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Visual Culture

Public art plays a role in defining place — and it’s also in some way defined by that place and its people. 

While art connoisseurs might never group the Rocky Statue, Thomas Eakins’s 1875 painting The Gross Clinic, and the Barnes Foundation’s collection together, the stories of these iconic works intertwine to tell a larger story about Philadelphia’s reputation and self-perception. In Contested Image: Defining Philadelphia for the Twenty-First Century (Temple University Press, 2019), Laura Holzman ’06 examines “the messy process of public envisioning of place” and the ways that public dialogue shapes public meaning.

Around the year 2000, proposals to relocate these three “contested images” on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway became the focus of often-heated public conversations about visual culture and how to balance the city’s historic past with a more recently acquired negative image that leaders sought to shed in the new century. 

Holzman’s engaging narrative captures Philadelphia’s quirky charm and complexities as she traces the city’s significant identity shift from one rooted in challenges to one rooted in cultural achievements. In doing so, she gives voice not only to leaders and experts but also to members of the public, whose opinions have often gone unheard in discussions about art.