Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation recently held a press event for “Water, Wind, Breath,” its new exhibition of Southwest Native art, pottery, jewelry, and culture. At the Barnes, such events are carefully orchestrated, with a distinct ambience: good-looking, well-dressed employees, all meticulously mannered, especially the women, who have come to represent the best in museum chic. At the Barnes opening, everything stood ready: microphone, guest speakers, a silver and chrome buffet table off to the side with coffee, tea, and yogurt parfaits. Thom Collins, executive director and president of the foundation, explained to attendees how hard the Barnes was working to achieve inclusion, equity, and diversity. It was a virtual copy-and-paste of everything I had heard weeks earlier at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Museum of the American Revolution—a mandatory mini-lecture that one now hears at exhibition openings in every museum in the city.
A paraphrase of this bit of instruction might read: Lest you have any doubts, equity and diversity are our main goals here. It apparently hasn’t occurred to any city museum official that the constant repetition of this mantra comes close to treating press-review audiences like learning-disabled children in need of constant reminding of a museum’s fealty to the new order.
At Barnes, I took some consolation that Collins skipped over the standard “land acknowledgment” boilerplate, which, in case you don’t know, is a three- to four-minute declaration that the ground under a given museum, theater, or venue was once owned by a Native tribe before it was stolen by colonizers or settlers. Land-acknowledgement tributes have become the progressive Left’s version of grace before meals and can be heard at nearly every small theater in the city before a performance of a play.
Theaters and museums nationwide have easy access to land-acknowledgment templates. A Google search reveals instructions on how to make your land-acknowledgment statement meaningful. One piece of advice is not to ask an indigenous person to deliver it because “indigenous people already bear enough of the burden of colonization.” The best call-to-action “is to ask everyone who hears the land acknowledgment to take out their phone or checkbook and donate at least $1 to a Native-led organization.”
Both the subjects of plays and the topics of museum and art lectures in Philadelphia have veered toward “woke” themes, especially at small venues like Theatre Horizon and the Theater Company of Philadelphia, where plays about slavery predominate. At Theatre Horizon, for instance, James Ijames, whose work tends to focus on race, women, and sexual orientation, will premiere a new play that attempts to reimagine Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson as, respectively, a student and a dean at a Southern university.
Slavery and subjects related to race, gender, and other woke topics have been the standard theme for productions at city theaters for almost a decade now. The overemphasis has even hit the grand dame of (former) WASP institutions, the Athenaeum of Philadelphia, where 2022’s list of events and programs includes an imbalance of feminist programs and race-related topics, such as lectures on how women lost the vote, inequality in education, African-Americans in Civil War-era Virginia, and writings from the nineteenth-century antislavery movement.
When plays about slavery and race came into their own in the city about a decade ago, they were welcomed. Unfortunately, Philadelphia’s arts and cultural scene today is locked into an endless repetition of these themes. It’s as if each museum and theater were in competition for a woke merit badge.
The American Catholic Historical Society, which bills itself as the oldest Catholic historical society in the United States, has taken a decidedly leftward turn as well. On the heels of Philadelphia’s 2020 George Floyd riots, the society booked a program called “The Birth of a Movement: Black Lives Matter and the Catholic Church.” The event’s description included a reference to “a long-overdue reckoning on systemic racism, and the presidential election.” The selection of Black Lives Matter as the centerpiece for a major lecture by a heretofore largely conservative Catholic organization was an odd one, especially since BLM was founded by two Marxists and at one point had as one of its goals the elimination of “hetero-normative relationships” (now scrubbed from BLM’s website). Today you will find no conservative speakers at ACHS. When ACHS does veer off into nonpolitical waters, the subjects tend to be non-threatening ones like the founding of a particular religious order or historical topics concerning the archdiocese.
As the city’s arts and cultural communities emerge from the pandemic, the influence of Zoom presentations is diminishing, though some institutions (like the ACHS) are still offering both virtual and live presentations. Most city theaters plan a complete reopening this spring, though classic old venues like the Walnut Street Theatre, founded in 1808 and known as America’s oldest theater, and the Forrest Theatre, named after famous nineteenth-century tragic actor Edwin Forrest, have been hosting live performances for the several months. The Walnut remains decidedly non-controversial and non-political (its last production was about Sherlock Holmes), but the same can’t be said for the Forrest. Its recent production of Daniel Fish’s rehashed and updated Oklahoma!, the 1943 Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, was by all accounts a disaster. While established reviewers like Toby Zinman and assorted “gender-queer” reviewers for small weeklies praised the show’s edgy woke qualities, most ticketholders had little praise for the rehabbed mess they dubbed “Woke-Lahoma.” Almost all the reviews from audience members were negative, while professional reviewers, perhaps attempting to safeguard their progressive credentials, praised it. This ticketholder “rebellion” was heartening. Numerous audience members walked out during the intermission.
It’s too early to determine whether the tide is turning, though the Wilma Theater, long noted for its left-wing political curveballs, has taken to asking audiences what they want to see in future productions. What a novel approach! Perhaps more Philadelphia theaters and art galleries will follow suit.
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