Whether your first thought is of the bridge or his most famous collection Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman — the bridge, the poet and the man — will be front and center this year, as Whitman at 200: Art and Democracy, a region-wide initiative organized by the Penn Libraries with major support from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, kicks off this week with a year of activities celebrating the poet, essayist, journalist, and humanist’s 200th birthday.
With a focus on the two-week period between May 24 and June 9, 2019 around Whitman’s actual birthday on May 31, the celebration opens with the launch of www.whitmanat200.org and social media channels (@whitat200), and the introduction of an online petition to the Delaware River Port Authority to paint the Walt Whitman Bridge the colors of the Philadelphia Rainbow flag, in recognition of Whitman’s openness to all people.
Known as America’s “poet of democracy,” Whitman, who turns 200 in 2019, lived in Camden, New Jersey during the last two decades of his life, regularly crossing the Delaware River by ferry to visit friends in Philadelphia, or to walk down Chestnut Street. In recognition of his bicentennial, institutions and organizations across the Delaware Valley are partnering to create a diverse and exciting series of exhibitions and events in order to explore his importance to and impact on contemporary American culture. A free spirit, who generated plenty of controversy around his poetics as well as his sexuality, he was also regarded as an icon by others – notably Thomas Eakins and Oscar Wilde.
Stated Whitman at 200 Artistic Director Judith Tannenbaum, “People recognize the name and know about the bridge, but many people are not aware that Whitman spent the last 20 years of his life in Camden and was an active part of the cultural community there and in Philadelphia.”
The organizations participating in the celebration range from the arts — poetry, visual art, design, music and more — to the LGBT community, the natural environment, and issues about democracy—and include the Walt Whitman House (Camden), City of Philadelphia’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, Free Library of Philadelphia, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, William Way
Center, Rutgers University-Camden, John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Wharton Esherick Museum, University of Delaware Library and Lyric Fest, among others
Said Project Director Lynne Farrington, “This celebration of Whitman’s bicentennial is an exciting opportunity for the Penn Libraries to reach out to and engage with institutions and organizations throughout the wider Philadelphia/Camden region and with many communities that would not otherwise access the library and its resources. It pushes us to help create the egalitarian society Whitman promoted.”
In addition to the bridge petition, upcoming Whitman events include a video installation of “Whitman, Alabama” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art; a printing workshop at the University of Pennsylvania; and an artist book exhibition at Arcadia University. The project team is also calling on area bakeries to compete in a birthday cake baking contest that will unveil the winning cake in time for Whitman’s birthday, around which the majority of events–including four newly-commissioned art projects — are being scheduled.
Other highlights scheduled for May 24 through June 9 include:
- New York artist Spencer Finch will install interactive color wheels on the RiverLink Ferry which travels between Camden and Philadelphia for the 2019 summer season (May to September), allowing passengers to observe and then match the color of the sky and the river to those on the wheels.
- Homer Jackson will create a series of four walks, New Songs of the Open Road, to be held in the Germantown, Parkway, South Philadelphia, and Strawberry Mansion neighborhoods.
- On May 30, Patti Smith and her daughter Jesse Paris Smith will explore the enduring legacy of Whitman through word and song in the Great Hall of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
- Whitman’s birthday celebration on May 31 begins at 11 am with Mayor Jim Kenney and others reading and singing Whitman’s words in City Hall Courtyard, following by the cutting of the official birthday cake.
- The Penn Libraries exhibition Whitman Vignettes: Camden and Philadelphia will explore Whitman’s connection to the region through his friendships, his writings, his influence, his collectors, his legacy, and even the naming of his bridge.
The full schedule of Whitman at 200 events can be found on the official website: www.whitmanat200.org.