My Problem with the Arts in Philadelphia

Philadelphia’s Stepchild Syndrome

Canicular Door Interior_large

Kat Zagaria has long been one of the most active members of the Philly arts community I know. A founding member of Paperclips215, Kat acted for a long time as their writer, which made sense, since she made it a point to be out and about, attending gallery openings in Kensington, Fishtown, North Philly, and Old City. Kat took me to my very first First Friday, where I made connections with theartblog, Little Berlin—where I’ve since performed—and Curate This co-founder Amanda V. Wagner.

Kat is leaving Philadelphia for at least a while, stepping away from her job at the Barnes Foundation to pursue an advanced degree in Modern and Contemporary Art History at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. We wanted to make sure to get her perspective on Philadelphia, as someone who knows and has seen more artists and art than most in her relatively brief tenure here.

—Julius Ferraro, co-founder

It is justifiable that many artists, curators, and art-lovers alike think they cannot do anything to change the entrenched infrastructure of Philadelphia’s art world, of which complaining about being excluded from the national arts scene is something of a pastime. It is frustrating that many issues in the arts community in Philadelphia stubbornly remain despite the best intentions. One person alone likely would not be able to affect change. But there is a larger, more insidious problem at work that causes Philadelphia’s non-competitive status to stagnate, and it is the lack of collaboration on artistic endeavors.

As excited as I am about the individuals that surround me, I cannot help but feel that in Philadelphia we often pigeonhole ourselves through complaints about exclusion from the international art scene. We box ourselves in and create a self-fulfilling prophecy of never being quite able to compete with our big brother and sister cities, with us taking the role of the poor stepchild forever excluded through no fault of our own. I see it every day when curators, artists, writers, and anyone involved in the art scene offers a myriad of reasons as to why Philadelphia is not competing, not being reviewed, not being talked about. As angry we are about our situation, years of living here have beaten us down into complacency. Many of us no longer bother to look at national publications, and the latest ICA show’s snippet in Art in America goes undiscussed by the very city that wanted the press coverage so badly.

During the past five years in Philadelphia, I have found a small community of collaborators that I was looking for when I arrived. I came to the city after graduating from art school in search of new experiences, and the most intriguing people I’ve found have one primary thing in common: they are doers, and doers attract others to collaborate and make their projects bigger, better, more innovative, and more fulfilling than they ever could have dreamed them to be. I have watched as Conrad Brenner built partnerships between his blog, StreetsDept.com, and many mainstream institutions in the city, such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I have watched a (still budding) collaboration grow between FringeArts, our IndeGo bike share program, and the Women Bike PHL Community, which will enable more theater lovers and adventurous bikers to see the shows together this year. These are examples of the doers, who recognize that great art does not exist in a vacuum.

Collaborative projects have, in the last few years, produced some of the most interesting initiatives our city has to offer. Canicular at The Print Center in 2014 featured a collaboration with the Franklin Institute in order to fully realize artist Demetrius Oliver’s vision. Viewers watched a live feed of the Franklin Institute’s telescope view of the star Sirius—but only once they had crawled through a small doggie-door (Sirius is also known as the dog-star). As the star can only be seen at night, the Print Center had to change its hours just for the exhibit. This was not initially planned as part of Oliver’s piece, but the institution remained flexible in order for the exhibition—the collaboration—to work. It produced one of the most interesting collaborations the city has seen. Both institutions went outside of their comfort zones to produce something more intricate and beautiful than either could have done alone.

Little Berlin is a collaborative art space run by its contributor-curators. The space has no board of trustees or overseeing governing organization apart from the collaborators themselves, each of whom curates a show on a rotating basis. The result is one of the most innovative spaces that Philadelphia offers, one that is not beholden to any particular type of art. Theater, contemporary fiber installation, and interactive art all share the stage. Sometimes, Little Berlin’s shows fall flat. Other times, they are extraordinary, reflecting the diverse range of tastes that the curator-collaborators have. They are a testament to the interesting complexity that can arise when doers meet each other and make truly original art.

Collaborative art spaces need to multiply and build off of their success. Philadelphia needs more spaces that welcome a diverse audience by showcasing different types of art in innovative ways. We need spaces that encourage collaboration on an individual and institutional level. To achieve such a goal takes fiscal sponsorship, of course, but we as an arts community have to be willing to show how we support each other in our common goals. Instead of squabbling over our right to be compared to other cities, we should focus on improving ourselves. Improving our collaborative spirit will lead toward greater projects, gains in our cultural sector, and most importantly of all, great art.

Collaborations are messy. They are not a succinct process, and often the results that they yield are less than what their creators intended. But all of that is the beauty of the process.

In this, we can take a lesson from Pittsburgh and its Charm Bracelet Project, where smaller institutions are pooling their resources together to do greater projects. The project has seen a once-desolate concrete wasteland become a green space called Buhl Community Park, featuring a piece of public art by Ned Kahn called Cloud Arbor. The model that Pittsburgh has built is being touted as an example of creative collaboration and was recently featured in an American Alliance of Museums webinar on engaging new museum audiences. They are now looking at renovating the former Carnegie Library into a space fit for even more artistic collaboration and community engagement.

To take this line of thinking a step further, our city should actively collaborate with other cities on art projects—and not simply on traveling exhibitions. Artistic exchanges, residencies, and works that are created through cross-city communication should become the norm. Other cities must be invited to the table to see how wonderful the arts scene here truly is. As recognition of the communicative collaborative scene here spreads, so too will Philadelphia’s reputation as a city serious about its art.

We do nothing but hinder ourselves when we complain that we are always compared to New York and LA. Let’s give someone a reason to focus on us over New York. Let’s build something different, unique, and beautiful, and ignore anyone who says that New York is doing it better. We’re not them. But our cities have a rich, collaborative history, and it’s time for us to capitalize on that individually, institutionally, and internationally with an eye towards our inseparable artistic future.

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