Get Thee to the Kimmel

The future of Philadelphia depends on it

This past weekend, the Kennedy Arts Center launched a three-week-long festival commemorating the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of its namesake with performers like Paul Simon, Yo-Yo Ma, the entire National Symphony, even Morgan Freeman, all coming together to celebrate the president who did more for the arts in this country than any other president before him, or since.

“I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities,” Kennedy once said, “we, too, will be remembered not for the victories of defeats in battle or politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit.”

It’s been a rough few weeks in here in Philadelphia. Beyond the subarctic temperatures, we’ve also weathered some serious tragedies, not the least of which includes the particularly nightmarish story about a handful of murderous monsters who, until recently, walked among us, disguised as medical practitioners. Every day we read how corrupt our city government is (so-called city servant Anna Verna will take how much from Philly’s bankrupt coffers when she retires?); some mornings, I literally can’t muster the energy to read any more headlines about police layoffs of disastrous proportions or wrongfully accused citizens spending decades in jail.

Yesterday, though, I was lucky enough to catch a great NPR broadcast about that Kennedy Arts Center celebration. The reporter told the story of the 1961 White House concert played by the Spanish exile and famed cellist Pablo Casals, who had—after years of refusing to play music in any country that supported the fascist government of Francisco Franco—finally agreed to come to the White House and play, as a symbol of faith and hope in what the new president might accomplish. (You should listen to the audio clip of his performance—it’s breathtaking—and the report, here.)

The Kennedy Center celebration and the NPR story have made me think about how easy it is to separate the contribution of art and beauty from everyday life—and why we really shouldn’t. It made me think about how different Philadelphia would be, how much worse, how much darker, how much less hope if there was no Jane Golden murals. No Horticultural Society. No Barnes. Look at what we have: a world-class orchestra that just acquired a rock-star conductor, who will—mark my words—re-introduce our city to the symphony. The ballet. Isaiah Zagar and his mosaics. J.J Tiziou. The PMA. PAFA. The Kimmel. Zoe Strauss. Love letters, written as poetry to the city, on public walls that people can see from their seats on the train. An opera that will soon perform a version of Romeo and Juliet with costumes deigned by Philadelphia fashion students. The Roots. Pig Iron. Martha Graham Cracker. Poets, jewelry designers, artists, musicians, writers, dancers, and people who contribute every single day to our human spirit even as our current politics and criminals and balance sheets are chipping away at it.

Kennedy said something else, too, about the role of arts in our society—it’s actually emblazoned on the Arts Center that bears his name. “There is a connection, hard to explain logically but easy to feel, between achievement in public life and progress in the arts.”

I say, long live Isaiah Zagar, Yannick Nezet-Seguin, et al.