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Open the Door & Come In: Celebrating Penny Balkin Bach

Liesel Fenner

Liesel Fenner

“Open the Door and Come In,” a sweet phrase invented as a fortune cookie prediction by her granddaughter, fully expresses the life and work of Penny Balkin Bach, Public Art Dialogue’s (PAD) 2013 Lifetime Achievement Award recipient.

Penny is the longtime executive director of the Association for Public Art (APA; formerly the Fairmount Park Art Association) in Philadelphia; an Americans for the Arts Public Art Network (PAN) Council member; and a curator, producer, educator, writer, activist, advocate, mentor, world traveler, bon vivant, and arts administrator extraordinaire.

Her brilliant leadership and vision in the field was deservedly recognized and honored at the award ceremony on February 15 at the annual College Art Association conference in New York City. Surrounded by friends; APA board, PAN, and PAD members; and other fans and colleagues, Penny provided a sweeping overview of exemplary projects she’s curated, shepherded, and protected over the past thirty years.

Her talk, “Separation Anxiety: Rites of Passage in Public Art,” provided an overarching theme that followed the philosophy of Joseph Campbell’s stages of a hero’s journey: departure, initiation, return—rather like the phases of the public art commissioning process (proposing, information gathering, idea testing, fabricating, etc.). 

She focused on a continuum that runs through projects, from the conservation and interpretation of historic works to the experience of working with a contemporary artist, and articulated a wonderful framework through which to view the stages, challenges, and rewards of public art.

The breadth of Penny’s work is incredibly impressive: at the start of her career at the Philadelphia Museum of Art she worked with Sam Gilliam to realize his first public project. She then worked on form and function projects with various artists including Jody Pinto, Martin Puryear, and Siah Armajani.

Penny Balkin Bach

Penny Balkin Bach

She also initiated the New Land Marks series that engaged artists such as Pepon Osorio, Janet Zweig, and Ed Levine with neighborhoods across the metro Philadelphia area. She has always led the effort to conserve and care for the sculpture collection of Fairmount Park and throughout the city, as well as worked consistently with other groups in collaborative fashion to advocate and develop projects.

Most recently she produced Rafael Lozano-Hammer’s incredible Open Air project in fall of 2012.

Another project that demonstrates her ability to tap into vast resources of persistence and determination is the installation of Sol LeWitt’s garden at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a project realized thirty years after its original proposal.

Penny is at the forefront of our field in her innovative approaches to interpretation and the introduction of public art to many different audiences. The Association’s Museum Without Walls audio program utilizes various platforms for people to access the stories behind individual works of art in Philly. The range of voices presented provides a myriad of connections and ways to learn about and relate to the works.

Penny has adapted Duchamp’s idea that the spectator completes the work of art, and by providing people with ways to understand it, she certainly supports that practice.

I greatly valued Penny’s closing remarks as she said that the challenge is in knowing what the constraints are in an undertaking and working to overcome them—and her neverending appreciation for the journey which is simultaneously “exhilarating and scary”—as she searches for the things that she herself can’t even imagine.

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