Telling the collective Philadelphia story

Marguerite Anglin and the future of Philadelphia public art

4 minute read
Anglin, a Black woman, poses in a black suit jacket, in an outdoor portrait.
Marguerite Anglin is poised to make changes as director of public art at OACCE. (Photo by Joy Ike.)

When Marguerite Anglin was growing up in Chicago, she sometimes splashed in the Clarence F. Buckingham Memorial Fountain, a 1927 public art installation consisting of pink Georgia granite, four sets of Art Deco-style bronze sea horses, and jets that can circulate more than 14,000 gallons of water per minute.

It was impressive. It was playful. But that fountain, along with other pieces of the Windy City’s public art, failed to mirror Anglin’s own life experience. “There’s nothing I can remember seeing and thinking, ‘Oh, wow. That reflects me.’”

Now that Anglin, an architect and artist, has been appointed as Philadelphia’s director of public art in the Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy, she is determined to offer a different experience to current and future generations.

Installing a sense of place

“It’s really important that public art represents an expression of our current times, a diverse expression of the people and culture,” she says. “It should also encourage meaningful dialogue and foster people’s pride and sense of place.”

The city’s wall-less, sprawling museum of public art includes pieces in Center City and in far-flung neighborhoods, pieces iconic as the bronze statue of William Penn that tops the crenelated confection of City Hall and as little-known as “Spheres,” a pre-Columbian granite orb that came from a Costa Rica river delta (that piece is currently in storage for conservation).

The collection boasts more than 1,000 items in all—sculptures, murals, monuments, installations—that, together, tell who we are, where we’ve been, and what we value. It’s crucial, Anglin says, that those stories be multi-faceted.

That’s why one of her initial goals is to assist with the city’s Landmarks and Monuments Review—a means for citizens to assess, challenge, and request renaming or removal of public art that represents bigotry, racism, or colonialism.

Many sides, many stories

“One of our challenges is … to make sure our public art doesn’t tell a one-sided story of history,” Anglin says. “There are many stories of Philadelphia that remain untold by Philadelphia’s public art collection: stories of women, of people of color …collective stories of hope and resilience and calls for social justice need to be told.”

Other goals are to ensure, through a transparent public engagement process, that new pieces of public art truly reflect the communities in which they’re sited, and to foster the work of diverse, local, and emerging artists through the city’s Percent for Art program.

Anglin came to Philadelphia 25 years ago to study architecture at Temple University. She never left. For the past two decades, she’s worked in planning and design, both for architecture firms and non-profit institutions, helping to develop urban spaces in Philadelphia and elsewhere.

Anglin is also an artist whose paintings, color-saturated and often made with her fingers as well as with brushes, evoke expansive skies, light-dappled seas, and cloud formations. On her website, she describes herself as a “visual storyteller.”

“What excites me most about this position is what excites me about art,” she says. “It’s the power and potential of art to heal, to unite, to educate, to affirm people.”

While Anglin is still touring the city, becoming familiar with its public art, she’s lived in Philadelphia long enough to have some favorites. One is “A Quest for Parity,” the 12-foot bronze of 19th-century scholar and civil rights activist Octavius V. Catto on the south side of City Hall. “It took my breath away the first time I saw it,” Anglin says. “The way he’s striding forward … It’s so powerful to tell the story of this great African American leader who had such a hand in shaping many aspects of Philadelphia.”

Another beloved piece is “MVP,” at Smith Playground, the city’s first statue featuring an individual African American girl, a basketball player. “Kids see so many works of art that may not engage them. That’s an example of public art that does. When that sculpture was unveiled, you can see in the photos how the kids were in awe. Their hands were all over the sculpture. Some said, ‘Wow, this looks like me.’”

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