"Whitman at 200: Art and Democracy," an ambitious series of cultural events and artistic commissions generated by Penn Libraries, will mark the bicentennial of Walt Whitman (1819-1892), America’s “poet of democracy.” This far-reaching initiative will both situate Whitman within the Philadelphia-Camden region and reassess his contributions to American life.

Like Whitman, who is recognized internationally as the first exponent of free verse, "Whitman at 200" will go beyond traditional boundaries to engage and inspire a range of audiences – a key goal for the Penn Libraries, the lead organization. "Whitman at 200" was honored last month with a generous grant of $300,000 from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, providing major support for the project. 

“This project is an excellent opportunity for the Penn Libraries to reach out to those who would not otherwise access the library and its resources,” said Lynne Farrington, senior curator at the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, and project director of "Whitman at 200." "It pushes us to help create the egalitarian society Whitman promoted.”

The seed for this collaboration around the poet’s bicentennial was planted in the fall of 2016 when contemporary art curator Judith Tannenbaum approached Farrington. The idea for a critical examination of Whitman in light of his 200th birthday was compelling, given that Whitman spent the last two decades of his life in Camden, NJ, with frequent visits to Philadelphia, where he enjoyed cultural life in the company of friends. In fact, Whitman spent time with Anne Gilchrist, whose papers and portraits, including two featuring Whitman, are part of the Kislak Center’s holdings. The Kislak Center also holds a major collection of Whitman’s published works, along with manuscripts, photographs, and ephemera, and a small collection of letters surrounding the controversy over the naming of the Walt Whitman Bridge in the late 1950s. 

"Whitman at 200" is now moving forward with Farrington, artistic director Tannenbaum, and poetry consultant Leonard Gontarek at the helm. They are joined by a number of partner institutions, including the City of Philadelphia's Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Free Library of Philadelphia, and Independence Seaport Museum, among others. Events will take place throughout the anniversary year with a special focus on the two-week period, between May 24 and June 9, 2019, around Whitman's May 31 birthday. The program ranges from an exhibition and conference in Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center to a performance of Whitman’s poetry by singer, songwriter, and poet Patti Smith at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

At the core of the program are four artworks commissioned for "Whitman at 200" that underscore Whitman’s multidisciplinary reach and demonstrate his ongoing artistic influence and relevance today. They include: Spencer Finch’s installation of two interactive color wheels on the RiverLink ferry (between Philadelphia and Camden) based on his observations of the Delaware river; a multimedia performance by Carolyn Healy and John Phillips aboard a 110-foot-long industrial barge moving along the Delaware River; a birthday pageant at Penn’s Landing conceived by John Jarboe and the Bearded Ladies Cabaret that explores Whitman’s role as a gay hero; and four walks in different Philadelphia neighborhoods organized by Homer Jackson, who is inspired by Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road,” drawing on the history of civil rights marches and freedom songs.

“It will be quite the birthday celebration,” said Farrington. Indeed, the wide range of exhibitions and events will provide something for everyone.

For more information about the project, partner organizations, and upcoming events, please visit:


About the Penn Libraries
The Penn Libraries serves the world-class faculty and students of Penn’s 12 schools. The mission of the Penn Libraries is to provide high-quality information resources - both print and digital - in a manner that is reliable, timely, responsive to the needs of our constituents, and delivered with expertise while stewarding and preserving the knowledge contained in our holdings. The Penn Libraries is a force for the democratization of access to information and hands-on scholarly experimentation, equally available to all at the University and, increasingly, to the world. Collections at the Penn Libraries comprise more than 8.3 million volumes, over 192,000 journals, some 3.5 million digitized images, and extraordinary rare and unique materials that document the intellectual and cultural experience of ancient and modern civilizations. Through our collaborative relationships, we supplement Penn’s great local collections with physical access to the Center for Research Libraries (approximately 5 million items), the combined holdings of the Ivies (more than 70 million volumes), and exclusive electronic access to some 2 million public domain titles in the HathiTrust. Today, the Penn Libraries plays an instrumental role in developing new technologies for information discovery and dissemination, and is noted for groundbreaking work in digital library design.

About The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage
The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage is a multidisciplinary grantmaker and hub for knowledge-sharing, funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts, and dedicated to fostering a vibrant cultural community in Greater Philadelphia. The Center invests in ambitious, imaginative, and catalytic work that showcases the region's cultural vitality and enhances public life, and engages in an exchange of ideas concerning artistic and interpretive practice with a broad network of cultural practitioners and leaders. More at


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