Back in 1872, a diverse group of industrialists, financiers, artists, and just plain folks decided that Philadelphia, the industrial hub of America, was veering too far from its roots as the artistic and cultural center of the country.
They formed the Fairmount Park Art Association, and set about commissioning and placing sculptures wherever they could around the city, but particularly in Fairmount Park, which was increasing in popularity with the coming of the 1876 Centennial Exhibition.
"We think of 'art for the people' as something new, but Philadelphians thought of it 140 years ago," said Penny Balkin Bach, the current executive director of the Fairmount Park Art Association.
Over the next two weekends, the association will have special events that focus on the heart of its mission. On Saturday and the following Saturday, between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m., the association will open what it calls the Public Art Pathway. Twelve of the sculptures along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway between 15th and 21st Streets will be festooned with balloons, highlighting, basically, their existence.
"It will turn that part of the Parkway into a giant Google map, a format that people are now familiar with," Bach said. The balloons, she said, will highlight where the sculptures are, and underneath will be public art ambassadors, ready to tell people about the sculptures and handing out free balloons and special kids' outdoor sculpture guides.
On Wednesday, between 8:30 and 10 p.m., the association is hosting what it says is the first Sculpture Flashlight Mob in the country at the 1983 sculpture Iroquois, by Mark di Suvero, which was installed by the association on the Parkway at Eakins Oval and 24th Street in 2007.
Normally, said Bach, Iroquois is well-lighted in the places di Suvero intended, along its painted orange steel I-beams. On Wednesday, though, those lights will be turned off and visitors will be encouraged to use their flashlights to walk through and around the sculpture, take videos of it to put on YouTube or just share with friends, and get in touch with outdoor sculpture in general.
(A Public Art Bike Tour, scheduled for April 29, is sold out, but there is a waiting list accessible by e-mailing email@example.com.)
The events, said Bach, are a spur to connect people with the association's audio tour and map of the more than three dozen sculptures from JFK Plaza - nicknamed LOVE Park for the LOVE sculpture by Robert Indiana - at 15th Street and the Parkway, up the Parkway past the Art Museum and along Kelly Drive to the sculpture of John B. Kelly, the father of the namesake of the drive, sculling by the grandstands for the Schuylkill rowing course.
The audio tour is about as user-friendly as can be, Bach said. At the base of each sculpture is a phone number and a prompt, so anyone with a cell phone can access an interpretation of the sculpture, voiced by someone with an intimate knowledge of or connection to that sculpture.
Take, for example, what has become the most popular of the area's outdoor pieces, the Rocky statue. The voices on the audio tour explaining its meaning are Jimmy Binns, the former Pennsylvania boxing commissioner, who played, basically, himself in the film Rocky V, and Thomas Schomberg, who created this Rocky as a prop for the movie Rocky III.
At 18th Street and the Parkway is Kopernik, the Polish astronomer known to most English-speakers as Copernicus, sculpted by Dudley Talcott in 1972. The voices on the audio tour are those of Derrick Pitts, the Fels Planetarium chief astronomer, and Joseph Zazyczny, the former city councilman of Polish heritage who helped get the statue commissioned.
"What is wonderful about the tour is that with outdoor sculpture, you don't have to buy a ticket, you don't have to stand in line, and you don't have to get dressed up," Bach said. "Now you have a way to learn about the sculptures. Each one of them had some organization, some artist, some group or person who really thought about it, and now everyone will have a chance to experience that.
"Philadelphia has a long history of outdoor sculpture, which, as I said, is really art for the people," Bach said.
Public Art Pathway, Saturday and again next Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Along Ben Franklin Parkway between 15th and 21st Streets. Free.
Sculpture Flashlight Mob, Wednesday, 8:30 to 10 p.m. near 24th Street and Ben Franklin Parkway. Free.
To access the outdoor sculpture bike and walking map, go to www.fpaa.org or find it in print at any city visitor center.