It’s a shock, if not exactly a surprise, that the cultural landscape in Philadelphia has shifted so dramatically leftward over the past decade. Large institutions like the Philadelphia Museum of Art and even the more esoteric College of Physicians at the Mutter Museum have seen drastic changes in leadership, resulting in equally major shifts in the topics of lectures and exhibits. But perhaps the saddest casualty of this transformation has been the Athenaeum, a members-only library founded in 1814.

The Athenaeum’s claim to fame is its preservation and dissemination of the history of American architecture and building technology. Coming from a family of architects, I take pride in the fact that my father’s and grandfather’s drawings and blueprints are included in the library’s massive 180,000-item architectural archive, as well as from the fact that I have been a speaker there on a few occasions. The home of the Athenaeum—a 175-year-old Italianate Revival building designed by John Notman—also bears some superficial marks of tradition, such as authentic Victorian wallpaper and curved staircases. These high notes are now obscured by a multitude of woke revisions.

The Athenaeum ’s most radical changes in focus and programming have occurred since 2020, the year of the George Floyd riots. This was a watershed year for Philadelphia’s museums, the theater community, the Free Library of Philadelphia, organizations like the American Philosophical Association, and various members-only clubs specializing in guest speakers of the kind that nowadays would probably spark protests or mass staff walkouts.

Though signs of the revolution were evident before 2020, the excesses of the Covid pandemic lockdowns, followed quickly by the post-Floyd contortion of racial narratives by left-wing ideologues, created an atmosphere that led even the most stalwart arts institutions to submit to the new revolution. When city-wide cultural programs, lectures, and book chats went online-only, the revolution seemed to accelerate. The virtual aspect of these events was the alchemy that somehow brought everything together, so that the city’s cultural institutions seemed to be acting in harmony. But as the pandemic lifted and in-person events resumed, one noticed other changes.

The Athenaeum, for instance, ran fewer programs. Thanks to severe cost-cutting measures, many programs and events were held without receptions. Gone now are the days of leisurely post-program confabs featuring conversation and a generous array of food. As a result, the institution has become much less social, as there are far fewer opportunities for members to gather.

There was also a move away from the subjects that interested many Athenaeum members, like Philadelphia history and the decorative and fine arts. Following the pandemic, race-themed programs and book discussions proliferated, and the trend has continued. In March 2023, members were offered “Black History in the Philadelphia Landscape,” “Indigenous Origins of the American Revolution,” and a book discussion program on Jonathan M. Metzl’s Dying of Whiteness. Previous months included “Who Hears Here? On Black Music, Past and Present,” another book discussion about racism in American policies and policymaking, talks about escaped slave Henry Box Brown, a course on nineteenth-century prison reform and antislavery movements, a book discussion on the lives of three women (some transgender, of course), and book chats about a novel with an “Afro-punk” hero, another on The Personal Librarian—a novel about a black American woman forced to hide her racial identity—and yet another on Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. A virtual speaker event was devoted to “Slavery, Servitude and Free Service in Early Modern England.”

The Athenaeum had traditionally been a go-to place for lectures and talks broadly covering the cultural landscape, without regard to politics. For instance, winners of the institution’s annual Literary Award, established in 1950, have included both David Eisenhower for At War: 1943–1945 and Camille Pagila for Sexual Personae. But in 2023, you’re not likely to find an Athenaeum talk by Paglia, whose views on the transgender phenomenon are anathema to the Left. Instead, you’ll find a plethora of events on, say, the indigenous origins of the American Revolution, the origin of whiteness, female husbands and trans history, and race relations in West Philadelphia, sprinkled perhaps with occasional French programs thrown in for spice.

How did such a great institution fall so rapidly, and why did the Board of Directors let it happen? Athenaeum members, traditionally, are of the polite sort: soft spoken, more or less on the WASP side, and not inclined to raise much fuss when untoward things happen. Many members I’ve spoken with indicated that older members, including much of the board, adopted a “let it be” attitude when, in 2019, the board selected Beth Hessel as its new director, a well-qualified but overtly progressive woman whose record and style of leadership almost guaranteed a revolution.

In July 2019, after Hessel’s appointment, the board announced that it wanted to make the institution “[m]ore welcoming, more hospitable and vibrant, more youthful and more central.” The Athenaeum released a new mission statement and laid out four goals: diversity, equity, programming, and membership. As would soon become clear, “programming” and “membership” would be subordinated to “diversity” and “equity.”

To attract younger (and therefore potentially more progressive) members, the new director established low-cost memberships that do not require one to buy the traditional $500 stock. This methodology banks on the fact that these new members are less likely to be aware of or miss the way that the institution used to operate.

Hessel also apparently wants to stack the board. An email sent out to Athenaeum shareholders, subscribers, young friends, and student members announced: “The Athenaeum’s current strategic plan includes the goal of recruiting a diverse Board of Directors to ‘reflect our diverse community and desired skill sets, experience and networks.’ Enhancing our Board’s diversity is vital to our mission as a library whose strength resides in the celebration of the diverse intellectual and cultural interests of its members and friends. This diversity includes age, racial or ethnic background, professional interests, and experience.”

Many Athenaeum members have told me recently that, in their view, the point of no return has probably been reached. As for the old-timers, the polite Athenaeum members from long ago, they are not likely to raise a fuss.

Photo: N Giovannucci, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons


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