PHILADELPHIA — During a normal week, it would be easy to walk from City Hall toward the Philadelphia Museum of Art with that building’s iconic front steps on the horizon. But this week isn’t normal.
For the past two weeks and through this weekend, those famous steps are blocked by a large stage, erected for the 2017 NFL draft, which replicates and fetishizes the museum’s front colonnade. Until the draft ends, visitors to the museum will only be allowed to enter through its West Entrance. Across the top of the stage is this year’s tagline, “The Future is Now.” From all appearances, this future looks both confusing and inconvenient.
When I visited the museum on Tuesday, I spoke with a few workers who said it was harder than usual to get to work. In the café, the woman working the burrito counter was frustrated because none of their deliveries were getting through. Upstairs, a museum guard told me that everyone is confused and no one seems to know anything about the protocol during the draft. He even suggested that those in the know have been told not to say too much. According to a clerk in the gift shop, a police officer told a visitor the museum was closed.
When I called the museum for official comment, I was repeatedly told that someone would get back to me, but no one did.
On Wednesday, during another visit, I was shocked to see six large-screen TVs tuned to NFL draft coverage and set up in the lobby of the Great Stair Hall, made famous by Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s bronze statue, “Diana” (1892–93), at the top of the staircase. As I walked by the docents for the exhibition American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent, I thought I heard them express some amusement over the TVs, but when I asked them what they thought, they dodged the question.
One group of people I spoke with drove in from the suburbs to see the watercolor show because they had heard that doing so would be nearly impossible starting on Thursday. They are fans of the NFL, but not of the decision to hold the draft on the museum’s steps.
The street closures for the NFL draft rival those for the Pope’s visit in September 2015, but there are several differences between the events. When the Pope visited, the closures and security levels were much more extreme. All of the major security agencies in the country were present, including the Border Patrol and the Drug Enforcement Administration. For a few days, being in Philadelphia felt a lot like being in a dystopian film. The NFL draft, meanwhile, has been causing problems for residents of the Art Museum neighborhood for at least two weeks. There are road closures, the endless comings and goings of large equipment trucks, and enough golf carts to make one a little crazy.
Lawrence Latoni, a resident of Philadelphia and participant in Hackathon 2.0, a month-long program at the PMA where “hackers” create a digital game inspired by the museum, suggested that Lincoln Field (where the Philadelphia Eagles play) or the Convention Center would have been better venues for the draft and he doubts it will bring in money for the city. According to an article in Philadelphia Magazine, the draft will cost the NFL $25 million and the city $500,000. If the city’s bill exceeds that amount, the NFL will reimburse the difference. A key question for many Philadelphia residents is whether any of the proceeds from the city’s 3.9% wage tax were used to pay for the event.
Ben Bigger, another participant in the PMA hackathon, said he understands why the NFL would want to hold the draft on the iconic Rocky steps, but that their stage makes those steps completely unrecognizable.
Outside the museum’s West Entrance on Wednesday, I found a few NFL employees sitting on a bench, seemingly stuck in a holding pattern until their next task. When I asked them for their impressions of the event, I was told to contact the NFL’s PR representative. The representative didn’t respond to my phone call or my email.
As I walked down the hill toward the front of the museum, I met three travelers on holiday from France. Laurine Ginibriere and Benjamin Perrier expressed their surprise that they couldn’t get to the Rocky statue that stands near the base of the staircase, let alone walk up the stairs and into the museum through the front door. They said those were two of the reasons why they had come to Philadelphia in the first place.
A Brazilian couple I spoke with, Guilherme Martins Pinto — who expressed allegiance to the Denver Broncos — and Mirela Bulegon, said that the museum and the city should have thought more about how visitors, especially those from overseas, would be affected. They also remarked that it’s impossible to look out the windows overlooking Benjamin Franklin Parkway and enjoy the view of Center City. As Pinto said, “Now, it’s just the NFL.”
The foreign visitors weren’t the only ones disappointed by not being able to see the Rocky statue or run up the steps. According to one guard, a young boy from out of town broke down and cried when he realized he wouldn’t be able to realize his hoped-for cinematic homage.
Through all of my conversations with people around the museum it became clear that there is a real disconnect between those in power — the NFL, the PMA, and the city — and everyone else. This isn’t particularly surprising. But those entities need to recognize that they’ve abused their power and shoved the NFL brand down the throats of the workers, residents, and visitors without their consent. Perhaps the museum and the city should have punted when the NFL proposed to co-opt the space and history of these iconic steps.