Interview with PAD Award Recipient Penny Balkin Bach

by Natasha Khandekar

Penny Balkin Bach is Executive Director of the Association for Public Art (formerly Fairmount Park Art Association), the nation's first private non-profit public art organization, chartered in 1872 and dedicated to the integration of public art and urban planning. As a curator, writer, and educator, Bach provides artistic direction for the organization. She works with artists, architects, civic leaders, city agencies, community groups and cultural organizations. This year PAD is proud to present Bach with the PAD Award for the achievement in the field of public art. I had the pleasure of speaking with Penny this month about her important contributions to public art and her continued progressive vision.

Philadelphia (specifically growing up in Wynnefield) has always been a big part of your life from an early age. Can you tell us how your interest and curiosity in cultural institutions and the arts began?

I’m a native Philadelphian, and it’s been a place of great opportunity for me. I grew up surrounded by an extended family that valued education and wanted to offer their children greater advantages than they had. American culture was a big part of that. On Saturdays we would peruse a listing of local cultural institutions and take an informal vote among the kids; and then every Sunday, like clockwork, my mother or one of my aunts would gather up all of the cousins and take us to a different cultural institution. I remember being the only one at school who had actually visited the Atwater Kent Museum (now the Philadelphia History Museum), and I think by the age of ten I had been to every museum in the city. My curiosity about Philadelphia’s culture and history was developed and nurtured from a very young age.

Even though my family is now quite dispersed, and despite the fact that I have traveled widely and enjoyed living abroad, I always seem to return to Philadelphia—by choice, not just by habit. Philadelphia is a great pedestrian city. I love that you can walk downtown from the Schuylkill to the Delaware Rivers and encounter three centuries of significant and inspiring American achievements in history, art and architecture. I grew up in Wynnefield, about a 20 minute walk across the city line to Merion and the original home of the Barnes Foundation. After Barnes died in 1951, his will was challenged throughout the 50s; this was conversation around our dinner table. Not so much about the art, but in particular the accessibility of the collection. I was a teenager when the galleries finally opened to the general public without appointment in 1961, and I remember being awestruck at first encounter. Another uniquely Philadelphian opportunity for me was meeting the architect Louis Kahn. He famously said, “A city is the place of availabilities. It’s a place where a small boy, as he walks through it, may see something that will tell him what he wants to do his whole life.” I deeply understood his inference relative to my own childhood.

The Association for Public Art was founded in 1872. Since its inception its mission to commission, preserve, promote, and interpret public art has remained consistent. When did you become involved with the Association and how has your vision coincided with the history of innovative and progressive efforts to bring forth public art to the community?

I began my professional career as an art educator in a public junior high school, but for an idealist, it was a frustrating time. I was fortunate to quickly move on as part of the team that created the Parkway Program - the brainchild of the great British educator John Bremer, and one of the first “alternative” public schools in the nation. The idea was that students would learn by direct experiences while studying at the institutions that bordered Philadelphia’s grand boulevard, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. For example, they walked down the Parkway to study science at the Franklin Institute, English at the central branch of the Free Library, and art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Thus my experience connecting art, urban planning and an active audience began.

My time at the Parkway Program brought me to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where I became the director of their newly established Department of Community Programs. I appreciated the freedom to develop a program to commission works and collaborate with artists to create outdoor installations that responded to the spaces surrounding the museum, including: Gene Davis’ gigantic street painting (larger than a football field), one of Rockne Kreb’s earliest laser installations down the Parkway that connected the museum to City Hall, and a suite of colossal fabric swags by Sam Gilliam that were hung from the façade of the museum. The Fairmount Park Art Association was looking for a consultant to help with a commissioning program (later became titled “Form and Function”) and I transitioned rather naturally to that position. After consulting for a few years, they asked me to become their first Executive Director. Until then, the organization was actively run by its Board.

You mentioned that you came across an early reference to “public art” in Philadelphia in 1916. Can you tell our readership the story of the Tiffany and Maxfield Parrish collaboration? And how you worked tirelessly to maintain its existence?

When the famed mural, The Dream Garden - a unique collaboration between Maxfield Parrish, one of the most popular illustrators of his day, and Louis Comfort Tiffany, the legendary glass artisan - was threatened with sale and removal, I became actively involved in efforts to secure the artwork in its original location in in Philadelphia. I worked closely over nearly four years with pro-bono legal counsel to represent the public interest in the complex regulatory and legal proceedings to save the mural. This breathtaking mural was made specifically for the Curtis Building, the original home of the Curtis Publishing Company which published the Saturday Evening Post and other widely circulated magazines. Edward Bok, editor of the Ladies' Home Journal, suggested incorporating murals into the building's interior. Parrish’s lush, romantic painting was translated by Tiffany Studios and consists of over one million luminous and irregularly shaped Favrile and opalescent glass tesserae. Installed in 1916, the mural dominates the white marble entrance lobby that was engineered to provide an unobstructed view of a large painting. A site-specific work, Parrish himself designed the setting, including a pool in front of the mural. In Bok’s autobiography, published in 1920, I discovered that he referred to the mural as "a contribution to public art." That’s the first occasion that I’ve seen the term “public art” used, as we know it today. The mural was ultimately rescued through a grand civic rescue but that’s another story.

Philadelphia has one of the largest and most important outdoor sculpture collections in the nation. Can you speak with us about your program Museum Without Walls?

We all believe that public art is one of a community’s most underappreciated cultural assets, and think about how can we work to change that perception. With this in mind, we developed Museum Without Walls: AUDIO™ - a multi-platform interactive audio experience, available for free on the street by use of cell phone, audio download, Android and iPhone mobile app, QR code, or online as streaming audio and audio slideshows. MWW:AUDIO was inspired by the idea that there is a unique story, civic effort, and creative expression behind every public sculpture in Philadelphia; and that an ideal way to tell each story is in the environment and context of city life. The hallmark feature of MWW:AUDIO is an “authentic voice” model that we developed; people from all walks of life who are personally connected to the sculpture. Nearly 100 “voices” are featured: artists, curators, scientists, writers, historians, civic leaders, and family descendants. Because each person has something distinctive to communicate, the audios are riveting and often convey enthusiasm and delight. There’s no narrator, so listening is almost like eavesdropping into a fascinating conversation. There are now 35 stops for 51 sculptures, and we’re currently working on phase two, which will nearly double the scope of the project.

You are well known for your work directly with artists. Can you speak about the Form & Function program that you created?

The first project I worked on with the Association began in 1980 and emerged from the organization’s desire to respond to the needs of a changing city, as well as to create opportunities for individual artists to work in public space. We invited artists to propose public art projects for Philadelphia that would be utilitarian, site-specific, and integral to community life in some way—works that would be permanently integrated into the public context through use as well as placement. The resulting proposals ranged from bridges, seating and lighting, to the design of gardens and parks. It was a comprehensive program, complete with public programs; a catalogue that included proposals by Scott Burton, Dan Flavin, John Hedjuk, Robert Irwin, Sol LeWitt and Barry Le Va; and an exhibition of "works in progress" at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The works commissioned included Rafael Ferrer's El Gran Teatro de la Luna, Siah Armajani's Louis Kahn Meeting Room, Jody Pinto's Fingerspan and Martin Puryear’s Pavilion in the Trees.

Collaboration is a very important word to you (and to many of us). Your joint ventures with the city, artists, and students are exemplary. Please note some of your current collaborations as well as upcoming projects.

We recently completed Open Air, an interactive experience by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. It was the ultimate collaboration, we had prepared for this moment over years of working with the city, the park, artists, colleagues, funders, the media, contractors, enthusiasts and volunteers — and naysayers. Open Air is a spectacular free interactive light experience directed by the participants voices and GPS locations, which illuminated the night sky from Philadelphia’s historic Benjamin Franklin Parkway from September 20 – October 14, 2012. Inspired by the city’s rich tradition of democracy and respect for free speech, Open Air was created specifically for Philadelphia and for participation by the general public. For more information visit:

PAD is committed to our artist portfolio review program. You have been a consummate artist juror and also sat on many advisory committees. What are your words of advice for public artists?

Don’t wait for a commission to come along! The competition is fierce, and you need to offer something that will capture the interest and attention of a jury. The best way to do this is to carry out self-initiated projects so you can build a portfolio, as well as a track record of working with others and investigating public space. If you need cash, then a good way to initiate this is to seek out a willing community and then apply for a small grant that would cover your costs. In addition, present beautiful high quality and informative documentary photographs. If your photographs are mediocre, then the jury has no way of knowing how wonderful your project is.

Winter 2013 | Vol 5, Issue 1
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