The past, present, and future of Penn’s collection

Associate University Curator Albert Porter joins Marsden-Atlass and me on our second trip to Van Pelt Library, and up on one of the top floors, they discuss the University collection as it extends beyond the upcoming Naked show. Porter stops mid-sentence to point out a portrait titled Dr. John Hunter. “This is a recent gift,” he says. “Someone called us from a nursing home and they had found the work in a closet and didn’t know what to do with it. It wound up being a [piece by early American portraitist] Thomas Sully, which we took and had restored.”

It’s a not uncommon story among Penn’s artworks, the vast majority of which have been gifts, rather than purchases. “We found that in [former Penn President Martin] Meyerson’s office when we cleaned it out after he died,” Porter says, pointing to the next painting on the wall, Giorgio de Chirico’s Landscape with Angels. “We get a lot of calls [about potential donations],” he adds. “We’ve even had people unrelated to Penn approach us and offer huge collections.”

“We have strengths in a number of different areas,” Marsden-Atlass says. That includes an assortment of early American works by Charles Wilson Peale, Sully, and others from when the University was first established, along with sizable collections of photography, prints, and portraits (many of past University higher-ups), she says.

Porter estimates that about 75 percent of the 6,000-work collection is out on campus, both inside and outside each of the 12 schools, all of the University hospitals and the Morris Arboretum. “Many of the major pieces are outdoor sculpture,” Marsden-Atlass adds. “I think they’re an important part of our campus, and a very visible illustration of Penn’s commitment to arts and culture.”

Among those outdoor works is what Porter and Marsden-Atlass consider a “gem of the collection”: Claes Oldenburg’s Split Button sculpture. The 5,000-pound, 16-foot broken white button sits outside Van Pelt library, and was purchased in 1981 under the city’s Percent for Art Ordinance, a 1959 public-art initiative—and the first of its kind in the country—that stipulates 1 percent of construction costs for municipal projects must be set aside for fine arts projects.

Other outdoor sculptural works include Alexander Archipenko’s King Solomon (just behind Van Pelt Library), the life-sized Ben on the Bench (in which Franklin is reading a copy of the Gazette) at 37th and Locust Walk, and Alexander Liberman’s interlocking large, red steel pipes that form Covenant at 39th (another Percent for Art acquisition). They are joined by some 30 others throughout campus, ranging from the seven-foot Spring fountain by Ulrich Pakker in the Dental School’s courtyard to Scholar, Football Player: A Drinking Fountain, by Alexander Stirling Calder, in the Quad. (The only hitch with all this outdoor art, Marsden-Atlass says, is that it “requires a little extra care” due to vandalization or regular wear and tear from the weather.)

One of the University’s best-known works, Thomas Eakins’s The Agnew Clinic, is on loan right now, appearing in a Philadelphia Museum of Art Eakins exhibition through January 2011. The painting was commissioned in 1889 by Penn’s medical class of that year as a tribute to retiring professor D. Hayes Agnew. Eakins modeled it after The Gross Clinic, which he had created 14 years prior for alumni of Jefferson Medical College, and which also depicts a doctor/professor performing surgery in front of his medical students.

Considering these and the other notable works in Penn’s collection—which include a vast range of time periods, genres, styles, and media—Provost Vincent Price says the collection is “one of the true treasures of the University.” Adds Marsden-Atlass, “These works are a tremendous asset for the University, and make it an even greater artistic and cultural resource. They also greatly enhance everyone’s quality of life.”

She’s already looking ahead to the next University-collection show, which will likely center on Penn’s photography holdings. And, in the meantime, Marsden-Atlass will continue watching as her treasure map expands further, with new works filling the campus-wide gallery that Penn has become.

Molly Petrilla C’06 writes frequently for the Gazette, and oversees the magazine’s Arts & Culture blog.


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FEATURE: Art History Lessons by Molly Petrilla
Photography by Candace diCarlo

©2010 The Pennsylvania Gazette

Adam, by Henry Moore; detail from Jean D’Aire, by Auguste Rodin,
a figure study for the sculptor’s Burghers of Calais;
Alexander Liberman’s monumental Covenant.

Thomas Eakins’ Agnew Clinic is currently in a show at the Philadelphia
Museum of Art with the better-known Gross Clinic, but Tait McKenzie’s
Flying Sphere (above) is part of the Naked exhibition.

Playing Favorites | We asked arts-oriented faculty and staff members across the University to name their favorite artwork at Penn.
Julie Saecker Schneider, chair of the undergraduate fine arts program:
Kelly Hand Gates by Mark Lueders at the entrance of Charles Addams Fine Arts Hall.

“The blend of bronze casts, steel, disciplinary references and the creepy hand from the Addams family always make me nod and smile as I walk into the building.”

Michael Leja, American art professor: The Agnew Clinic by Thomas Eakins. (see image above)

“This painting does not get nearly as much attention as the famous Gross Clinic, and it certainly isn’t as radical or historically important, but it is easier to like, in part because the attitudes of the students in the audience are so entertaining.”

Christine Poggi, modern and contemporary art professor: 125 Years by Jenny Holzer.

“It commemorates the 125th anniversary (celebrated in 2001) of women students being admitted to Penn with an anti-heroic monument … You can never take in the whole work, just the parts you choose to look at as you walk through it.  I like the fact that it can be missed, but also discovered by passersby who don’t expect any kind of monument in that location.”

Ty Furman, director of University life arts initiatives: Fisher Fine Arts Library, designed by Frank Furness.

“I have loved the Fisher Fine Arts Library since I first set foot on campus; the color, the windows, the gargoyles—it’s such a cool building.”

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©2010 The Pennsylvania Gazette
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