27 Days: The most compelling reason?

Yesterday evening, more than 125 people gathered at WHYY’c Civic Space to hear about The Gross Clinic and to discuss its fate. The tone in the room was serious and hopeful with a palpable sense of urgency. Speakers Elizabeth Johns (UPenn), Kim Sajet (PAFA) and Marla Shoemaker (PMA) provided a host good reasons to keep the painting in Philadelphia. And those in attendance were convinced of the painting’s greatness as a work of art. But folks were equally certain that $68 million is daunting, acrophobic, and maybe even a diversion away from our city’s greatest needs.

Which single argument has the greatest appeal and the most persuasive power? Which argument will, hands down, compel and convince the greatest number of us? We thought this one stood out: The identity, the soul of Philadelphia is embedded in this object. Sure, it is impressive and important as a work of art. But placing all bets on the art argument alone may not be the one to tip the civic and philanthropic imagination.

We are guessing that the identity argument will be among “Ten Reasons to Keep Eakins’ Gross Clinic in Philadelphia” put forth by Curator Kathleen A. Foster in her upcoming presentation at Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Van Pelt Auditorium. There will be two opportunities to attend: Sunday December 3rd at 2:30 p.m. and Thursday December 7th at 11:00 a.m.

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2 Comments on “27 Days: The most compelling reason?”

  1. David Othmer Says:

    Ken–Seems to me we need a public plan to raise $68MM, not a lot of talk about great art. Here are some thoughts:

    1) Contact the National Gallery and see if they’ll do the same deal with us as they were prepared to do with WalMart. That would reduce the dollars needed and, frankly, expose the painting to a lot more people. (For the past several decades hundreds of people have seen it each year; at PMA and PAFA thousands would see it, at PMA, PAFA and the National Gallery, hundreds of thousands would see it each year–sharing isn’t a bad thing–isn’t one of the goals to maximize exposure to the painting?)

    2) If it is the “soul of the city”, then let’s get all the citizens of the city involved. It’s Christmas, after all, how about a massive “Give your City a Present” campaign to get everyone in the city to give $68 to the city to keep the soul of the city in the city. It would need to be a thought through campaign with media offering to run spots gratis, with a visible countdown on major building billboards (PECO, CIRA), a campaign that will enthuse millions of us because it is the soul of the city, not just a few thousand art lovers and historians.

    3) There could be a lottery element–$68,000 to the winner.

    4) There should be hugely pubicized challenge grants.

    5) It could culminate in a pledge drive of one or two hours simulcast on all tv stations.

    The main point is that with 27 days to go, I’d bet that if you stopped 1000 people on the street and asked them what the Gross Clinic was, fewer than 25 would know the answer–a campaign that made that 975 out of 1000 know the answer would guarantee that the painting stayed here.

  2. Joan Says:

    I was in attendance at WHYY’s Town Meeting – I would not describe the tone of the room as having a “palpable sense of urgency”. In fact, by the end, I would describe it as being rather annoyed.

    The first speaker explained both the painting and its historic place in Philadelphia. I deeply appreciated this, and from the hearty applause, I gather most present appreciated Dr. Johns remarks, as well.

    Two panelists – NEITHER OF WHOM WERE FROM THOMAS JEFFERSON – spoke about the need to keep the painting in Philadelphia. Both speakers were articulate, passionate and obviously well-informed. I appreciated their remarks, too, but wondered how in the world we could have a town meeting about TJ’s sale of the painting without a representative from the University there. As a matter of fact, I wondered why it was that we were there at all.

    I believe I was not the only one who questioned the reason for the ‘town meeting’ – one commenter actively raised this question. The substance of his remarks were passively ignored as the speakers discussed the emotions felt by the staff at their individual organizations at the news of the sale. Another commenter spoke about her disappointment at TJ for selling the painting – this time, the substance was actively quashed with a single remark from a speaker: we are not here to Jefferson-bash. There were several people in the audience who said, ‘why not?’ and many hands raised suddenly and with a degree of vigor… only to be met with ‘we have time for two more comments’. At the point, the room became somewhat restless and I left – after all, I could not figure out why I was there to begin with.

    I am heartily disappointed at this event – the sale of this painting obviously has many people agitated to the point that they will attend a meeting about it; yet, the organizers did not seem to consider this. Nothing positive came from this meeting – there was no substantive discussion about ways in which sales of historic paintings could be prevented, no discussion whatsoever about organizing around this sad event, not even an abstract discussion about the ‘right’ of private institutions to sell public art. There was tepid requests for donations (perhaps at the very end there was a more insistent appeal) and that was that.

    In the future, I think WHYY needs to consider whether or not its Civic Space is really ‘civic’ or merely informational. And, I certainly hope WHYY refrains from using the term Town Meeting for informational/emotional gatherings.


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