Philly’s Percent for Art program — the nation’s first — celebrates 60 years, 600 pieces

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When people enter the Matthias Baldwin Park in Philadelphia’s Spring Garden neighborhood, they may not know they are literally walking into a work of art.

The two-acre park was designed by the Greek-American artist Athena Tacha with a huge centerpiece of swirling, tiered plantings and dramatic rock outcroppings. Called “Connections,” it is so large, its curving patterns can only be seen from an aerial view.

Most people will never know the shape of the garden was inspired by the artist’s reading of physics, “where subatomic particles were being described as materialization points of energy,” Tacha once wrote. “Appearing and disappearing, connected to each other through flows of energy.”

“I would hope that the average person, crossing the park routinely, would absorb unconsciously my message,” wrote Tacha.

One of those average people is Sandy Cavanaugh. The backyard of her townhouse abuts the park. While walking her infant grandson and Australian Shepherd, she said she admires it every day.

“It’s fabulous,” said Cavanaugh. “In fact, I see people all the time getting up on the banks to look at the rocks. It looks like Stonehenge.”

The park was built in 1992 by the Franklin Town Corporation, which was also creating a large neighborhood development at the time. The project triggered the city’s Percent for Art requirement, which mandates that any new development involving land acquired through the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority spend 1% of construction costs on public art.

The program, established in 1959, was the first in the country, and is celebrating its 60th anniversary this summer.

Over the decades, the Percent for Art program has created more than 600 pieces of public art, and inspired other cities to hold developers to similar requirements — with better results. Now, officials are considering ways to make the program more meaningful for the communities it serves.

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