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Guide to free arts attractionsBY: Dan Rottenberg 07.01.2003
A quick guide to culture that doesn’t cost a cent.
A life in the arts, free of charge
A young travel agent from Kosice, Slovakia recently visited Philadelphia for the first time. I had about five hours to impress her. What to do?
First I drove her out the Ben Franklin Parkway, past its flags of all nations (including Slovakia’s) and the Art Museum. Then we ate lunch outdoors at Rouge, facing Rittenhouse Square. Next we peeked into the Art Alliance and Opus 251. We strolled the shops of Walnut Street, the French Quarter on Sansom Street, and Antique Row on Pine Street. We zipped through Liberty Place, the Union League, the University of the Arts, the Kimmel Center, and the Academy of Music. We rode the elevator to the top of City Hall Tower. Everywhere we went we encountered local celebrities— chefs, journalists, public figures, artists— the kind of small-town serendipity that’s Center City’s great selling point.
For a finale, we drove out to Penn and walked across campus, bustling with fresh-faced students from many lands. Here we stumbled upon a “Rendell for Governor” rally, and my Slovakian friend got to meet a former mayor. The weather cooperated throughout.
What a snow job! Yet of all the sights we took in, what do you think most dazzled my Slovakian friend? I will tell you: The ornate domed lobby and ballroom of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, that renovated former home of the old Girard Bank. Trust me, there’s nothing like it in Kosice.
Aside from lunch and parking, this sampling of one of the world’s great cities cost us not a penny. And that got me to thinking. Many people avoid serious culture because they assume it costs serious money. Maybe you can’t blame them, now that the Philadelphia Orchestra is charging $130 for premium seats. But tickets to Aerosmith or Eminem or Britney Spears (who’ll surely be forgotten ten years from now) aren’t exactly cheap, either. More to the point, some of Philadelphia’s best cultural attractions are utterly, absolutely free. If you choose your times and venues carefully, you can immerse yourself in the immortal arts and sciences without touching your wallet.
Here, for example, are some of my favorite Philadelphia freebies.
Curtis Institute of Music. Free recitals three times a week (usually Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 8 p.m.) during the school year. The performers are “only” students, but what students! You could be watching the next Leonard Bernstein, Lynn Harrell, Anna Moffo, Richard Goode or Ignat Solzhenitsyn, all of whom went here, along with half the musicians in the Philadelphia Orchestra. 1726 Locust St., (215) 893-5261. http://www.curtis.edu.
Philadelphia Museum of Art. One of the world’s great art museums (and America’s third largest) offers free admission Sundays between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Come Sunday before 1, stay ’til 5, and it won’t cost a cent to see incomparable collections of Dutch masters, Italian Renaissance painters, Cézanne, Eakins, Duchamp, Brancusi, Rodin, and Victorian and early American furniture, not to mention 31 period rooms (from a 16th-century Indian temple interior to a Victorian Philadelphia drawing room) that are the envy of other museums. 26th and Ben Franklin Parkway. (215) 763-8100. http://www.philamuseum.org.
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Three centuries’ worth of great American painting (Cassatt, Eakins, O’Keeffe, West, etc.) housed in an 1876 building that’s itself a mind-boggling example of Gothic Victorian architecture. Admission is free on Sundays from 3 to 5 only. 118 N. Broad St. (at Cherry). (215) 972-7600. http://www.pafa.org.
University of Pennsylvania Museum. One of the world’s great collections of archaeological and anthropological artifacts from the world over (Egypt, Asia, Mesopotamia, ancient Greece, Central America, etc.). Admission is free on Sundays from 1 to 5 (except in summer, when it’s closed Sundays). Spruce Street below 33rd. (215) 898-4000. http://www.upenn.edu/museum.
Mann Center for the Performing Arts. Free lawn tickets to the Philadelphia Orchestra’s summer season (July 1-25 this year, three nights weekly at 8) aren’t as easy to come by as in the past, but they’re still available if you’re persistent. 90,000 free tickets are distributed through community and non-profit organizations (examples: American Cancer Society, Community Coalition, Big Brothers Big Sisters). Check the Mann’s website for a complete list. Or get tickets by calling your City Councilperson. 52nd St. and Parkside Ave., in Fairmount Park. (215) 546-7900. http://www.manncenter.org.
Athenaeum of Philadelphia. This three-story Italianate Revival building, dedicated to the history of architecture and design, is furnished with American fine and decorative arts from the first half of the 19th Century. Exhibits in the first-floor gallery change often. Open free Mon.-Fri. 9-5 except holidays. Guided tours are available. 219 S. Sixth St. (below Walnut), (215) 925-2688. http://www.philaathenaeum.org.
Wagner Free Institute. Must be seen to be believed: a “museum of a museum,” virtually untouched since 1885. Dinosaur bones, mastodon tusks, skeletons, stuffed birds and animals, insects, plus thousands of other exotic specimens collected by the 19th-Century Philadelphia merchant and amateur scientist William Wagner during his global travels. One of a kind, and always free; open Tues.-Fri., 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Ask about occasional Saturday open houses, evening programs. 1700 Montgomery Ave. (at 17th St.). (215) 763-6529. http://www.pacscl.org/wagner.
Masonic Temple. Is it art or is it kitsch? Either way, a tour of this huge 1873 building becomes a walk through the history of architecture: You move from Corinthian to Ionic, Italian renaissance, Norman, Gothic, Oriental and Egyptian. Tours on the hour Mon.-Fri. 1903, Sat. at 10 and 11. Donations accepted. 1. N. Broad St., (215) 988-1917. http://www.pagrandlodge.org.
Free Library of Philadelphia. It’s much more than books. The main branch on Logan Square offers free concerts, films and lecture programs most Sundays, not to mention exhibitions on art, architecture, books and local history. Check out the Rare Book Room on the fourth floor, too. 1901 Vine St., (215) 686-5322. http://www.library.phila.gov.
Institute of Contemporary Art. Philadelphia’s leading venue for modern art. Admission is free Sundays from 11 to 1, and you can stay until 5. 36th and Sansom Sts. (215) 898-5911. http://www.icaphila.org.
Churches. European churches and cathedrals are major tourist destination spots; here we take them for granted. Yet many are repositories of great art and architecture. Try, for example, the Cathedral of Sts. Peter & Paul (18th and the Parkway, 215/587-3500), St. Peter’s Episcopal Church (313 Pine St., 215/ 925-5968), Christ Church (Second St. between Market and Arch, 215/922-1695), Arch Street Meeting House (320 Arch St., 215/627-2667), Gloria Dei (Old Swede’s Church, weekends only, 9-5, Christian St. at Columbus Blvd., 215/389-1513).
Art galleries. Many of these shops are small museums in themselves. Paintings are for sale, but there’s no charge to look. Get yourself on their mailing lists and you might score free wine and cheese at their receptions, to boot. A few examples: The Pennsylvania Academy’s School Gallery (daily 9-7 at1301 Cherry St., 215/972-7600), Woodmere Art Museum (Tues.-Sun., 9201 Germantown Ave., in Chestnut Hill, 215/247-0476), Marion Locks Gallery (600 S. Washington Sq., 215/ 629-1000), Newman Galleries (1625 Walnut St., 215/ 563-1779).
Cemeteries. Some of these are repositories of great art, architecture and statuary, not to mention great spots for picnicking and jogging. In particular, try Woodlands Cemetery (4000 Woodland Ave., 215/386-2121) and Laurel Hill Cemetery (3822 Ridge Ave., 215/228-8200).
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