My Problem with the Arts in Philadelphia

The Balboa, and Other Theories

The Balboa_large

One of my first experiences with art in Philadelphia was at Magic Gardens. For the most part, Isaiah Zagar’s work is likeable. Yelp gives Magic Gardens a solid 4.5 star rating. More than 200 mouse potatoes support Yelp’s assessment, voicing abridged versions of “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” in the comment section.

Beyond aesthetics, what we like about Magic Gardens, and Zagar’s work as whole, is its transformative nature. Isaiah took a deteriorating neighborhood, heaved ceramic shards all over it in a borrowed folk tradition, and revitalized South Street. In essence, this is why we find Magic Gardens likable. It is the inspirational story behind the artwork that—like the fragmented chips of mirror in Isaiah’s work—reflect a disjointed sense of self that Philadelphians harbor.

We rejoice in our city’s successes, but only as a reaction to struggle. Whether the struggle is against urban elements, as is the case of Magic Gardens, or the struggle is against our own reputation as a city. Philadelphians have a tendency to position our city in a place that requires a “pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps” mentality.

The trash to treasure story parallels another Philly classic, (for the purpose of this article we will refer to it as…) the Balboa. The underdog trope follows Philadelphians with the tenacity of Apollo Creed. Positioning ourselves against the critics that dismissively named Philadelphia NYC’s “sixth borough,” we feel the need to rise above someone else’s national perception of us.

The Balboa is not limited to a gross generalization of all Philadelphians, and often rears its head in subsets of local culture. As an artist, and an active participant in Philadelphia’s art scene, I come face to face with the Balboa on a regular basis.

“Why Philly?” New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz asked at a lecture at the Barnes Foundation. He was referring to Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), and though rhetorically asked (fully aware of his audience), there lay some truth in jest. Once something, anything, happens in the art scene in Philadelphia, outside critics scowl. Yet, our city’s CV is impressive. Philadelphia has the only Rodin Museum outside of Paris, is home to countless masterpieces, and has globally recognized art institutions, but there remains a need to fight to show up on the national radar.

The fight is magnified in Philadelphia’s contemporary art scene, and it brings us back to the idea of struggle. If we have the resources, the institutions, the history, etc., then why do we have to fight to be recognized within the contemporary art scene? AND is this a product of an inferiority complex we have accepted as both a city and a people?

A few years ago I wrote an article for begging young artists not to move to New York City. The argument was simple: artists can’t afford New York. I interviewed Jason Musson, an artist who began his career in Philadelphia and eventually moved to NYC, in part, to expand his career. Musson described his work in Philadelphia as a necessary, and important, step in his career. The idea has been recycled in one of Curate This’ prompts, “Crossing the Border.” We ask people why they felt they could not pursue their art career in Philadelphia.

Co-founder Julius and I created this prompt out of necessity. So many of our collaborators wanted to include creator friends who had once lived in Philadelphia, but left for greener, or at least other, pastures. The narratives of this prompt tend to follow Musson’s outlook. When opportunities to show your work, or reach new audiences have dissipated, there is an overwhelming feeling that your resources have been exhausted. Philadelphia becomes a tethered backdrop that hosted rehearsals, but never quite made it to an opening night.

The problem with the arts in Philadelphia cannot be summarized in an all-encompassing statement or observation. We are faced with problems that have everything to do with the city, like the Balboa, and nothing to do with the city. An idea of what is obstructing us from receiving international attention, stymieing us from feeding our creative class, or prohibiting local funding sources, is the first step in finding a solution. At the foundation of Curate This is the belief that words possess a transformative authority, and those who command discourse are those who shape the popular imagination. Whether or not you’ve posited yourself as the underdog, your experience as a creator in this city is valid through experience. You are the critic.

Amanda is an artist and writer living in Philadelphia. Her work has been displayed at the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art, featured at festivals, and in events with Fait Du Vide Collective. Amanda has published with, the Philadelphia Daily News, Art Attack, and VICE Media. In her spare time she likes to drink and draw naked ladies.

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