Springtime in Philadelphia … Or Is That Paris?

The Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts will celebrate our city's creativity

You may be wondering, when did Philadelphia transform itself into Paris? The Flower Show this year had a “Springtime in Paris” theme, and like the beauty of the City of Light, it presented a garden experience beyond imagination (at least beyond mine). Next month, the first Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts (PIFA) will launch. It is truly a world-class undertaking in scope and ambition, and the event is inspired by the explosion of art and creativity that was Paris from 1910 to 1920.

[SIGNUP]Paris during this period (pre-Word War I) was a magnet for creativity and artists. Diaghlilev brought his Russian troupe, Ballets Russes, and changed the dance world. Montmartre was home to rascals like Picasso, Matisse and Modigliani; Philadelphian Albert Barnes soon found himself visiting their studios and buying their works at start-up prices. You know the rest of that story. Musical innovators like Stravinsky, Debussy and Ravel were drinking buddies. Writers Proust and Edith Wharton were there. Steiglitz had his camera, and he was a Paris regular. African-American artist Henry Tanner felt welcome. All of these folks knew and hung out with each other. They were commissioning each other, inspiring each other, challenging each others’ ideas. And did I mention they were having some raucous fun? Hey, they were in Paris!

PIFA will sprinkle this inspiration all over the city with every imaginable form of cultural experience from food and fashion to circus arts, from theater to music, from dance to lecture series, with 135 events involving 1,500 artists in 25 days. More than 140 cultural and community institutions collaborated to create the programs. The Parisian theme is ubiquitous: the Orchestra playing Pulcinella (Stravinsky), the PA Ballet doing Balanchine, a runway fashion show at the Kimmel, Bruce Laverty speaking about Paul Cret’s influence on our architecture. And the night-time street fair will play to what we really do best—party! What a smorgasbord!

The Philadelphia-Paris connection is often lost on us, yet it too is ubiquitous. Our history is so inextricably linked with America’s—you know, it all started here. If Philadelphia’s first citizen, Benjamin Franklin, had not persuaded the French to hook up with the American revolutionaries, we weren’t winning that fight. Franklin lived in Paris for nearly six years (1776-1782) and was so beloved by the city that when he died, the French National Assembly mourned him for three days. Philadelphia was the center of the massive political fight over whether to side with the French or the English during their war, and many a Philadelphian lost faith in their country when Washington decided not to support the French.

Nineteenth-century Philadelphia is loaded with Parisian architectural influences. City Hall is a Second Empire design as in the Second French Empire. The Benjamin Franklin Parkway is a direct descendant of Paris’s modernization of the 1850s and 1860s, in what became known as the City Beautiful Movement, which saw uniform building heights, grand boulevards, and anchoring elements including the Arc de Triomphe and the Grand Opera House. For us, those anchors were the Museum of Art and City Hall.

So the Paris theme adopted for PIFA isn’t just something dreamed up by an exhibition curator. The link between Paris and Philadelphia is deeply rooted and very real. Personally, I’m really psyched. April 2011 has more promise than any Philadelphia spring in my lifetime. The arts community, which has truly led the rebirth of the city, is about to be showcased in a way that will bring attention to the collective talents that are here and the incredible impact that culture is having on our city’s economy. I am only starting to figure out which events I will be going to and how I can fit all of these into my Phillies schedule. Are we spoiled or what?

Want to join in and get yourself prepared? Start with the incredible videos on the PIFA website. There are six videos, and the word that best describes them as a collection is “empowering.” They exude a “wow”—the word that will be on everyone’s lips at the end of PIFA. Once you’ve seen the videos, head over to the schedule of events and open your calendar.

For Connie and me, the end of PIFA in early May will coincide with a little trip we’ve been planning for a year. Our destination? Paris. Of course.