April 18, 2022
"The changing face of portraiture at Penn: Efforts around campus aim to diversify those honored in portraits and rethink how to approach representation through art.
A grand split staircase inside the entrance to Leidy Labs invites visitors into the home of the School of Arts & Sciences’ Biology Department. As students ascend or descend on their way to lab meetings and classes, a set of faces looks down on them—not the old, gilt-framed portraits that long hung in the stairwell, but 14 new photos in chestnut-colored wooden frames, depicting scientists who have close connections to Penn and the department. The gallery now highlights a more diverse suite of individuals, such as Emily Gregory, the first female teaching fellow at Penn, and Roger Arliner Young, the first African American woman to earn a doctorate in zoology.
The new art is part of a collective effort by the department, working with guidance from the University Curator’s office, to rethink how portraiture and representation operate in the halls of their buildings. Many other University departments, schools, and leaders are in the process of undertaking similar initiatives, driven in part by the question: How can the walls of campus buildings better reflect the communities they serve?
“We have about 1,500 to 1,600 portraits in our collection,” says University curator Lynn Marsden-Atlass. “Most of them are paintings by white men of white men. Since I have been the University curator, my goal has really been to bring in more visible diversity to our art collection. And now we’ve been getting increasing numbers of requests, like from the Biology Department, to take on some of this themselves.”
The changes are meant to enhance a sense of inclusion for all at Penn, notably students, says history of art professor Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw. “There are certain contexts that students, in particular, want to assert that they belong,” she says, “that they are not just at Penn, but they’re of Penn.”
At Penn and many institutions like it, portraits find their way onto walls through a variety of means. Portraits honor department chairs, deans, or others who have ascended to the top ranks of the academy. Sometimes they depict thought leaders in a field, who may or may not have a direct connection to the University. And occasionally donors write into their gift agreement that a portrait will be hung in recognition of their philanthropy.