At the turn of the 21st century, a confluence of events burnished Philadelphia’s image, letting it reclaim a status it hadn’t enjoyed since it was the cradle of liberty and workshop of the world. In Contested Image: Defining Philadelphia for the Twenty-First Century, Laura M. Holzman interprets the transformation through controversies over relocating art: Thomas Eakins’s painting The Gross Clinic; a film prop from a Rocky sequel; and the art collection amassed by Albert M. Barnes.
Though created in distinct eras, the works were swept into the public spotlight almost simultaneously, just as leaders sought to restore Philadelphia’s image at home and in the world. Ultimately, the painting, statue, and collection would become neighbors on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, adding luster to the city’s world-class cultural reputation.
Reading the public mind through period materials, Holzman documents how these elements became flashpoints for dormant rifts among regions and classes, forcing questions about what art is, where it belongs, and who should decide. She shows how much the answers depend on time and place. In 21st-century Philadelphia, objects of visual culture were forged in the crucible of public controversy, becoming contemporary symbols—Holtzman calls them “pictures”—for an evolving city.
The Barnes: City vs. suburb
Holzman begins with the complex saga of the Barnes Foundation, where controversy had always been part of the institutional DNA. The breathtaking collection of paintings, sculpture, furniture, and objects was gathered by Barnes, a wealthy chemist and physician with a sharp tongue and pointed ideas that brought him into conflict with a range of established interests before his accidental death in 1951. Just outside of Philadelphia in Merion, Pennsylvania, the original Barnes location was hampered by restrictive viewing policies, being located in a residential neighborhood; finances; and most prominently, by the stipulation in Barnes’s will that the collection “remain in exactly the places they are at the time of death of the Donor.”
Holzman homes in on how relocating the collection into Philadelphia divided suburb and city, like biological and adoptive parents arguing over a gifted child. Previously, the Barnes collection had been viewed with shared regional pride, irrespective of geography.
Tensions rose in the 1990s with financial difficulties and increased after an international tour demonstrated the collection’s power to draw crowds. In 2004, when a court determined that the collection could be moved despite Barnes’s will, the gloves came off. The collection moved to Philadelphia in 2011.
“Conversations about the Barnes Foundation articulated the suburbs as exclusive, difficult to find, intimate, and peaceful; in contrast, they presented the city as busy and impersonal, yet easily accessible,” Holzman writes. “By differentiating the city from its suburb and by leading to the ultimate relocation … these exchanges established the Barnes as a key element in Philadelphia’s redefined twenty-first-century image.”
The Gross Clinic: Us vs. the world
The dynamics were less divisive in 2006, when Jefferson University announced the potential sale of The Gross Clinic, Thomas Eakins’s depiction of a 19th-century surgical theater, for $68 million to Walmart heiress Alice Walton, who planned to move it to Arkansas. Matching bids would be accepted for 45 days, and the region rallied to raise funds to keep the painting, considered an American masterpiece, in Philadelphia.
The work’s provenance was pure Philadelphia: Jefferson had owned and displayed it for more than a century. Eakins was Philadelphia-born, and Samuel Gross a renowned local surgeon. The painting was created to showcase the city’s leadership in medicine and art for the 1876 Centennial, to mark the 100th anniversary of the nation’s founding—all right here.
In the end, a city-wide fundraising campaign collected $31 million, and the balance was guaranteed by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the institution most closely associated with Eakins, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art. The institutions now jointly own and exhibit the painting.
Rocky: Popular culture vs. fine art
Travel past the Philadelphia Museum of Art any day and you’ll see people running up the steps from Eakins Oval to one of the grandest views in Philadelphia: Benjamin Franklin Parkway unfurling to City Hall. People have been scaling these steps for years, but the practice was immortalized in Sylvester Stallone’s 1976 Oscar-winning film Rocky, about a hardscrabble Philadelphia fighter. The movie made the East Steps the Rocky Steps.
In the early 1980s, Stallone commissioned a larger-than-life statue of himself in character for Rocky III, in which the fighter would be honored by his hometown. Later, Stallone offered the statue to the city, intending it to be installed atop the steps, as in the film, a case of life imitating art that ignited a 25-year drama in which Rocky became that gift you appreciate but just can’t find a place for.
Holzman traces the statue’s peripatetic history, concluding that Rocky’s struggle for respect (in bronze and on film) merged with Philadelphia’s. “In each wave of debate,” she says, “Philadelphians and other interested parties … were negotiating the roles that high culture and popular culture should play in shaping Philadelphia’s appearance and reputation.”
Somewhere along the line, the movie prop became an avatar for Philadelphia, so by 2006, when Rocky was installed at the foot of the art museum steps, a site for parades, charity walks, races, concerts, and festivals, it seemed appropriate. As Holzman writes, “Relocating the sculpture figuratively and literally positioned it to become a city icon.”
Public controversy imbued each of the visual elements in Contested Image with a patina of debate, struggle, and deep feeling. Whatever qualities the works represented before, and regardless of their origins, once settled on the Parkway, they acquired new meaning and significance, becoming 21st-century symbols for Philadelphia.
What, When, Where
Contested Image: Defining Philadelphia for the Twenty-First Century, By Laura M. Holzman. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2019. 214 pages, softcover; $29.95. Click here.