Art’s 1% slice of the pie: Paint a smile on Julia Guerrero, the face of public art

Art’s 1% slice of the pie: Paint a smile on Julia Guerrero, the face of public art

An interview with Julia Guerrero who oversees Philadelphia’s One Percent for Art program. Guerrero notes, “…in addition to the RDA art, the city, the Fairmount Park Art Association and SEPTA’s Art in Transit Program have installed more than 4,500 other works around the city…”

Art’s 1% slice of the pie: Paint a smile on Julia Guerrero, the face of public art

Philadelphia Daily News

Tourists stream out of the market and gather at the courtyard on 12th Street near Filbert, while teenagers lounge around smoking their cigarettes. Pedestrians wander by, stopping to throw trash in a receptacle or pausing to chat with a friend. This quiet meeting place – officially named World Park – is an example of public art, just one of hundreds scattered across the city.

A couple of years ago, Julia Guerrero, like most Philadelphians, would obliviously pass this 12th Street courtyard without a second glance. But after she returned to the city from New York to work as an architect, she suddenly noticed the wealth of public art in Philadelphia.

Drawing of a 1% shaped sculpture representing percent for art program“The city really opened up my eyes to public art,” said 30-year-old Guerrero, from an office perched on the 16th floor of a Market Street building. From her window, Guerrero has a panoramic view of the city’s skyline and prominent architecture. “There was so much art everywhere that I didn’t even notice before.”

Now the director of the fine arts program for Philadelphia’s Redevelopment Authority, Guerrero oversees the One Percent for Art program and chairs the agency’s design advisory board.

After graduating from Cooper Union in New York, Guerrero worked for six years as an architect for Philly-based Tsirantonakis & Associates. Raised in King of Prussia and a graduate of Malvern’s Villa Maria Academy, it was only after she moved into the city’s Italian Market neighborhood that she noticed how much public art brightened the landscape. When she saw a job posting for the One Percent for Art program, she jumped at the opportunity.

“It was perfect for me because I could apply a love for art and a love for the city,” said Guerrero. “It seemed like a way to really improve the urban landscape through the tools I’d already acquired as an architect.”

In the 50 years since the One Percent for Art program was established, the RDA has commissioned nearly 400 works and influenced many other American cities to model their public-art programs after Philadelphia’s. Claes Oldenburg’s “Clothespin” across from City Hall and giant sculptures on the University of Pennsylvania campus are among the best-known artwork of the RDA program. But in addition to the RDA art, the city, the Fairmount Park Art Association and SEPTA’s Art in Transit Program have installed more than 4,500 other works around the city, said Guerrero.

Under the One Percent for Art program, corporations and institutions that are acquiring land through the Redevelopment Authority must donate 1 percent of their construction costs towards public art. Depending on a company’s preference, the 1 percent could create art at the site or go into a general fund to construct public art throughout the city.

When it’s time to choose the artwork, Guerrero and her fine arts committee invite local and international artists to submit proposals. The next step is for the committee to review the proposals and portfolios and make recommendations to the developer. Guerrero said the developer has the final say, but that the decision is made through consensus with the committee.

Guerrero’s eyes light up when she talks about the importance of public art in an urban environment. She describes how people meet at the Clothespin, at 15th and Market, when they have a lunch or coffee date. Everyone in Philadelphia refers to JFK Plaza as Love Park because of Robert Indiana’s prominent statue. The pocket park at 3rd and Delancey streets is known locally as Three Bears Park because of the concrete bears that frolic there. And the bell tower in front of Temple University’s library is a popular meeting place for students on the North Philadelphia campus.

Guerrero’s personal favorite is a metal structure that stands inside Franklin Court in Old City. Architect Robert Venturi created a metal outline of Benjamin Franklin’s house, marking where the house of the statesman and inventor once stood.

“It represents history in such a modern way,” said Guerrero, adding that it, too, was funded by private money and coordinated by the RDA.

Even when Philadelphians don’t like their public art, or complain that it is ugly or confusing, Guerrero believes the discussions are important and positive.

“The most important thing an artwork can do is to engage the public,” she said. “A work of art that provokes conversation is a successful piece of art.”

The Clothespin shocked and angered many Philadelphians when it was installed in 1976, Guerrero said. The structure was considered too modern at the time and the RDA was flooded with criticism. But now, Guerrero said, it would be difficult to imagine 15th and Market streets without the icon.

Most public art projects take one to three years to complete, and in Guerrero’s time on the job – just over a year – she has supervised two works to completion.

Last week, Guerrero dedicated a sculpture outside the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia on 7th Street near Arch, and her committee is finalizing another project on Diamond and American streets at a water-retention basin.

So far, all of the artwork commissioned by the RDA has been permanent, but Guerrero would like to see the program evolve into producing some temporary and transportable art to complement the roster of fixed art.

“I would like to push the idea of talking to the developers early on about contemporary public art,” she said.

Walking down Market Street, Guerrero points out public artwork every few steps. There is the circular mural by Diane Burko in the lobby of the Marriott Hotel, the giant Jean Dubuffet sculpture in Center Square and Robinson Fredenthal’s 48-foot sculpture in SEPTA’s headquarters on Market Street.

“There’s always a great mix of people here,” she said, stopping in front of the small courtyard near the Reading Terminal Market. “There’s people on jury duty, people eating lunch from Reading Terminal and others just passing time.”

Guerrero gazes around the cozy space. “It defines a large, undefined public space by letting people sit together in this courtyard.”