This story was originally published on WHYY.
After losing the Super Bowl earlier this month, it’s time for Philly to pay off its betting debts.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art has decided on the painting it will send to its Kansas City counterpart, the Nelson-Atkins Museum, based on the Museum Bowl bet it made before the game: Thomas Akins’ “Sailing,” an 1875 painting of a pair of men sailing a small boat on the Delaware River south of Philadelphia.
The pair are likely going sport hunting—on close inspection, onlookers can see that the two men have guns in the boat.
“It’s not because I’m out to catch bad guys,” said Jessica Todd Smith, PMA’s director of curatorial initiatives. “They go birdwatching in the swamps.”
The painting, currently in storage, is part of a rotating collection of objects in the museum’s permanent Eakins gallery. It will be sent to Nelson-Atkins in time for the NFL draft in late April, an event that is expected to bring more visitors to Kansas City than any previous city event.
The gift will be a short-term loan for a few months.
“Thomas Eakins is one of Philadelphia’s hometown heroes, he’s one of Philadelphia’s best-known artists. So we’re sending him on an adventure out West. Smith said. “Eakins didn’t paint football because in his day it wasn’t really a thing, but he did paint boxing, rowing and sailing, as we see here. It seemed in the spirit of the Super Bowl to cast this job.
Eakins is widely revered in Philadelphia as a giant of 19th and early 20th century American art, but less well known in Kansas City. Aside from one major painting — a 7-foot-tall life-size portrait of Monsignor James P. Turner — the Nelson-Atkins collection is otherwise sparse when it comes to Eakins.
“We have a different Thomas that erases all others: we have Thomas Hart Benton, the 20th-century American painter, born and raised in Missouri,” said William Rudolph, director of curatorial affairs at Nelson-Atkins.
“To us in Kansas City, Benton is our American art totem pole in terms of people who knew him when he was alive, people who have been to his home, people who recognize the models he painted or the places he worked,” he said Rudolph. “We have our beloved Thomas, and hopefully this loan from Philadelphia gives a bit of a boost to previous Thomas – Thomas Eakins -.”
It has not yet been determined how exactly the Eakins will be displayed.
“Obviously, we want the image to take pride of place,” he said. “I mean, there’s no point in borrowing a nice picture from the Philadelphia Museum of Art and hiding it in a corner.”
Rudolph has a personal affinity for Philadelphia and its museum: it is there that he began his career in museum work “when I was a child”, that is, from 1995 to 2004, when he moved from one department to another.
“I went to Bryn Mawr for graduate school. I say ‘wooder’ ice. I am a Philadelphian through and through,” she admitted. “I was a little torn about who I should be rooting for.”
He said the Eakins loan will give the Nelson-Atkins Museum an opportunity to tell stories it might not have otherwise.
“We’re a river city, but we don’t have the same kind of recreational water traffic that Philadelphia on the Schuylkill has,” Rudolph said. “There are so many fun stories we can tell about the painting itself, what it means to Philadelphia, what it represented then and now.”
Had the tables been turned, with the Eagles winning the game and Nelson-Atkins giving up a loan painting, Rudoplph would have sent “Venus Rising from the Sea – A Deception” (1822), an optical illusion painting by Raphaelle Peale, part of the Peale artistic dynasty of early Philadelphia.
Win or lose, either way, this museum’s Super Bowl bet was going to center Philadelphia’s story.
“We are the winners here. But, you know, Philadelphia is also the winner because I hope this will alert our visitors to one of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s great treasures,” Rudolph said.
The Museum Bowl friendly bet has been held around the Super Bowl for several years, with rival teams’ museums betting on art loans. Unlike other friendly bets, which often involve signature foods or regional crafts, an art loan takes a significant toll in terms of coordinating curators, art managers, and insurance.
Smith said it usually takes a year or more of planning to safely move an item from one museum to another. Doing it in a few weeks is something miraculous.
But, Smith said, it’s worth it.
“People in the museum are very excited about this competition,” he said. “It’s a friendly rivalry and also a nice way to promote our partnerships and relationships with other institutions.”
For the record, Philadelphia public radio station WHYY also settled its Super Bowl bet with KCUR sending the staff Philly-style cheesesteaks.