February 18, 2017

Philadelphia’s Whaling Wall heading for extinction

Posted by Laura Guertin

This is a follow-up to my original blog post, Wyland Whaling Walls for World Whale Day, to share the story of one specific Whaling Wall and its upcoming destruction.

Whaling Wall #42 “East Coast Humpbacks”

Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, also has a love for the nation’s largest public art program. Starting as an anti-graffiti effort in the 1980s, Jane Golden and the Mural Arts Program have established close to 4,000 works of art in communities around the city (see map). Although Robert Wyland’s Whaling Wall is not an official part of the Mural Arts Program, it is not surprising that Wyland would make Philadelphia one of his stops in 1993 to paint his 42nd mural, East Coast Humpbacks.

Located along the Schuylkill River, the building Wyland selected for his mural was originally built as an assembly plant for Hudson Automobile, and then it became a warehouse for Gimbel’s. Most recently, 2400 Market Street was the home of the Marketplace Design Center, “the exclusive haunt of Philadelphia interior designers, filled with showrooms displaying the latest in home fashions from around the world” (Drabkowski blog). Now, Aramark will be making the space its new headquarters, focusing on green space, innovation, and sustainability.

Unfortunately, “the iconic big, blue whale mural (…will not be preserved in the renovations)” (Curbed Philadelphia).

As I was trying to learn more about the history of this mural, I started learning more not just about the painting of the mural but the struggles that artists face when painting on buildings. Wyland and his team of 14 assistants needed only 7 days to draw the whales freestyle and to use thousands of gallons of paint to construct a mural 125 feet long x 130 feet high. Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell was on hand for the official dedication on July 19, 1993. Articles from that year document that Philadelphia embraced this new mural and welcomed Wyland as a rock star, swarming him for autographs.

But what rights do muralists have to the buildings they paint on? This was discussed in an article by NPR on June 27, 2015, and is a fascinating read. The article addresses the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA) of 1990 (history on Congress.gov, text for the basic provision and exception for artwork fixed to buildings). The NPR article talks about situations where murals are painted over and even have advertisements hung over them. Artists struggle to decide when it is time to fight, and when it is time to let go.

In a 2015 interview, Wyland stated: “I try to save as many of my murals as I can because it’s not just public art — it’s art that has a message of conservation.” Wyland feels that the destruction of his mural is a violation of VARA, as the law is intended “to prevent any destruction of a work of recognized stature, and any intentional or grossly negligent destruction of that work is a violation of that right.” In the 2015 article, Wyland says he has never signed a waiver permitting the destruction of his Philadelphia Whaling Wall.

The photos below were taken the day before 2017 World Whale Day. Building renovations are underway, and the mural still stands – for now. I wonder how my students would view this situation. First, I wonder how many of my students are even aware this mural is part of a global collection of Whaling Walls that have a conservation message? How many have discussed this wall with their friends or family? Do they feel that murals are an effective tool for scientific communication? It would be a shame if the discussions about ocean conservation do not begin until after the mural is removed – or, it would be a bigger shame if the mural disappears and no one notices.

Whaling Wall #42 “East Coast Humpbacks”

Whaling Wall #42 “East Coast Humpbacks”
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In the words of one Philadelphia local Steve Drabkowski, “I do hope that the whales will continue to swim along the Schuykill Banks, reminding us that we are connected to the oceans.  Remember that the Schuykill is a tidal river at this point. It rises and falls with the ocean tides via the Delaware.” We can only hope that if this Whaling Wall does not survive the building renovations, another whale mural will come to Philadelphia and continue the campaign of ocean awareness.