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 The Arts For Our Sakes
Penn’s rich history—and renewed commitment—in the humanities. By Judith Rodin


“By art alone can we get out of ourselves, find out what another person sees of this universe which is not the same as ours,” writes Marcel Proust in his masterpiece of European fiction, In Search of Lost Time.
   For Proust, art becomes the portal to new worlds through which we travel to enjoy the miracle of creation, experience the power of the universe, and, ultimately, lead more fully examined lives.
   While the University of Pennsylvania has spent a quarter of a millennium racking up worldwide honors and accolades in medicine, business, law, psychology, life sciences, and physical sciences, Penn also has long provided fertile ground for arts and culture:
   For more than a century, the University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology has set the gold standard for digging up the past and, through riveting narrative and interpretation, providing valuable lessons on how world cultures and civilizations develop and change.

Rudi Gernreich: Fashion Will Go Out of Fashion,
at the ICA Sept. 15-Nov. 11.

For 40 years, the Institute of Contemporary Art has garnered international attention for showcasing confrontational, cutting-edge, and avant garde works—from the first major Andy Warhol show back in the early 1960s to Lisa Yuskavage’s first solo museum exhibition this past spring.
   Housed in the Fisher Fine Arts Library—itself one of the great and stunning architectural wonders of Philadelphia—the Arthur Ross Gallery, directed by Dilys Winegrad Gr’70, presents important exhibits of consistently high quality and importance, such as recent shows on “Jews and Modernity” and the photography of Sylvia Plachy.
   Penn is home to a number of literary, artistic, and musical treasures. Among the more notable are a Shakespeare First Folio; the original manuscript of Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie; Thomas Eakins’ celebrated painting, The Agnew Clinic; oil portraits by an array of painters, from John Singer Sargent to Benjamin West; and the Curtis Organ in Irvine Auditorium.
   Striking buildings that marry utility to strength and beauty help give the Penn campus much of its character and energy. Among the great architects who have touched Penn with their genius and vision are Frank Furness (the Fisher Fine Arts Library); Louis I. Kahn Ar’24 Hon’71 (the Richards Medical Research Laboratory on Hamilton Walk); and the team of Robert Venturi Hon’80 and Denise Scott Brown GCP’60 GAr’65 Hon’94 (the Roy and Diana Vagelos Laboratories), who also designed Perelman Quad and directed the restoration of the Fisher Fine Arts Library. (Penn’s rich architectural history is told with wonderful narrative verve in Building America’s First University: An Historical and Architectural Guide to the University of Pennsylvania, by Penn professors George Thomas Gr’75 and David Brownlee.)
   Great classical and modern theater and dance have graced the stages, and memorable music of all genres has filled the halls, of our notable performing spaces, from the Gothic fixture of Irvine Auditorium, to the stage of the Iron Gate Theatre, to the three theaters of the Annenberg Center—one of the nation’s premier university-based performing arts centers.
   With an audience exceeding 300,000 listeners, a Peabody Award-winning children’s show, and a nationwide reputation for showcasing many of the more innovative artists and trends in contemporary music, our radio station, WXPN, has earned its stripes as a first-rate arts institution in Philadelphia.
   Not only have students in droves embraced fine arts, music, English, and theater as their majors, even more have performed in literally hundreds of outstanding music, dance, and theater troupes.
   Great writers like William Carlos Williams M’06 Hon’52 and John Edgar Wideman C’63 Hon’86, and performing-arts geniuses like Harold Prince C’48 Hon’71 have studied here. Legendary humanities scholars like Loren Eiseley have taught here.
   The Penn campus clearly enjoys an embarrassment of riches in arts and culture that far exceeds our reputation. However, only in the past few years have we begun more fully appreciating and creatively tapping this wealth to enrich the cultural and intellectual life of the University.
   Through new initiatives, new enhancements, and a renewed commitment to the humanities, we have pulled together to raise the visibility of the arts at Penn while fostering fruitful collaborations and participation among Penn’s many arts and culture organizations, our outstanding faculty, and the broader community.
   For starters, Penn’s anchor institutions of arts and culture have re-energized and reinvented themselves to become more global in scope and impact, more interdisciplinary in focus, more receptive to multiple perspectives, and more supportive of daring new work, ideas, and scholarship.
   Take the University Museum. It may be housed in its original, venerable, and still magnificent Wilson Eyre building. Inside, however, under the energetic direction of Penn Archaeology Professor Jeremy Sabloff C’64, the Museum is both driving and reflecting the dramatic transformation of archaeology and anthropology.
   In 1957, for example, Penn researchers dug up the tomb of King Midas at the ancient Phrygian capital of Gordion in central Turkey. More than 40 years later, a team of Museum scientists, led by archaeochemist Patrick McGovern, analyzed the organic contents of excavated vessels and earthen materials to determine and chemically reconstruct what mourners ate and drank at the royal funeral feast for King Midas 2,700 years earlier. (It was a spicy lamb and lentil stew, complemented by a powerful brew of grape wine, barley beer, and honey mead. It made for memorable, if pungent, fare, for those of us lucky enough to enjoy an authentic reenactment of the feast two years ago!)
   The Annenberg Center, meanwhile, has been serving up its own rich feast of culture. Under Michael Rose’s leadership, the center expanded its five-star menu of theater and dance to include sumptuous courses of jazz, classical, and world music, with an added emphasis on cultural fare delivered to Penn’s College Houses and the local community.
   Through its PENN Presents program, the Center will offer a varied and exciting range of performances that will include Chicago’s Hubbard Street Dance troupe, jazz greats Sonny Rollins and Wynton Marsalis, classical pianist Peter Serkin, the chamber ensemble eighth blackbird, world music stars Cesaria Evora and Chava Alberstein, and many others.
   Topping it off—and setting PENN Presents apart from other performing arts venues in the city—are the intellectual benefits of Penn’s university connections. For example, Penn’s own Pulitzer Prize-winning composer George Crumb will give a lecture prior to the performance of his music by eighth blackbird next January. And Wynton Marsalis will share his knowledge and insights with West Philadelphia schoolchildren on Penn’s campus.
   Penn’s other arts institutions are also gearing up for major shows. This month, with Claudia Gould at the helm, the ICA will be the only museum in the nation to present a major exhibition of the works of Rudi Gernreich, one of the major forces in 20th-century fashion design.
   While the University Museum, the Annenberg Center, and the ICA have established their presence on the national arts scene, two initiatives of more recent vintage have successfully woven the threads of literary and academic excellence at Penn into a more dazzling fabric for the entire community to behold and enjoy.
   The first is Kelly Writers House. Six years ago, a determined group of students, faculty, staff, and alumni pursued the vision to convert a 13-room house on Locust Walk into a vibrant hub where the entire Penn community could learn the craft and share the joys of creative writing.
   That vision triggered a chain reaction that turned Kelly Writers House into an ongoing affirmation and celebration of the creative spirit. Each week, waves of emerging and established writers drop by the house to share their work, thoughts, and secrets with the Penn community.
   Writers House does much more. It publishes Web magazines, runs workshops, holds film screenings, presents art exhibits, and, once a month on WXPN, broadcasts an hour of music, poetry, and literary prose.
   Truly, Kelly Writers House is a university treasure as well as a tribute to its guiding spirit and exemplary Penn citizen, the Class of 1942 Professor of English Al Filreis.
   Meanwhile, only two years after its formal launch, the Penn Humanities Forum, currently led by Penn Music Professor Eugene Narmour, has made huge strides toward its dual mission of drawing Penn faculty from all disciplines and schools into a dynamic exploration of humanistic questions and issues, and bringing the broader University, local, and academic communities into the discussion.
   From its inaugural focus on human nature to an upcoming look at the issue of time in its aesthetic, philosophical, and historical dimensions, the Penn Humanities Forum is breaking new ground in the discovery of knowledge and perspectives.
   Both the Kelly Writers House and the Humanities Forum have fostered a sense of community around the arts. Equally impressive are the myriad ways the Penn student community and our neighbors in West Philadelphia have drawn closer together through vibrant partnerships and social interactions of their own.
   One example is a student-run community arts initiative called the Foundation, started last year. Every Friday night, in a converted church building, the Foundation presents a lively bill of music, dance, poetry, and visual arts that showcases local talent from the campus and from the community. Through the power and magic of the arts, the Penn community and neighborhood connect.
   Whether they are playing in an ensemble or watching a performance, Penn students connect powerfully to one another through the arts as well. Currently, nearly three-dozen dance, theater, musical, comedic, and a-cappella groups belong to the Performing Arts Council. Then there are mainstays like the Penn Symphony Orchestra, which last summer made history by becoming the first American orchestra to perform with the fabled Beijing Opera in China.
   All the cultural offerings and performances at Penn point back to a core mission of this University: the cultivation of our humanity through the intense study and practice of the arts.
   We have a world-class Graduate School of Fine Arts that continues its pioneering work in the design, creation, and preservation of artworks, buildings, landscapes, and cities. GSFA’s focus on the arts as the subject of teaching and learning perhaps is best epitomized in the Charles Addams Fine Arts Hall. The legacy of one of the University’s most famous alumni artists, Charles Addams FA’34 Hon’80, this state-of-the-art facility can now accommodate up to 2,500 aspiring and practicing artists, architects, and photographers. Moreover, Addams Hall provides a huge boost for our Digital Media Design program, a collaboration among GSFA, the Annenberg School for Communication, and the School of Engineering and Applied Science.
   Finally, great universities are places where the arts are taught, studied, and understood at the highest level. Penn has outstanding departments in music, English, comparative literature, philosophy, and art history, whose faculty teach students the arts on their own theoretical and aesthetic terms, while analyzing their contextual connections to human history and human reality.
   For all our passion, talents, resources, and academic firepower, I believe all of us—faculty, students, administrators, and alumni—have only begun to mine our full teaching and learning potential in arts and culture. Stir the pot at Penn, and you can find all the ingredients to make the richest cultural brew.
   I am happy to report that we are stirring the pot. With Deputy Provost Peter Conn, the Andrea Mitchell Professor of English, taking the lead, the Provost’s Council on Arts and Culture has begun to encourage the heads of Penn’s arts and cultural organizations to find and exploit the synergies among them.
   Ultimately, our goal is to inject the power of the arts into all aspects of teaching and University life. Our challenges in society are all the more baffling, our insights into the world so much shallower, and our appreciation of life much more impoverished, without the blessings of the arts.
   Art does more than imitate life. It is life itself, raised to the infinite powers of our miraculous capacities. That is why studying life through the arts at Penn is learning in its purest form.

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