Avenue of the Arts: a mid-century concept that lives in the imagination

First “Avenue of the Arts” street sign erected for the Philadelphia Arts Festival. 16th and Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Deputy Street Commissioner Michael J. Gittens and Moore art students Helen Hickey and Drena Ricci, June 5, 1962. (PhillyHistory,org)

In a freezing drizzle in January 1993, at the corner of Broad and South Streets, Mayor Edward G. Rendell asked a modest gathering of creatives, advocates, developers and funders to ignore what was on the street in front of them and imagine an Avenue of the Arts. The big idea, a “cultural district initiative” would serve as “a tourism-based economic development strategy” designed to enhance the city’s tax base “drained of its population and employment.” A new nonprofit, named Avenue of the Arts, Inc. would promote and oversee the promised upgrade.

“Two years later,” reported the Inquirer’s Stephan Salisbury, the promised crowds were “still not jostling one another along Broad Street. No other theaters have been built. No orchestra halls. No recital halls. No art centers. No schools.” Bringing Rendell’s Avenue of the Arts into being would require far more time, money and patience than originally anticipated.

By the end of the 1990s, the Avenue of the Arts would get built and audiences would fill seats. According to sociologist Anna Maria Bounds, South Broad got “11 cultural and educational institutions and seven venues, providing over 10,000 performances seats. Total investment for the initiative was $378.4 million, with over $75 million from the state and over $30 million from the local government.” According the Pennsylvania Economy League, the Avenue of the Arts generated “more than $157 million in revenue annually, providing 2800 full-time and over 1000 part-time jobs.”

A lot could be claimed, though not the name. The moniker “Avenue of the Arts” had been kicked around on South Broad Street since 1978, when about thirty “business and cultural leaders created the Avenue of the Arts Council (AAC) to redevelop South Broad Street as a cultural destination.” And it had been used even earlier, in 1962, though not on Broad Street, but on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

As posted previously, in 1962 the city went on “a 16-day crash diet of high-calorie culture” known as the Philadelphia Arts Festival in 1962. It included music, ballet, painting, sculpture, architectural exhibits, poetry and drama. For the duration of the Festival, the Parkway was renamed Avenue of the Arts.

“You name it, Philadelphia will have it” boasted The Philadelphia Daily News. “And a good many of the cultural dishes will be just what the best things in life are supposed to be—free as the air. Most of them, in fact, will be in the air. Like under-the-stars offerings in a new outdoor theatre behind the Philadelphia Museum of Art. … There’ll be more than 100 events, more than 5,000 performers—pros, amateurs, students, even some members. And estimated one million persons will peek at some phase of the fete before the curtain rings down on June 24.”

The cultural smorgasbord of 1962 included exhibits focusing on the work of native-born designers Tina Leser, James Galanos and Gustave Tassell). Folk singer George Britton performed at what is now LOVE Park, organist Robert Elmore cut loose at Wanamaker’s. Jack Bookbinder, director of art education at the Philadelphia Public Schools, lectured on the “Understanding and Enjoyment of Modern Art.” Grace Zahn and Margaret White entertained children with stories in French and songs. Mummers music animated the streets and fireworks made statues and buildings shimmer. Dances by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo Philadelphia Workshop (directed by Maria Swoboda) complimented concerts by the Philadelphia Arts Festival Symphony Orchestra (conducted by Anshel Brusilow with soloists Wilmer Wise on trumpet and soprano Anna Marie Kuhn.) City-wide event listings included pianist Edna Bockstein and cellist James Holesovsky at Lemon Hill Mansion, art hung at the 40th and Walnut Street Free Library and square dancing at the Cheltenham Shopping Center mall.

Are there lessons to be learned from comparing Philadelphia’s Avenues of the Arts? For that, we should take the mayor’s advice: “’Close your eyes and dream.” After all, when you get down it it, an Avenue of the Arts isn’t so much about paving as it is a destination for our collective imagination.

[Sources: Citywide Stage is Set for 16-day art Festival, Philadelphia Daily News, June 8, 1962; 3rd Festival of Arts Opens on Saturday, The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 9, 1962; “Arts Festival Events at Peak,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 17, 1962; Stephan Salisbury, Progress Lurches up Broad Street, The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 10, 1993; Anna Maria Bounds, “Philadelphia’s Avenue of the Arts the Challenges of a Cultural District Initiative” in Melanie Smith, editor, Tourism, Culture and Regeneration (CABI, 2006)].


One reply on “Avenue of the Arts: a mid-century concept that lives in the imagination”

I love how they hung the sign low for the photo-op, so the city officials could reach it without really climbing that prop of a ladder. Your tax dollars at work…

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