The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 20, 1999


Art and Phila.: The energy and attitude are everywhere

Bar Talk: for the Commentary page

By Teresa Leo
"It breathes life into a city." That's what music teacher and environmental educator Chris Brennan Hagy, 47, said when asked what art can do.

At a time when so much attention is directed toward science and technology, I wondered what the arts community thought about the state of the arts in Philadelphia. To find out, I visited two bars hosting artistic events: Fergie's Pub, a neighborhood bar in Center City, during an issue-release party for Painted Bride Quarterly, a Philadelphia-based literary magazine, and the Mermaid Inn, a Chestnut Hill music venue built in the 1700s, during their weekly traditional Irish music session.

So what is art again? I asked around for a definition of this elusive term, and I got a range of thoughtful one-liners, from Melisa Cahnmann's "Self-expression that reaches a universal truth" to Erin Seifert's "anything that inspires, offends or titillates you" to Daniel Nester's "art is life's unfinished business."

And what does art accomplish? Jim McGill, 58, an organizer of the Philadelphia Ceili Group's Irish Festival for 25 years, said, "In a city made up of so many different cultures, it's important to keep identities alive. Art helps pass on traditions from one generation to the next." Andrea Saenz, 26, administrator for Congreso de Latinos Unidos, said, "Art can highlight the creativity and individuality of people living in different neighborhoods."

Against a backdrop of poetry readings or jigs and reels, arts aficionados spoke of Philadelphia as a vibrant and flourishing arts community. Michael Kittredge, 26, a Philadelphia Folk Festival volunteer, talked about the abundance of venues and artistic energy in the city: "There are festivals, arboretums, libraries, museums, galleries, workshops and theaters. You can also just stroll into a coffeeshop and hear spoken-word or live music. Art is all around us."

But does Philadelphia provide enough support for the arts? An interesting question. Art is not always just about art. Often - let's be frank - it's about money, who has it, who gets it and who wants it.

Many thought more could be done to help smaller groups and individual artists. Funding was the number-one topic: "City and state organizations could make their presence known," said David Deifer, 36, editor of CrossConnect, a literary magazine based at the University of Pennsylvania. "They could foster community growth and outreach into the artistic communities rather than leaving it to individuals or private institutions."

With so many groups vying for funding, people felt that arts organizations have to find creative approaches to raising revenue. That means that artists and artistic institutions must be willing to adopt an entrepreneurial attitude on a grassroots level. No more starving-artists complexes. We're talking fund-raising.

Painted Bride Quarterly editors Kathy Volk Miller, 36, and Marion Wrenn, 31, discussed the strategy of "guerrilla fund-raising": "We've sold bumper stickers and T-shirts, had benefit readings, auctioned off services donated by local merchants - everything from tattooing to body piercing to psychic readings. You do whatever it takes to keep the organization alive."

Whether they identified themselves as artists, administrators or the subculture of the subculture who comes out to support such events, the people I interviewed passionately described the significance of art in both the personal and public aspects of city life. In the end, Philadelphia's character is heavily invested in its art. Graduate student Greg Pardlo, 30, said, "Art isn't simply localized in painting or music or literature. It's in the architecture, in the Ben Franklin Bridge, in the entire profile and attitude of the place."

To me, art comes out of the urgency to express or explore what happens when the heart and the head collide. But whatever your definition, it's clear that art in its many forms, whether social, political or personal, heightens the aesthetic quality of our daily lives in this or any city. In the end, it's what moves you that counts. Art can unleash the senses; let the world in.


© 1999 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.