It’s nice to be able to welcome the Eagles to the club. No, not that one. Not the list of football teams that have won the Super Bowl. I mean the other one. The club of Philadelphia institutions that long ago won their status as the best in the land: the city’s art museums, orchestra, chamber music society, mural arts program, historical collections, and other cultural groups that are the envy of the nation.
Not that it’s a competition. We shy away from that in the arts. But let’s take a quick break from humility to remember that this is the city whose orchestra hired Yannick Nézet-Séguin before the Metropolitan Opera did, that plays host to thousands from around the world each year who come for the Cézannes at the Barnes, and that, thanks to the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, has perhaps the best and busiest chamber music scene in the nation.
On Sunday, in a review of Opera Philadelphia’s current production of Written on Skin, a New York Times critic called the company “one of the most creative and ambitious in this country.”
Sports may make a loud noise in Philadelphia. But the arts carry a big stick.
The economic impact of the arts comes to $4.1 billion a year, as Maud Lyon, president of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, points out. “You would have to stage last year’s NFL draft every eight days for a year to equal that economic impact,” she says. “The Eagles have created a very special moment of unity and goodwill in Philadelphia for all of us, but at the same time, arts and culture connects people, inspires people young and old, and connects people to each other all year long. The influence of the arts may be less dramatic and less visible, but it is incredibly deep in Philadelphia and the region.”
The last few weeks have been fun. But chief among the forces that created the great city-region vibe that helped propel the team to victory are the city’s many arts organizations. They made a few sacrifices. Not only did the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Franklin Institute, and others on the Parkway have to close for the victory parade, but the Kimmel Center and Philadelphia Orchestra were forced to cancel performances, something they rarely do.
Some arts groups threw their spirit behind the Eagles even as others remained doubters. The Philadelphia Orchestra recorded its colorful orchestration of “Fly Eagles Fly” two months ago, just before Carson Wentz tore his ACL and, with it, all reasonable hopes the team would continue on to the Super Bowl.
By mid-January, as the Eagles stepped closer to the championship, arts groups around town chimed in with interpretations of “Fly Eagles Fly” in an impressive array of stripes: The Mendelssohn Club did a choral version of great vocal flourish; the Pennsylvania Ballet got out the green tutus. Most surprising somehow were the several versions of the fight song arranged for harp.
The bigger point is this: All of these videos shared on social media filled the air with spirit, and that spirit buoyed the city. If Eagles green on the street made strangers flash a knowing smile at one another, each of these music videos scrolled down Facebook news feeds like musical handshakes. Arts and sports suddenly had something to say to each other. Arts groups surely capitalized on the moment, holding Eagles-themed promotions to sell tickets to their performances and using the chance to shed their sometimes-elitist aura. But the arts in a way were just expressing the larger civic sentiment as they often do, whether with an orchestra concert at the Mann after 9/11 to calm a shaken city or a choir and ensemble assembling in a Rittenhouse Square church to memorialize victims killed in 2016 at the Pulse nightclub.
So how do we extend this moment of positive momentum? Arts leaders have a few thoughts.
From the Philadelphia History Museum, CEO Charles Croce says: “I’m hoping Jeffrey Lurie will offer some Eagles memorabilia to the History Museum to add to our collections, just as the Phillies did when they won the World Series in 2008. The Eagles made it into the sports history books, and that’s another reason to be proud. And could you imagine if we could display the Lombardi Trophy here for a day or two? Get your tickets now!”
Stanford Thompson, founder and executive director of Play On, Philly!: “We could formally create a citywide task force that includes artists and organizations across the city who could be mobilized around different social events or issues in real time. If we could better coordinate conversations and interest, then we may be able to mash up some very creative responses to things like the Eagles win — and even have more arts present on the big screen as the city and nation watched our celebration.”
GPCA’s Lyon: “It would be awesome if we could create a partnership with the Eagles to highlight the cultural groups delivering social, educational, and community impact. There are many small, community-based and culturally specific groups that are doing this important work in Philadelphia. Wouldn’t it be great to have a public service announcement campaign linking sports and arts, with coordinated public appearances to attract media attention? Maybe individual players could adopt specific organizations.”
Football and the arts have been here together before and made surprisingly good bedfellows. After the Chicago Bears won Super Bowl XX in 1986, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra ran a campaign in conjunction with its radio marathon in which running back Walter Payton and orchestra music director Georg Solti switched garb — Solti in a No. 34 jersey clutching the pigskin, and Payton in white tie holding a baton. “What I remember is that the poster, unsigned, sold extraordinarily well,” said Henry Fogel, the orchestra’s chief executive at the time.
The weekend of the Super Bowl, Solti’s January subscription concert ended with the Nutcracker Suite, and Fogel suggested an encore: “Bear Down, Chicago Bears.” Solti agreed, and although there was no chorus in that program, the orchestra arranged to have one in the hall dressed in regular street clothes, ready to run onto the stage for the fight song.
“The place erupted,” said Fogel. “We did it again Friday afternoon, and Sunday’s matinee, which was moved from 3 p.m. to 1 p.m. so people could get home in time for the game. At Sunday’s performance, after the piece was finished, Solti turned to the audience and shouted, ‘We’ll play it again to bring them luck,’ and he did so!”
The Bears prevailed, 46-10 — against the New England Patriots.
The publicity from that was astounding, said Fogel. It got mentioned on Good Morning America, in Time magazine, and elsewhere.
But what about something bigger? Is there a way to parlay this moment into something more enduring in terms of what sports can do for the arts (or vice versa)? Is there an initiative in which sports and arts and culture leaders work together to solve an issue that’s been holding the city back — literacy, poverty, education?
“Maybe the theme is around how a team brings all its talents together and works together to become world-class and achieve greatness,” says Patricia D. Wellenbach, president and CEO of the Please Touch Museum. “How fabulous it would be to take that feeling of overcoming great obstacles and the lessons from that to ignite a societal change. Maybe it is a citywide challenge: Create a world-class education system that our children and this city deserve. We worked hard and earned the Super Bowl win. Think of what we could achieve if we set our sites on a Super Bowl-worthy school system.”
“Right now,” she points out, “the Eagles win has caused people to believe that almost anything is achievable.”
Maybe, finally, anything really is.