I note with pleasure the open-air sculpture museum organized by Lance Fung in the heart of Atlantic City. I note with displeasure the response of citizens of Atlantic City to this small but important effort to widen the appeal of our town. They don't like it.
This calls to mind another tale of art and Atlantic City. It is a story of a moment in time that could have altered forever what Atlantic City might have been.
Sometime in the mid 1960s, I was at my desk in my shop in the old Marlboro Blenheim hotel, a short stroll down the Boardwalk from where the future open-air sculpture garden would be located. The phone rang, and as I picked it up, I heard, "Good morning, Reese, this is Louis Kahn, and I have a thought I would like to share with you."
Louis Kahn was one of the most influential architects of the 20th century. I was all ears. "As you know, I have accumulated a minor collection of contemporary art, and I have been casting about for where it would find a home after I am gone," he said.
Kahn wanted to give the entire collection to Atlantic City. I had not known him as an important collector, but the proposed gift so stunned me that I could think only of what it might mean to my town and why, out of all the world, would Kahn choose Atlantic City, a place without a shred of culture.
He told me that he grew up in Philadelphia and that he spent his most carefree and happy days in Atlantic City in the summer. He said he would design a museum to house the collection and would raise the money to build it. All he wanted the city to do was provide a site.
In one stroke, Atlantic City would become one of the major art destinations of America. It would be the rebirth of the city. Art tourists would descend upon us and, sparked by the gift, the entire city would become an art center with studios and galleries and hosts of artists seeking a place to grow and to make art.
State Sen. Frank S. "Hap" Farley was the undisputed political power of Atlantic City at the time. I called and made an appointment, and the next morning I laid this wonderful gift at his feet. I told him that just a building by Louis Kahn, let alone the art, could change the town. I told him that all costs would be taken care of, and all he needed to do was to provide a site. I had my choice already in mind - a small green area facing the Atlantic City High School on Albany Avenue.
But Farley said he didn't like the whole idea. He did not want any new and potentially disturbing force to come into his town, which might threaten his total political control. In that moment, Hap Farley, thinking not of the desperate condition of Atlantic City but only of his own personal political needs, condemned an entire city to a slow death.