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Change of heart on art for court

In a surprise move, Pa. chief justice relents on Family Court site.

The anonymous-looking, white-glass Family Court building going up at 15th and Arch Streets won't be a completely no-frills box after all. Bowing to a ruling by the Philadelphia Art Commission, Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille agreed Thursday to provide enough money to outfit its lobby and other public spaces with high-quality art.

While Castille's decision comes late, just as construction is winding down, it goes a long way to salvaging this important civic project, which has been badly shortchanged by private greed, political cronyism, and governmental penny-pinching.

When planning for the new courthouse began a decade ago, it was envisioned as a corrective to the harsh conditions in Family Court's busy 11th Street building, an underlighted, underheated, and undersecured warren where abused women and children waited long hours for justice. But the project became tangled in an unsavory financial scheme after Castille's office attempted to privatize the development - a saga detailed extensively in The Inquirer.

To salvage the project, oversight was transferred to the state Department of General Services, an agency that counts every screw and bolt. Insisting it was responsible only for the building shell, the department declined to fund the public art.

When Castille refused to make up the difference out of the court's budget, it looked as if that was the end of the story. Never mind that he had no trouble finding money for new wood cabinetry and benches in the courtrooms - another item not covered in the $160 million construction budget.

But in a statement issued Thursday, Castille reversed course and announced he was hiring an art consultant and team of experts to oversee the acquisition of art.

Although the statement did not specify the amount of money available for the purchases, the new consultant, Diane Dalto Woosnam, told me in an interview that she expected to have "in the hundreds of thousands of dollars" at her disposal.

Castille's change of heart would not have happened had the Art Commission not stuck to its guns and insisted that a building of such civic importance deserved to be more than a frosty icebox, devoid of any grace notes or signs of compassion.

In 2010, the commission made the inclusion of public art a condition for approving the design, by EwingCole. When it became clear that the court was not honoring that agreement, commission chairman Sean Buffington wrote Castille on Jan. 23, asking for an explanation. His statement Thursday was his response.

"We are hugely encouraged by this step and pleased to see the court recognize the importance of public art in the building," said Buffington, who is also president of the University of the Arts. "Obviously, they have a long way to go, but this is a terrific first step."

The plan now, Woosnam said, is to determine what kind of art pieces would best suit the building. She said her team would invite a group of artists from Pennsylvania to submit proposals. They hope they can install the finished works by fall.

"The building really lends itself to art," said Woosnam. "There are so many blank walls."

Yes, there are. But at least now some of them will be adorned with something more suitable to a courthouse than mere white space.