On a Thursday afternoon in early May, inside the swank Art Deco home of WXPN World Café Live, 150 keepers of culture are discussing the state of Penn’s arts. They are among the first to learn about a theme year that will spotlight the University’s arts-and-culture scene—something numerous officials have described as a “hidden gem” in need of a good polish.
“We are on the threshold of an exciting Arts & the City Year,” Provost Vincent Price tells the board members, directors, and other overseers of the University’s vibrant cultural entities who have gathered for the annual Penn Arts Leadership Luncheon. “Throughout the year, we will be placing arts and culture front and center on campus [and] strongly reaffirming our commitment to the arts,” Price adds. “We are planning a wide range of exciting events, and we count on all of you to join us.”
Four months later, like any well-rehearsed performer, Arts & the City Year is ready for its close-up.
Arts & the City Year is in many ways “a natural outgrowth of what we’ve done in the past,” Price explains on a bright July morning. “Each year has become slightly larger and more ambitious, and this is our most ambitious yet.” He’s referring to the Penn Reading Project, which asks all incoming students to read the same book and participate in discussions with Penn faculty members—a gentle introduction to academic life that has evolved into a full themed year of discussion and activity. This September new students “read” Thomas Eakins’ painting The Gross Clinic [“Gazetteer,” May|June 2009]. The rest of the Class of 2013’s freshman year will focus on the buzzing arts and culture landscape at Penn and throughout the city of Philadelphia. “Our hope is that the theme is more prominent this year—more visible—and that it draws in a much larger constituency than simply new students entering Penn,” Price says.
Throughout Arts & the City Year, the University will promote on-campus seminars, performances, exhibitions, and symposia, and collaborate with other city institutions and organizations—the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, Campus Philly, Philadelphia Live Arts and Fringe Festival, and the Philadelphia Theatre Company—to offer students special opportunities and discounts.
“I think a lot of people are going to be surprised to see the depth and breadth of what we have going on at Penn,” says Ty Furman GrE’08, director of University Life Arts Initiatives. “We have some very well-established [arts] programs and institutions here, and both our community and the Philadelphia community only have a small sense of what those programs do. At the same time, I think many of our students are going to figure out that Philadelphia is a culturally rich city, and we want to help them access it.”
Price uses the word “connection” frequently to discuss Arts & the City Year: connections between arts and culture entities on campus, between academics and the arts, and between Penn and other city institutions. “It’s not just Arts in the City,” he says; “it’s Arts and the City.”
Gary Steuer, Philadelphia’s chief cultural officer, is equally enthusiastic. “There is a tendency for the University community to be in its own world, and the rest of the city often forgets how much is happening on the other side of the Schuylkill as well,” Steuer says. “My hope is that [Arts & the City Year] can begin a process of better connecting the University community to the cultural life of the city.”
The city will affirm its support of Arts & the City Year with a press conference on September 22 in City Hall. Mayor Michael Nutter W’79, Penn President Amy Gutmann, Steuer, and Price will host the event, which marks the official launch of the academic theme year. “We thought it would be a great way to kick off the excitement,” Steuer says.