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For the Philadelphia tourism industry, the consummation devoutly to be wished has arrived at last.

The reopening of the Rodin Museum last weekend, its original character sensitively restored, completes the longed-for “museum mile” along the Parkway that tourism promoters hope will prove to be an irresistible magnet for the culturally motivated.

The Rodin, the new museum of the Barnes Foundation next door, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art a few blocks west certainly create a destination worth a special journey, as the Michelin guides would put it.

The question now is whether this new synergy will benefit all three museums, particularly the Rodin. Despite the French sculptor’s exalted reputation, it doesn’t attract nearly as many visitors as its counterpart in Paris, which draws about 700,000 annually. (The Philadelphia Rodin Museum’s biggest year since 1996 was 2002, when 63,523 people came. Average annual attendance during the decade beginning 2001 was 51,123.)


Ed Sozanski
The Inquirer


The original Barnes Foundation, in Merion

When Judge Stanley R. Ott ruled in 2004 that the Barnes Foundation’s collection of paintings and sculpture, worth billions, could be extracted from its Merion home and remounted in a new building downtown, the Barnes set out to replicate the original galleries, in scale and configuration, exactly.

This much now is an accomplished fact. And yet, as the new Barnes Foundation opens this weekend, everything is different.

Gone forever, of course, is any claim to authenticity. Whatever the Barnes of 2012 and beyond becomes, visitors will never again have the same fully prescribed experience, the powerful feeling of being led around the museum by the hand of its founder.

Current Barnes leaders are careful not to use that word: museum. They call the new building on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway a campus. The Barnes, however, is a collection of art that the general public may see, at generously set hours, in exchange for the payment of money. That is what is universally recognized as a museum — something different from what the Barnes started out being. McBarnes, its most indignant critics are calling it.


Peter Dobrin
Philadelphia Inquirer

Architect Brian Phillips at The Nine in Fishtown, a development where the pace of work is scaled to the market (Laurence Kesterson/Staff photographer)

Architecture tends to follow the money, and right now there isn’t much green stuff to be pursued. But just because banks aren’t lending and governments aren’t spending doesn’t mean we should assume urban design is dead.

Welcome to the year of small – small parks, small houses, small improvements, small plans, but not necessarily small thinking.

Only a short while ago, there wasn’t a big city in America that didn’t salivate at the prospect of building a downtown sports arena, an attention-getting museum, or a clutch of vertiginous condo towers, preferably by brand-name architects. That’s done.

While the lousy economy has forced cities to lower their sights, it has provided clarity about what really matters. The smart places are investing their limited disposable income in low-cost, high-impact projects that improve the quality of life for people who actually live in them.

Philadelphia’s Race Street pier park, set to open in April, is perfectly tuned to the times, as is New York’s experiment with appropriating stretches of Broadway for pop-up parks. The rowhouse boomlets taking place in certain Philadelphia neighborhoods, such as Fishtown and the area south of Graduate Hospital, also belong in the category of incremental improvements that make urban life better. And these infill projects remind us that progress continues even in hard times.


Inga Saffron
Philadelphia Inquirer

Jessie Hemmons works on a Rittenhouse Square tree with boyfriend Jerry Kaba’s help. (Photo: Sharon Gekoski-Kimmel)

The magnolia tree on the north side of Rittenhouse Square looks as if it were plucked from a Dr. Seuss book. Its split trunk is wrapped in a whimsical sweater of pinks, blues, purples, and oranges.

The tree cozy is the work of Jessie Hemmons, 23, a graduate student in psychology at Chestnut Hill College and census worker – and a graffiti artist with a soft side.

Hemmons is part of a growing trend of rogue knitters who have taken their “yarnbombing” to the street to brighten the cityscape. She ties crocheted flowers to lampposts, wraps bike racks with rainbow-colored covers, and gave the Rocky statue a scarf.

Her motivation is simple.

“Times are tough,” Hemmons said. “People want to see something bright and pretty.”

Yesterday morning she put up her largest installation yet. Passersby stopped to watch and snap pictures as Hemmons began stitching about 15 feet of knitting – a 30-hour project – to a tree near 19th and Walnut Streets.

The yarnbombing trend made headlines this month when three women in West Cape May, known only by their tag name, Salty Knits, began putting up knitting under the cover of night in the borough’s Wilbraham Park and outside private businesses.


Chelsea Conaboy
Philadelphia Inquirer

Albert C. Barnes decreed in his will that his $6 billion art collection would never be moved. After years of legal battles, it’s now scheduled to relocate in 2012. (IFC Films)

To whom does art belong — museums or the public they ostensibly serve? More interestingly: From whom should art be protected? “The Art of the Steal’’ is a fascinating, maddening documentary that addresses these issues with a mixture of clarity and agit-doc disingenuousness. The movie’s never less than entertaining, but you often feel like arguing with the screen, and not in a good way.

The subject is the Barnes Foundation, an educational art institution in the suburbs of Philadelphia that houses one of the greatest troves of paintings on the planet: 181 Renoirs, 69 Cezannes, 59 Matisses; Picassos and Monets and van Goghs, oh my. The Barnes holdings would be considered priceless if price weren’t very much the subtext of the current battle over where they belong. The paintings have been valued at over $6 billion. You’d better believe price matters.


Ty Burr
Boston Globe

The Fabric Workshop and Museum was founded in 1977 as a way to combine world-class artistic collaborations with community outreach and education. (Photo: Steve Legato for The New York Times)

When it rains, geysers of water have been known to erupt from the floor drains of the art collective here known as Fluxspace, which makes its home in a mammoth former textile mill in the northern part of the city. The building has no air-conditioning, and on the harshest winter days its heating system borders on notional. It’s also a bear to find: one morning this week a taxi driver on his way to it ended up taking several unintended detours down trash-filled alleys, cursing the calm voice issuing from his dashboard G.P.S.

But the three-year-old collective is becoming known in the Philadelphia art world for its monthly exhibitions of work by its members and other artists. And “we actually get awesome turnout for our shows, considering the location and everything,” said Danielle Ruttenberg, one of 25 young artists who either pay for raw studio space in the building or take on chores in exchange for it. (The current exhibition, of bird-centric prints and drawings by a local artist named Tory Franklin, continues through Sept. 13.)

I had sought out Fluxspace at the beginning of Day 2 of a thoroughly idiosyncratic personal art tour (with some good eating woven in) of a city that has emerged, especially over the last decade, as a lively and unpredictable place to see new art.

There is a particularly Philadelphian brand of hardy, low-budget, do-it-yourself, do-it-for-love creativeness evident in art and art spaces across the city. It is a climate that, as new as it sometimes feels, has been embodied and nurtured for decades by organizations like two I included on my itinerary: the Fabric Workshop and Museum, founded in 1977 as a way to combine world-class artistic collaborations with community outreach and education, and the Mural Arts Program, which grew out of the city’s anti-graffiti efforts and has worked with neighborhood residents and artists for 25 years to create more than 2,800 towering murals on walls throughout the city.


Randy Kennedy
New York Times

Photograph of Inga Saffron by Ryan Donnell

Inga Saffron isn’t just a critic — she’s a reporter and, often, an advocate in her weekly “Changing Skyline” column. Those roles muddy the journalistic waters at times, but in a city with a planning agency that’s asleep at the wheel and a tangled, ineffective zoning code, her words carry great weight. She not only applauds forward-thinking projects, like an aggressive remodeling of the Kimmel Center to draw more traffic, but pursues a vision of what Philadelphia could become. When Saffron wrote a five-part series on development along the Delaware River, she didn’t simply check off all the obvious blunders and squandered opportunities there — she saw lessons in how Louisville and North Jersey transformed their waterfronts, and took aim at a seemingly immovable object, Interstate 95, calling it a noose around the neck of Penn’s Landing. It’s not just architecture and aesthetics she’s writing about, but how the “built world,” as she calls it, affects us all in very real ways. Absent are the haughty academic pretensions some critics rely on. She knows those wouldn’t play here; they don’t for her, either. Instead, it’s her passion for cities — for this city — that drives her, making what could be a dull subject seem vital, demanding higher standards, and sending a message to every developer whose vision ends at the bottom line and every architect who plays it safe: Build at your own peril…

Her power, though, lies not so much in her willingness to eviscerate ugly buildings as in what she believes is at stake: the future of the city. “Philadelphia can’t be satisfied anymore to just build new,” she wrote in the Symphony House critique. “The city needs to build well, with taste, integrity, creativity, and, whenever possible, real aesthetic ambition”…Saffron doesn’t simply consider design and aesthetics when she evaluates a building. The first criterion is urban value — what does this tower or condo or retail space do for the neighborhood? Does it create life by inviting foot traffic and interaction with passersby, or is it sterile? Then there’s formal value, a structure’s beauty and craftsmanship. Her final consideration is a cultural one, and her toughest call. What does this edifice say about our times and our values? To consider how the 975-foot Comcast Center compares to similar buildings, Saffron studied the New York Times offices in Manhattan. “It was like, pow!” she says of that 856-foot skyscraper’s impact on the ground. “It was full of energy. I realized that Comcast’s setback [from the street] sort of saps the energy…”

That might sound like architecture-snob shop talk, but Saffron’s criteria reveal an attempt to balance artistic concerns with practical ones, without getting swept away in highfalutin design-speak. That’s partly out of necessity, since Saffron herself isn’t fluent in the sort of language you’d hear at an American Institute of Architects lecture. She doesn’t have a college degree in architecture or urban planning, or anything else, actually — after high school in Long Island led her to New York University, she studied in France for a year, then left for Dublin without graduating. In Ireland, Saffron found her calling in journalism, writing about the arts for local papers and stringing for Newsweek for two years before returning to the States to find work at a major newspaper…

In a perfect newsroom, Saffron would be either an architecture reporter or a critic, not both, and some say the latter role is a bit beyond her reach…Design legend Denise Scott Brown of Venturi Scott Brown agrees that Saffron isn’t equipped to discuss “high architecture,” or to compare the rebuilding of New Orleans with that of London after the Great Fire of 1666, as Scott Brown has done. But that’s not necessarily what this city needs. “The critics with formal training have other problems,” says Scott Brown, who insists that Saffron’s lack of academic jargon doesn’t make her less effective. “The French talk about education as formation. But it can also be deformation. She has brought up some important issues in Philadelphia…”

“Architecture is unavoidable,” [Saffron] says. “If there’s a painting on a wall that offends you, you don’t have to go back and see it. But our built world is something we share…The building is part of our lives. It’s how we define ourselves as a city.”

Richard Rys
Philadelphia Magazine