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Arts and Needs

The passion over where this painting goes is certainly understandable, but also a bit unsettling when so many Philadelphians cannot afford a home and when the loss of a child’s life due to violence is barely noticed.

While we must affirm the importance of the arts in our community, we citizens must be mindful of human needs. This great painting’s message is about bringing the gifts of modern medicine to all citizens. It celebrates the role of Philadelphia in fostering the growth of science for the common good. Today’s issues, such as health care, homelessness, poverty and social services, are becoming distressingly low in our priority list.

Each day in our city, many people do without the basic necessities for themselves and their families. We are witnessing an alarming increase in the rate of poverty (currently at 25 percent), while the number of homeless people on our streets and in shelters is on the rise. Gun violence is rampant, claiming victims daily. And we face a serious crisis in public health. Tens of thousands of Philadelphians who are low-income, uninsured or aging struggle to get basic health care – and the numbers are growing.

Certainly, Philadelphia is right to want to be a good steward of its astonishing cultural riches, and many dollars are being spent in the arena of cultural stewardship. The Philadelphia Museum of Art has embarked on a $500 million campaign to expand its capacity to exhibit and store its vast collection. The $200 million relocation of the Barnes collection to the Parkway will further enhance our access to cultural treasures. These and other fund-raising campaigns point to the high value of arts in our civic life, and they highlight our status as a world-class city.

But providing outstanding medical education, research and compassionate care also makes us a world-class city. That’s why I believe Thomas Jefferson University is right in wanting to use The Gross Clinic to further its mission.

Unfortunately, we are affected by a national health-care policy that does not foster access to all regardless of ability to pay. Health-care institutions must rely on insurers’ reimbursements and one’s ability to pay.

Jefferson has a long and rich history of leadership not only in training our best physicians, but also in implementing innovative health-care programs for the most vulnerable Philadelphians. Fulfilling that mission is becoming impossible without a substantial change in federal policy or substantial private sector resources. Therefore, Jefferson should sell the painting for the best price as part of its responsibility to further its mission.

The controversy over this painting should not pit the arts against human needs. Rather, the best outcome is for Eakins’ masterpiece to remain in Philadelphia, and for its presence to enlighten us to the necessity of investing in health care with an emphasis on those who are left behind.

More than a work of art is at stake. If we rise to the challenge of keeping The Gross Clinic in our city, yet fail to address serious issues such as health care, homelessness, poverty and social services, we will miss an opportunity to live out the values expressed by Eakins. Rather than being enriched by our struggle to retain a beloved work of art, we will be diminished by our failure to include the poor and the vulnerable in our vision for this city.

The arts community deserves enormous credit and support for its efforts to preserve and enhance the place of the fine arts in our city. But the Thomas Jefferson University board also deserves tremendous admiration as it attempts to put its resources behind its mission to be a top-notch medical and health-sciences institution that provides the best health care for everyone.

We need to tap passion and civic concern for ensuring a quality of life for every man, woman and child in Philadelphia. That, too, is part of what makes us a world-class city.


“What not to sacrifice for art: Care”

By Sister Mary Scullion

This article appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on December 7, 2006.

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