My Problem with the Arts in Philadelphia

Losing My Religion

Losing My Religion. Photo by Rachel Wisniewski._small

Giappo has (literally) stuck his face all over the city. Yet the ownership, the relationship between the artist and the city, that these stickers imply may be misleading. As an ex-gallery owner in Philadelphia, a lifelong artist, and long time curator in the city, Giappo has born witness to the flux of interest in Philadelphia’s art scene from the inside and outside. Despite the challenges, Giappo continues to strive for global recognition in a gallery scene that so frequently ushers its saviors to the manger.

Amanda V. Wagner, co-founder

I recently realized that I’ve lost my faith in art just like I lost my faith in religion in my youth. More particularly I’ve lost my faith in the Philadelphia art market. I’m so severely jaded that I’ve become an apostate to the art community of my native city, which I once believed in so wholeheartedly.

To preface, I have seen it from many different angles. From artist to curator, art director to gallery manager, and dealer to advisor, I’d worn almost every hat possible in the tiny art market of Philadelphia by the time I was 27. I started my own grassroots gallery space in 2005 (The Spot). I’ve been the art director of several galleries (Jane and Bert Gallery, The F.U.E.L. Collection 2006), I held the position of managing director of The Knapp Gallery from 2007-2009, I started my own gallery program JSF Contemporary with pop up shows in Old City, Fishtown, and even Tribeca in NYC in 2010, and eventually owned my own commercial gallery space in Fishtown in 2012. And after all of these experiences I have realized one thing: the majority of people in Philadelphia don’t give a shit about art, most especially from the standpoint of actually supporting it by buying it.

And I know you’re probably thinking that I’m just being negative. Well, I am being negative, but for good reason, because I’m sick and tired of hearing the same shit about Philly that I’ve been listening to for the past fifteen years. Why don’t we have a better art market? Where are the collectors? Why isn’t Philly more like New York?

Why is it that a city that is home to the PMA, the Barnes, the Rodin, ICA, PAFA, UArts, Tyler, etc. etc. has such a dilemma when it comes to its own art market? Philadelphia produces more artists than almost any city in the country. We have the most art colleges. We are home to some of the best art collections and institutions in the world. Yet we do not have an art market that can sustain artists’ careers. Few and far between are the Philadelphia artists who have managed to make a living for themselves without holding some type of full time job, most of the time an art teaching position.

Art collecting has been and still is for the most part a luxury for the ultra rich. This is true in most of the world, and Philadelphia is no exception. Most of our philanthropic donations go to our museums and institutions (just take a look at the list of gifts from major grantmakers in Philadelphia for proof of this). This is not a bad thing necessarily, but it points to a major problem: old money and new money alike are not truly investing in young, mid-career or even seasoned artists of our city.

Now again just to be clear I am not talking about the art scene in our city, but the art market. This online publication is testament itself to how young artists are taking control of the scene and opening up a critical discussion about its positives and negatives. Not to mention the many artist-run spaces, collectives and so on in our city.

I truly believe that one of the main parties responsible for holding our city back in the contemporary art market is the art galleries themselves. There are only a rare few that actually maintain a program truly focused on progressive contemporary art; the rest fall into the comfortable sphere of academic realism (a Philly favorite), regurgitated ideas, familiar names, easily digestible or mind-numbing abstraction, minimalism, or zombie formalism that would look great over the couch in a house on the Main Line.

In addition to this, many of our galleries are unwilling to work together to create a gallery community. They feel that they are in competition! I can say this from experience because I’ve tried several times to organize a Philadelphia gallery association, and I was unsuccessful every time. The most common response from the gallerists was that they didn’t want to share their precious collectors. A business associate and client of mine once said, “Galleries are like restaurants, of course I have my favorite but I don’t like to eat there all the time.” This may sound silly but it rings true. With only a small amount of serious contemporary art galleries in our city I don’t believe that any two are alike nor are they directly in competition due to the work that they focus on. If they were to work together to promote gallery tours for their collectors and educate them on the diversity of the art scene in Philadelphia I firmly believe that this would work wonders.

Finally I would like to place the blame on the collectors themselves. Each art collector in our city has the obligation to participate in the energetic and ever-blossoming Philadelphia art scene (and to encourage and invite friends, family and colleagues) by purchasing from local artists. Just as the galleries should form an association, I would like to call out any serious art collector in our city to also form a group or association for collectors with the hope of educating people on the importance of collecting art and supporting local artists and galleries.

Philadelphia will never become a serious international market for contemporary art unless we all start by working together—artists, galleries and collectors. Collaboration may sound like a flat pitch, but it’s a way for Philadelphians to create a sustainable environment for artists. Faith in our art scene, like religious faith, can be rekindled, but a spiritual revelation would be needed to reconstruct our flawed infrastructure.

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