During the last 75 years, the Tyler School of Art has occupied a bucolic campus in a sleepy part of Elkins Park. This remote haven offered student artists the opportunity to craft their art in a quirky studio setting surrounded by trees, streams and wildlife.
At the same time, Philadelphian Jack Wolgin was building a business empire, largely based on real estate development in this, his native city. Along the way, he developed a love of the arts and a philanthropic passion.
Locally, he has made his positive presence felt in most of the city's arts institutions. Curiously, up until the end of 2008, there was no apparent connection between the Tyler School — Temple University's renowned art school — and Jack Wolgin. Behind the scenes, however, visionary planning and negotiations were ongoing for a number of years, resulting in the recent public announcement of the Jack Wolgin International Competition in the Fine Arts at the Tyler School of Art at Temple University.
The Wolgin-Tyler Prize, funded by a $3.7 million gift, will be the world's largest fine-arts award to an individual artist.
Awarded annually, starting this year, the prize will combine a cash sum of $150,000 with an exhibition at the Tyler Gallery.
Winners will be selected by an international jury for a body of work that "transcends traditional boundaries and exemplifies the highest level of excellence."
The question is: What brought Wolgin to Tyler?
While the Wolgin empire was flourishing, so, too, was the Tyler School. The student body and alumni enjoyed a highly regarded national reputation, but the facilities could not keep up with the rapidly changing world of art technology and media exploration.
In order to provide facilities that matched the quality of the Tyler education — and in order to see the school meet 21st-century challenges — Temple University decided to bring Tyler to its main campus in a state-of-the-art, 243,000-square-foot art school of the future now open to students and faculty.
I recently took a tour while final preparations and cleanups were under way. Excited faculty members were moving in to facilities that are unparalleled anywhere in the Greater Philadelphia area. Large windows engage the campus and the local neighborhood. A generously sized exhibition gallery awaits the display of student and professional work.
According to Therese Dolan, Tyler's acting dean, it was this urban art experiment that attracted Wolgin. "Jack Wolgin is a good friend of Tyler professor Martha Madigan and her husband, gallery owner Jeffrey Fuller. It was Martha's excitement that brought Jack Wolgin to consider Tyler as the host of this singular award," she said.
"Bringing the Wolgin Award to Tyler took four years of my life, but I am so happy about it because I love Tyler, and I believe in what Jack Wolgin is trying to achieve."
City Supporter as Well
And there have been many achievements. If he was not collecting for himself, Wolgin was presenting important works of public art to Center City venues — most notably, Claes Oldenberg's "Clothespin," which sits outside of Wolgin's Center Square building directly across from City Hall.
The abstract, reductive piece of art was controversial when it was first installed in 1976.
In Philadelphia, up until that time, public sculpture meant soldiers on horses or mythological creatures spouting water.
Over the years, the "Clothespin" has become a treasured part of the local urbanscape, and because of such visionary leadership, Philadelphia is considered a national center for public art.
Wolgin extended his philanthropic reach to Israel, where he established that country's internationally recognized film festival, annually awarding the Wolgin Prize for Israeli Cinema. In the scientific realm, he continues to sponsor the Wolgin Prize for Scientific Excellence presented by Israel's Weizmann Institute.
The new Tyler is a far cry from the Tyler I attended as both an undergraduate and grad student so long ago. While I understand the nostalgia for the "old campus" and the beautiful North Studio light, there is no question that Wolgin is correct.
The Tyler School of the future has a great contribution to make to this city, and the Wolgin Prize will surely prove to be the "jewel in its crown."