With renovation looming for Gallery, whither the public art?

Harold Kimmelman's 1977 Burst of Joy, which sits outside the steps leading to the Gallery at Ninth and Market Streets, will have to be moved by November for renovations. ( BEN MIKESELL / Staff Photographer )

With imminent renovation of the two-block-long Gallery mall on Market Street, its owners are faced with a vexing problem: What to do about the public art installed decades ago, fruit of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority's Percent-for-Art program?

All public art in the Gallery must be removed by the end of November, according to the authority. As of now, none of the work has officially found a new home.

One piece is of particular concern to officials - Larry Rivers' massive tile mural, Philadelphia Now and Then, which not only faces homelessness, but has suffered serious damage over the years.

Of the 600 tiles in the 75-foot-long mural, installed in 1984 in the Gallery II concourse outside what is now the Pay/Half store, 27 tiles are missing or largely missing, and 28 are damaged.

The mural is of significance not only because of the stature of its creator - Rivers was a major 20th century American artist - but because it bears what is likely the only public depiction of James Forten, a major abolitionist leader from Philadelphia.

Across its ceramic surface, Philadelphia Now and Then features an idiosyncratic panorama of scenes and figures that embody the city's and the country's past and present.

"Larry was a historian," said David Joel, executive director of the Larry Rivers Foundation in Sag Harbor, N.Y. "He knew his stuff." Rivers died in 2002.

Julia Guerrero, head of the authority's fine arts program, said that Gallery renovation plans make it impossible for the mural to remain in its current location and that she is working on finding another location.

"That artwork needs to come down, because the wall [where it is located] has to come down," she said.

"My goal at the end of this is that the artwork is restored, that it is well-lit, looks great, and is on display in a public location."

Easier said than done, although Guerrero said she has identified at least one possible landing place, and Gallery architects are trying to identify other potential mall walls.

No site has been agreed upon, however, and no relocation contract has been signed, she said. The Rivers mural is so large that locations are difficult to come by.

Three other public works also must be shepherded out of the Gallery, but their moves seem far less daunting.

Even if a new place for the Rivers piece is found, officials and conservators must solve the difficult and expensive puzzle of removal. The ceramic tiles Rivers specified are extremely brittle and are attached with adhesive to an eight-inch-thick concrete wall.

Rivers' images, which include Philadelphia clichés such as Ben Franklin in addition to less-well-known but significant Philadelphians, such as Forten, are highly evocative.

The work gives the appearance of scenes and portraits sketched on sheets of paper and then pasted to the wall. The thin tiles have curled over time - as the artist intended - just as paper sheets might.

Nearly 15 years ago, when an earlier Gallery renovation was planned, the then-owner of the mall allowed vendors to set up carts in front of the mural, largely obscuring it and hastening deterioration by jostling and banging.

In 2003, the Redevelopment Authority called in experts to determine the best removal method, and the answer came back that the "simple" solution would be to pare down the nearly foot-thick concrete wall behind the tiles and cut them out.

The process was deemed too expensive; the tiles remained, and continued to chip, crack, and fall away.

Now, Guerrero said, a conservator has been identified who is "confident he can remove" the mural. Several tiles, including those broken in earlier removal tests, are in storage, she said, and could be used in restoration.

No formal agreement with the conservator has been made, however.

The Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust (PREIT), owner of the Gallery and driver of the renovation, is also owner of the Rivers mural and the other public art in the Gallery, and is contractually responsible for conservation and relocation.

Kevin Feeley, PREIT spokesman, said the company will pay for the mural's repair and reinstallation, and "any work that needs to be done" on all of the public art "so that these works of art may be enjoyed by the public."

The Percent for Art program requires a developer to allocate 1 percent of a project's construction cost to public art. (The Gallery was built in part on land owned by the authority.)

The Rivers mural cost approximately $110,000 to acquire and install in 1983, said authority spokesman Paul Chrystie. Two other percent pieces, Harold Kimmelman's 1977 Burst of Joy, near the steps at Ninth and Market Streets, and David Lee Brown's 1977 Amity, at 10th and Market Streets, cost about $100,000 each. The cost of another piece, Nizette Brennan's The Bathers, part of a fountain installed in 1983 in the Gallery II concourse between 10th and 11th Streets, could not be determined, Chrystie said.

(Determining the cost of original Gallery development that would be applicable to the costs of the public art program would be difficult, if not impossible, at this late date, Chrystie added.)

The Brennan work was removed in 1998 and has been in storage since. Seating and a potted plant have taken its place. Such a fate for percent pieces is hardly unusual. Guerrero said she was "making a conscious effort to make sure" that all Gallery works, including the now-stowed-away Bathers, find public homes - not storage limbo.

No new location has been identified for Bathers, although Feeley said PREIT was working to find one.

Burst of Joy, a tall stainless steel column splayed at its midpoint, which rises beside the broad Ninth Street steps, may have a new home. But Guerrero said there is no formal contract for its new location, which she would not identify.

Amity, a stainless steel spiral composed of thin strips located on a large cement pedestal, has also not found a new home. Authority officials say there is interest.

Amity now serves as a magnet for street conversations, with people congregating near it, talking, and cadging cigarettes.

Guerrero said the authority is committed to finding appropriate new public locations for all Gallery works and has made it a priority with PREIT. She said she is hoping the process "will become a model" for future percent projects.

Feeley said that PREIT is "committed to fulfilling its obligation to the Percent-for-Art" program.

New public art will be installed as part of the renovation, he said. It has not been determined what it might be or where it might go.

The Redevelopment Authority's Chrystie said, "We believe that the redevelopment of the Gallery will rejuvenate the art, just as it will the building and Market East. It's been a challenge at times over the years, but we expect the art to be restored in ways that will be meaningful to the public and the artists."