Accessing the Arts in Philly

This article was edited on Sept. 15 at 12:15 P.M. to note that PAFA is offering “pay-what-you-wish” admission through Oct. 26.

Philadelphia is often cited as an easy, fun resource for students to utilize during their time at Swarthmore by various officials of the administration. And, though Philly is a seven dollar SEPTA ride away, it is not necessarily accessible to low-income students, especially when it comes to the arts. There are ways to obtain SEPTA tickets from the college through student groups or the Lang Center, but the costs for art museums can’t always be completely covered. Art museums and exhibits can sometimes cost close to thirty dollars just for one person. For some low-income students, myself included, this is not a feasible amount. There is no lack of incredible arts and activism in Philadelphia, but it can be hard to find things that won’t empty your bank account. However, there are places in Philly that are much more affordable and accessible to everyone — if you know where to look.

The Institute of Contemporary Arts, located on the University of Pennsylvania’s campus, is a great place for art lovers to go, for example, and is completely free to the public. Throughout the year they have a variety of changing exhibits and themes for visitors to explore. The ICA has hosted emotional exhibits around queer identity and other more educational exhibits such as “Broadcasting: EAI at ICA,” a piece around the history of broadcasting in relationship to the ICA.  What made these pieces so emotional to me when I discovered the ICA for the first time, was the rawness that made up the pieces of art that filled the exhibits. There is a tangible intensity surrounding every exhibit that causes you to think deeply about the world around you. The ICA is a powerful place for students to connect with a variety of artworks and escape from the stress of Swarthmore for a few hours.

Contemporary artwork can also be found at the Philadelphia Art Alliance, which was established in 1915 and presents a variety of artworks created in different forms. PAA strives to explore the word ‘craft’ as a verb, especially in relation to the works it hosts, some of which include ceramics, jewelry, textiles, and sculptures. PAA is part of the the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and works to connect its history to that of the university. Though I have never been to the PAA, it is still is an interesting place to visit as a century-old museum that is free to public.

Powerful art can also be found at the Asian Arts Initiative located in Chinatown. AAI hosts a variety of exhibits and performances surrounding issues of race, gender, sexuality, identity, and a wide range of other topics. The center aims to uplift the stories of the diverse communities of Philly and use art as a tool for social change. This is the second place in this list that I have personally visited and can attest to its beauty and power. When I visited, the main exhibit was “Those Who Talk Back.” It was a collection of signs and banners that spoke about immigration and struggles of the marginalized. AAI, besides hosting incredible works of art, is an incredible resource for the community — offering workshops for young people, residencies for artists, and a space for community gatherings. AAI also makes itself accessible in that it also is free to the public for general admission.

For those who would like to not only view artworks, but also would like to actively learn more, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts is a wonderful place to explore. Through Oct. 26, PAFA is offering “pay-what-you-wish” admission, while they install their exhibit “Rina Banerjee: Make Me a Summary of the World.” Generally, it costs twelve dollars for students with a valid college ID to visit the museum portion of the Academy. The academy also hosts free ‘Art at Lunch’ lectures on Thursdays, as well as free family development arts academy projects on Sunday afternoons.

For those who love performing arts, Philly also has a very active dance community. One place for students to view beautiful performances without paying large costs is Ballet X, a premier dance company in Philly. Ballet X allows free viewing of student dress rehearsals for the public. Estilo Dance Company, another great dance organization,specializes in Latin dance and hosts Salsa Tuesdays at Lucha Cartel with a free salsa lesson.

There is no shortage of things to do in Philadelphia, especially for free. It is important to note, however, that this article is by no means a complete or fully comprehensive list of some of the more accessible art museums and exhibits in Philly. But you can still enjoy the beauties and cultures of the city without even having to pay (sometimes).

Shelby Dolch

Shelby Dolch '21 is from Montana and intends to special major in Political Science and Black Studies with a second major in Peace and Conflict Studies. She is most interested in the areas of criminal justice reform, human rights, and domestic policy.

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