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Why Philly has one of the nation's largest public art collections - and 2 statues of real, historic women

Recently, some have noted that a statue of Frank Rizzo - police chief, law-and-order mayor, and lifelong South Philly scrapper - makes for a charged presence, looming nine feet tall on the steps of the Municipal Services Building.

Joan of Arc at 25th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue is one of the rare depictions of real women in the city’s public art.
Joan of Arc at 25th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue is one of the rare depictions of real women in the city’s public art.Read more

Recently, some have noted that a statue of Frank Rizzo — police chief, law-and-order mayor, and lifelong South Philly scrapper — makes for a charged presence, looming nine feet tall on the steps of the Municipal Services Building.

Rizzo - whose enduring image may be rushing to quell a riot, nightstick in his cummerbund - is a complicated fixture in the public square. But his likeness is just one quirk of a public art collection that looks very little like Philadelphia today, and a lot like a Main Line country club circa 1950.

Among the city's 1,500 public sculptures, there are statues of countless white male activists, authors, and officials.

But when it comes to women - ones who actually existed - we found two: There's Joan of Arc (also known as "Joanie on a Pony"), in gilded bronze, galloping into battle on Kelly Drive. There's Mary Dyer, a Quaker martyr for religious freedom seated in contemplation by the Friends Center at 15th and Cherry Streets. (A generous art critic would also count Karen Silkwood, whose face is on one of seven reliefs in a monument called Tribute to the American Worker.)

Women are depicted in other statues, of course: Who else will hold the babies? They do it admirably in Stone Age in America on Kelly Drive, and in the Irish Memorial and the Monument to Scottish Immigrants, both near Penn's Landing.

Women also appear as fictional characters and as nudes or partial nudes.

But most often, they appear as allegory, embodying, variously: Night, Religious Liberty, Aspiration, and two-thirds of a trio called Law, Prosperity and Power (a male figure represents "power"). At the base of a statue of President William McKinley, there's a two-for-one: an allegorical woman, Wisdom, holding a small child.

Minorities aren't much better represented.

There are a few statues of Lenape Indians, such as Chief Tamanend, and a few Latin Americans, like Venezuelan war hero Francisco de Miranda.

Philadelphia's black community fares slightly better. There are athletes, of course, including Joe Frazier, Wilt Chamberlain, and Julius "Dr. J" Erving. There's a brand-new statue of Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, at Sixth and Lombard Streets. There is also possibly the world's tiniest memorial to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a bust on a pedestal on a traffic island at 40th Street and Lancaster Avenue.

Now, after more than a decade of advocacy and fund-raising, a statue of civil rights activist Octavius Catto is to be installed near City Hall.

Why did it take so long to realize a statue of Catto, who died in 1871? Or, for that matter, why are there at least eight Benjamin Franklins in this city, but not a single Betsy Ross, Alice Paul, or Lucretia Mott? Why do we have a bronze of John B. Kelly, but not Billie Jean King? And why isn't there one statue of a black woman in Philadelphia, home to Marian Anderson and Crystal Bird Fauset?

Penny Balkin Bach, executive director of the Association for Public Art, said it was probably for the same reason that female artists, like minorities, historically received fewer, and smaller, commissions than their white male counterparts.

"When you look at the scale and importance of the commissions, objectively speaking, those tended to go to men," Bach said. "The commissions were awarded by men. The history of public art is not that much different than the history of women's place in America."

The gender gap is not exclusive to Philadelphia.

In New York, there are reportedly five statues of women, none in Central Park. Organizers are raising money, with approval from the city parks department, for a statue of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony there.

Changing the landscape here would require a similar groundswell.

"It requires an interest group," Bach said. "Most of the sculptures along the Parkway were installed that way: the Holocaust memorial, the memorial to Kopernik. You have really a history of civic enthusiasm, followed by a lot of work to raise the funds, find the artist, get the approvals, find the site."

Moving a sculpture, like the one of Rizzo, would likewise require sustained advocacy.

But there is some precedent: Bach helped move the All Wars Memorial to Colored Soldiers and Sailors from a remote spot behind Memorial Hall to a more prominent site on the Parkway in 1994. (It had been banished because the art jury of the time "was not interested in seeing a sculpture of African Americans on the Parkway.")

Rizzo's statue was first proposed for JFK Plaza and then, in a compromise, shifted to its current site.

But, Bach said, "We've always thought the siting of that sculpture was odd. Mayor Rizzo was absolutely opposed to the Lipchitz sculpture Government of the People that's right behind him. He saw the model and called it a 'load of plaster.' "

Of course, whether Rizzo stays or goes, it's not the only rendering of him in the city. His three-story-tall mural in the Italian Market was restored just six years ago.

Jane Golden, executive director of the Mural Arts Program, said managing the city's murals required constant recalibration. Images of Bill Cosby have been scrubbed from walls in North and West Philadelphia because of the allegations of rape lodged against him.

"I will admit to being really conflicted about the Rizzo mural. Portrait murals are inspiring and problematic. They are complex because people are complex," she said. "Do we whitewash history? Do we preserve it so we can learn from it? How do we hold on to the past in a way that's productive and educational, not insulting?"

Mural Arts is leading an exercise in thinking about who and what should be portrayed in the city's public art. Monument Lab, piloted in the City Hall courtyard last year, will expand to parks around the city in 2017.

It's addressing what Golden says are important questions: "Public art has a role to play in keeping our history alive. The work is an autobiography of the city."

For now, Mural Arts is working to hire more female artists, Golden said. She's also focused on making more images of women. A tribute to firefighter Joyce Craig will be the first mural of a woman killed in the line of duty.

Other public art organizations are likewise seeking new voices.

Philadelphia public art director Margot Berg said that won't likely lead to new, diverse bronze figures.

"For us, it's really about the process and being inclusive in that regard," she said. So, women and minorities are solicited for new commissions, and also serve on juries selecting new works. But so far, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority's Percent for Art program has had more success bringing in female artists than minorities, because, Berg said, there are just fewer minorities working in public art.

Julia Guerrero, who runs the Percent for Art Program, said all commissions there now go through open calls and many more women were participating.

But the program does not allow works of art representing historical figures, and the trend is away from figurative works, anyway, she said.

Instead, Guerrero cited Generative Luminance at 3737 Market St. by Soo Sunny Park, a Korean American woman.

"It's really beautiful and in my mind very feminine, and even the making of it has this innate handicraft," she said. "There's a voice of a woman in it, though you're not looking at a woman's body."

What woman do you think deserves a statue in Philadelphia? Let us know on Twitter -- @samanthamelamed -- or by phone or email.