Jack L. Wolgin, the man who commissioned the iconic
sculpture across from City Hall, once again is poised to make his mark on the city's arts landscape, this time by endowing an unprecedented fine-arts prize through Temple University's Tyler School of Art.
Officials at Tyler said the $3.7 million gift from Wolgin, 92, will create the world's largest prize solely for fine artists, an annual $150,000 juried award to be known as the Wolgin International Prize in the Fine Arts.
It will be awarded exclusively to an individual fine artist who creates "work that transcends traditional boundaries and exemplifies the highest level of excellence in painting, sculpture, printmaking, photography, ceramics, metals, glass or fibers."
The prize, to be formally announced today, also coincides with Tyler's impending move from Elkins Park to its new $75 million facility on Temple's campus in North Philadelphia. That facility will be the site of an annual exhibit of the winner's work.
"Jack Wolgin has always been a bold thinker with a reputation for pushing boundaries," said Therese Dolan, Tyler's interim dean. "It's very momentous for Philadelphia and especially for Temple University. For the art world, it's an especially important signal in times of financial crisis that the arts are not undervalued."
Wolgin, she said, "wanted to shine a light on Philadelphia as a center for the arts."
Word of the prize was greeted with praise and excitement, with predictions that its reach would attract international attention to Philadelphia and its burgeoning art scene.
Alice Beamesderfer, interim head of curatorial affairs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, said: "This is a spectacular announcement and certainly represents a very significant prize. It will serve to further enhance Philadelphia's stature as a vital center in the art world, and as a place that recognizes the value of the artist in society."
"I think it's extraordinary and wonderful," said the city's chief cultural officer, Gary Steuer, director of the newly revived Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy. "Having this happen now sends a message that the city's cultural and educational sectors are not standing still, not rolling over and dying because of the downturn in the economy."
Wolgin, a retired real estate developer from Philadelphia who now lives in West Palm Beach, previously has endowed the Wolgin Prize for Israeli Cinema, awarded annually at the Jerusalem Film Festival, and the Wolgin Prize for Scientific Excellence, awarded by Israel's Weizmann Institute of Science.
In Philadelphia, he has been the developer of major real estate projects, including the Rittenhouse Hotel, the 1700 Market Street office building, and the Centre Square office complex near City Hall, site of Claes Oldenburg's once controversial Clothespin. He also helped found the Theatre of the Living Arts and has held leadership positions with art institutions throughout the city.
He recently suffered a stroke and, finding it difficult to speak at length, was unable to comment yesterday.
His attorney, Robert Weinberg of Philadelphia, said Wolgin wanted to directly support an individual artist. And he said he felt strongly about giving the money to a school such as Tyler, especially in its new location in the urban core of the city. Born in Philadelphia's Logan neighborhood, Wolgin attended Pennsylvania State University and the University of Pennsylvania Law School.
"He has this feeling that the world is controlled by large institutions now," Weinberg said. "But it's individuals who achieve, not institutions. He's a brilliant guy. He really wanted to celebrate individual ingenuity and individual achievement."
Tyler officials said the Wolgin fine-arts prize will surpass the next-largest prize awarded solely to a fine artist: the Tate Museum's Turner Prize, which is awarded to a British citizen under the age of 50 for work done in the previous year. (This year's winner, Mark Leckey, was awarded 25,000 pounds, or $37,230; three other contestants won 5,000 pounds each.)
The Wolgin Prize will have no age or residency restrictions and will be awarded for work created at any point in the artist's career.
The first competition will take place in the fall of 2009, followed by an exhibition. An international panel will nominate artists eligible to compete, according to a release from Tyler. The complete eligibility and nomination process will be set by February.
Thora Jacobson, chief operating officer of the Mural Arts Program and former director of the Fleisher Art Memorial, noted that the award will be launched in the same year as another international art-world coup for the city: The exhibition of the work of artist Bruce Nauman, who will represent the United States at the 2009 Venice Biennale, will be organized by Philadelphia Museum of Art curators Michael Taylor and Carlos Basualdo.
"It's time Philadelphia had the audacity to feel that it could do something like that," she said of the Wolgin Prize.
It was left to an out-of-towner, Robert Storr, dean of the Yale University School of Art, to sound a sour note, saying he felt a prize of this size would tend to be awarded to an established artist, when the money might better be spent endowing a faculty chair at Tyler or splitting the amount among several artists.
"What we have is a web of higher-end prizes," he said. "The underserved among us are the artists who are less well-known."
But Claudia Gould, director of the Institute of Contemporary Art at Penn, had no such quibbles.
"This is the passion of this gentleman, what he wants to do - seize the day," she said. "It's great, it's great, it's amazing, especially with what's happening in the world.
"It's wonderful for someone to be philanthropic and to give money to a living, working artist, so that person can continue making their work."