The Gross Clinic

As an artist living in Philadelphia, I have been interested in the on-going concern about Jefferson University Hospital’s decision to sell Thomas Eakins’ masterpiece The Gross Clinic. Artists are used to feeling marginalized in America, so when a community rallies around a work of art as Philadelphia has around Eakins’ painting, I am encouraged. As someone who moved from New York to Philadelphia in part because of it’s thriving arts and culture community, the Eakins effort is an example that I was right: Philadelphia has a uniquely supportive – and possessive – relationship to its cultural assets.

What has moved me is not so much the notion that something worth a lot of money will change from one location to another, but rather the sense that our collective quality of life is diminished when a glorious act of creativity disappears. It’s as if those concerned with the loss of The Gross Clinic are saying, it’s not just a painting. It is something which has the capacity to transform people, and it represents values which we in Philadelphia champion. The painting has come to stand for something larger than the rich and moody colors and exquisite composition it exemplifies. It has come to stand for Art: our Art. We are proud of our art and we want it remain ours so we can share it with our guests. We would no more tolerate losing it than we would tolerate one of our sports franchises leaving town.

But another idea has been lingering in my mind as well, and it revolves around the image of Thomas Eakins as a young artist. I know nothing about his history, but I imagine he passed through the trial all young artists do when they wrestle with their calling. I imagine he had doubts about being an artist, doubts about his own abilities, doubts that the world would applaud his efforts and support his choice to dedicate his life to creativity. I’m sure the world was in some ways less hospitable to artists when he was young than it is today. But I imagine that somewhere along the way, he was helped by citizens in his community who believed in him, who encouraged him, who supported him when he was starting out. These people deserve our admiration as well, because without them there would never have been a painting called The Gross Clinic.

This image occurs to me because it is the young Eakins I relate to. I am not a painter, I am an actor, an artistic discipline more common perhaps but also more prone to disparagement and dismissal. I am no Eakins surely, but in Philadelphia I have found a community of artists like me of all disciplines drawn to this city for the same reasons I was: its manageable cost of living, the number of artistic venues and organizations large and small, and because of the community of artists and art-lovers who live here. So let me offer this idea to your readers:

Each artist living and working in this city today is a masterpiece in the making. From the singer/song writer who made you your Cappuccino this morning, to the actress you saw in Robin Hood last week, to the dancers in The Nutcracker you may see in the weeks to come, all of them have the same calling that Eakins had, all of them struggle in the same ways. Sometimes that struggle is very simply the struggle to stay alive and remain an artist. And let us not forget the studio artists who we don’t often see at work, the ones most in Eakins’ legacy, the ones who toil in obscurity, bringing their fresh visions to life alone and hoping against hope to share them with you some day.

So as you go about your life in Philadelphia, look for the young artists. And as you consider joining in the effort to keep a masterpiece here in Philadelphia, you might also consider ways to keep future masterpieces here as well, by supporting smaller artistic venues and looking for ways to keep Philadelphia a livable city for artists. We are your neighbors, we love it here, and we need your help as well.