Philadelphia has more statues of Ben Franklin than it does of real women.
It’s mind-bogglingly true. Take a look at all the reliefs, plaques and statues that make up the 300-plus pieces of Philadelphia’s public sculpture featuring an actual face and you’ll see 10 of women who aren’t Greek goddesses or biblical characters. Franklin’s face, on the other hand, is featured on 12 works of sculpture or plaques throughout Philadelphia.
In addition to 10 statues, reliefs, busts or plaques of real women, there are also two portrayals of Eve, two of Athena, one each of Rebecca, Calliope and Erato and 15 of Mary. These numbers come from the database Philart.net.
When it comes to these types of works in Philadelphia, it’s not much better for minorities, either. Nineteen faces of minorities are featured in public sculpture or plaques. A few more, like a statue of a Negro Leagues Baseball Player, represent someone of color but aren’t historical persons.
While Mural Arts has produced works representing the diversity of the neighborhoods in which it resides since its inception in 1986, Philadelphia’s public sculptures and plaques tend to only display the faces of white men — even those completed in recent years.
Perhaps the lack of diversity shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. Many of these works were built in the 18th and 19th centuries or early in the 20th century when society-at-large didn’t give enough credit or opportunities to women or minorities, including to the artists commissioned to create such projects. They were largely white men.
America in general is like this, too. New York City and Washington D.C. have even worse representation of women in public sculpture, with only five portrayals of women in each city out of hundreds of sculptures.
“The absence of diversity is a function of the fact that ‘heroes’ were typically white men — as were the people who paid for the sculptures during that era,” said Elizabeth Milroy, the department head of Drexel’s College of Media Arts and Design, via email. “Philadelphia is by no means unique in this respect — it’s pretty consistent with the history of the U.S., and Europe for that matter. It is also the case that statues are not as much the fashion today as they were in the past — so public sculpture nowadays is likely to be abstract, rather than of a prominent public figure.”
What’s surprising is the lack of change in recent years. Though the amount of public sculpture replicating a specific person has gone down substantially, it hasn’t ended. Since 2000, 17 statues, plaques or busts representing specific men have been completed in Philly, including one of Franklin. Just one representing a woman, labor leader Karen Gay Silkwood, has popped up in the same timeframe. Statues featuring minorities have become more common, with four having been built since 2000 and three built in the late 90s.
When it comes to the abstract, things aren’t much better for women. Public art that represents or is dedicated to specific individuals is still male-centric. Since 2000, three pieces of art signifying women have been completed, compared to 12 for men.
Penny Bach, executive director and chief curator of the Association for Public Art, said memorials for individual people, whether abstract or a replica of an actual person, are usually commissioned by private organizations, which she said have their own interests about who should get a sculpture.
She said it’s more important for her that women artists are commissioned to create the public works than being represented in them. Sculptors like Andrea Blum, whose work is visible at Penn, and Janet Echelman, whose vision for a light fixture at Dilworth Park is still a work in progress, are given by Bach as examples of women getting major Philadelphia projects. But women still lag in this category, too. According to Philart.net’s database, 80 men have been credited with work on Philadelphia public sculpture since 2000, compared to 35 women.
“The major pieces by these women, none of them have anything to do with women,” Bach said. “They’re great artworks. At least in terms of the public art world, that’s where they’re looking for parity.”
Either way, seeing a woman on a sculpture or engraved in a plaque remains difficult, especially a Philadelphia woman. The 10 images of actual, historical women — not counting the Greek goddesses and biblical women — on Philadelphia statues, busts, plaques or reliefs are of women who mostly have nothing to do with the city. The 10 works of art break down like so: St. Rita of Cascia (featured in two works), PAFA student Mary Cassatt, Joan of Arc, USA’s first female doctor Rebecca Cole, Quaker martyr Mary Dyer, St. Hedwig, Betsy Ross, labor leader Karen Gay Silkwood and famous singer and former Flyers good-luck charm Kate Smith.
Only Smith, Ross, Cassatt and Cole have Philadelphia ties. Smith is featured in a lifesize statue by the stadiums in South Philly. The other three are parts of a sculpture at 1515 Arch Street, outside the Department of Human Services building.
The sculpture is on top of a pole. The individual figures of Cassatt, Ross and Cole are about a foot tall. Walking by, you likely wouldn’t notice 75 percent of the Philadelphia women represented in Philadelphia sculpture unless you happened to look up at the exact right moment.