Rocky statue: Art or a prop?

Phila. Arts Commission to vote on putting figure next to famed museum steps

September 05, 2006|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,Sun reporter

PHILADELPHIA -- Visitors to the Philadelphia Museum of Art are greeted by exquisite sculptures of legendary warriors: Prometheus strangling a vulture, John Paul Jones and the Marquis de Lafayette striking defiant poses against the British Empire, and Greek fighters slaying lions on horseback.

City officials say there is room for one more: Rocky Balboa.

To mark the 30th anniversary of the release of Rocky and this week's first-ever "Philly Loves Rocky Week," the city wants to permanently move a 9-foot bronze statue of the Italian Stallion in boxing trunks to the foot of the art museum steps - the steps that Rocky immortalized by running the day before his epic battle with Apollo Creed.

The statue, showing Rocky with muscular arms raised in triumph, was created for the filming of Rocky III in 1981.

In the movie, the statue is at the art museum, unveiled by adoring city dignitaries in honor of Rocky's victory (in Rocky II) over Apollo in their rematch.

Rocky's alter ego, Sylvester Stallone, donated the statue to the city on the condition that it be displayed in a prominent place. For most of the past 24 years, that spot was Philadelphia's Spectrum.

Now, the city believes, a more appropriate location is the steps of its world-class art museum.

But those who oppose Rocky's presence at the museum refuse to drop like Ivan Drago in the 15th round (Rocky IV). The city's Art Commission, instead of rubber-stamping the new location as some expected, deadlocked on the issue at its meeting last month. One member dared to say the statue wasn't art at all.

The panel will take up the issue again tomorrow - the same day Rocky Week is scheduled to kick off.

Some say it's only right for the "Rocky Steps" - a destination for thousands of Rocky pilgrims every year - to be adorned with the Rocky statue.

Others argue just as fiercely that a statue created for a movie does not belong anywhere near a museum that houses masterworks by Rodin, Cezanne, Monet, Renoir, Picasso, Matisse and Dali.

`It's a movie prop'

"It's not an artistic high point of sculptural practice," said Penny Balkin Bach, director of the Fairmount Park Art Association, which commissions and preserves public art in Philadelphia. "It's a movie prop. That's what it was made for. It's not an insult and it's not an opinion. It's a fact."

The debate - at its core about the definition of art as well as the identity of a city trying to reconcile rapid gentrification with the preservation of its soul - has played out on sports talk radio, in letters to the editor and over the counters of cheese-steak stands. There is no easy consensus.

"I think the Rocky statue should be put at the top of the steps, where it belongs. It looks good up there," said Tom Francano, general manager of Pat's King of Steaks in South Philadelphia, where the famous Philly cheese-steak was invented.

Pat's is featured in the first Rocky movie, which won three Academy Awards, including best picture.

Francano's opinion, however, is not universally held, even in Rocky's old South Philly neighborhood. Don Nardi, 63, has been coming to Pat's since cheese-steaks cost a quarter (they now run $7 or more). A Philadelphia native and a member of the museum, Nardi doesn't think Rocky belongs there, although not entirely for reasons relating to artistic taste.

"I think people who go to the museum are more of educated, liberal leanings," said Nardi, a retired builder. "Rocky is more a blue-collar guy, so why not put him where people enjoy him - at the stadium?

"I sound like a snob when I say it doesn't belong in front of the museum. But you know what? Everything in its place."

Stallone donated the statue to the city in 1982 with the expectation that it would remain at the top of the museum's steps, in front of the majestic Corinthian columns. The Art Commission would have none of it. When the commission chairman at the time, Fitz Eugene Dixon Jr., heard of the plan, he said, "I hope you are jesting."

Rocky was evicted and banished to the Spectrum, then home of the Philadelphia 76ers and Flyers. But nine months later, the statue was returned to the art museum for the premiere of Rocky III. Then there was a problem: After the premiere, filmmakers left the statue at the steps. The museum had to pay $12,000 to send it back to the Spectrum, according to news reports.

So when the statue returned in 1990 for the filming of Rocky V, the museum secured a written contract from the film's producers promising to remove the statue when they were finished. This year, it was taken from the Spectrum with the intention of placing it at the museum for the filming of Rocky Balboa, the sixth film in the franchise, due out in December. But it wasn't needed and was put in storage.

The statue's temporary visits to the art museum are apparently not enough for Stallone. The actor's friends and associates say he wants the statue to be a permanent fixture at the museum.

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