in this series told us that the Foundation
was the best thing to happen for experimental music in Philadelphia in 20 years!
And Stef Renee, an independent arts impresario, gave us the gift of the VERGE
poetry/performance series. By putting these community agents in charge of the
music, the Foundation gained the trust and support of multiple communities and
became one of the most vibrant arts venues in the city of Philadelphia.
in the arts is only part of the Foundations missionthe easy part.
The more difficult and rewarding part is getting students from the University
to have meaningful interactions with the rest of the local community, and vice
versa. Even at this early stage, I think the Foundation is an unparalleled successand
all the credit goes to the students and the community members who have shared
in the magic of the weekly performances. Nothing fills me with greater pride
than the friendships that have resulted from this spirit of collective ownership.
The Foundation maintains strong relationships with the West Philadelphia Cultural
Alliance, the Partnership Community Development Center, the Peoples Emergency
Center CDC, Friends of Clark Park, the Restaurant School, Penns Center
for Community Partnerships, Greenfield Intercultural Center and the TOUCHH (Teaching
Ourselves the Unique Culture of Hip Hop) Center for the Study of Hip Hop. And
all of this has come about in the first four months of operation!
has taught me that true art is about community and common experience (even when
depicting alienation from such comforts), and art allows us to gather and focus
on what makes us human. In my mind, there is no more vital or obvious way to
foster a virtual revolution in university-community relations. To this end,
the Foundation is working on creating more opportunities for dialogue and education
through the arts. An after-school arts program is in the works with Penns
Program for Universities, Communities of Faith, Schools and Neighborhoods; the
Foundation has also partnered with the Paul Robeson House to present a series
of lectures and workshops on alternate Saturdays. The steering committee has
also committed to adding more students of color to our working group, as well
as incorporating participants from local high schools. The sky is the limit.
On a personal
level, this experience has completely changed my life. It is a dream come true,
a responsibility too daunting to imagine, a set of possibilities thrilling to
the utmost. I feel myself becoming a member of a diverse community in the truest
sense of the word. The Foundation has made me more compassionate, more sensitive
in my interactions and more aware of the astounding potential every individual
possesses. I want to help make this possible for every student at the University
of Pennsylvania. Therefore, as I prepare to graduate this spring, I am fully
committed to staying at the University and continuing this work. My goal is
to help bring the fiscal and academic resources of the community to the service
of the district-at-large, both through the Foundation and other initiatives.
If the University continues its honorable commitment to revitalizing West Philadelphia
and continues to recognize the arts as a primary vehicle for change, then there
is a bright future in store.
I encourage you
to join the Foundation Community Arts Initiative. Learn more about the Foundation
by visiting our webpage (www.upenn.edu/philly/foundation)
and joining the hundreds of people on our e-mail list. Come to a performance
one Friday night if you are in the area. And contact me with any feedback or
ideas at <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
The bedrock of this work, indeed its foundation, is the enthusiastic
commitment of people from all over. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity
to come along for the ride.
Andrew Zitcer is a senior from Oakland, N.J. majoring
in English and religious studies.
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2000 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 3/8/00