NOW CURATING: YOMI
s t r e e t a r t i s t
W: Art as an Engine
NOW CURATING: YOMI
s t r e e t a r t i s t
W: Art as an Engine
When euphoric and soulful creativity is flowing without hesitation from an intellectually and politically conscious adult body, you are in the presence of someone very special. Wit López (they/them pronouns) is like a fire dragon bubble tea with grass jelly to the white cup coffee drinkers of the art world—perhaps too fabulous; these art gallery scene kids wouldn’t even know how to make sense of what they’d just sipped. During the planning of their solo show at 40th St AIR Space and the Rotunda, an interactive, tactile exhibition of fiber and mixed media works intended for participation by visually impaired folks, I was immediately struck by Wit’s approach to and philosophy of their practice. Wit’s work reflects their experiences as a disabled, gender non-conforming/nonbinary trans person of African American and Boricua descent through joy, macabre humor, and total absurdity. They often explore concepts of hairiness, accessibility, queerness, gender identity, Blackness, and Latinidad through mixed media, fiber arts, imagery, performance, and independent curation. They are Brooklyn-bred and Philadelphia-based. For excellent experiments in craft, self-portraiture/performance, and on-point commentary, you can follow them on instagram at @witnotwhit.
– Eva Wǒ, curator
In keeping with the theme “My Problem with Arts in Philadelphia,” I wanted to poke fun at two things that are reoccurring for me. Blocking is meant to look like an unfinished quilt or banner that is being worked on while the text on it says “*Dies of Exposure*.” The title of the piece is a play on the word blocking, which can refer to the fiber craft technique of blocking, being blocked on social media, or dealing with gatekeepers in the art world. The words on the piece are meant to critique all of the times artists have been offered exposure instead of money for our art, since exposure can’t feed us or give us shelter.
Common Threads is about all the folks who have asked me to collaborate, then never responded after I agreed. “Seen” and “Read” are references to how technology lets us know that someone has viewed our response, and hasn’t answered. Sometimes, that is their answer. This piece is about the upset of no response, but it also is a display of the understanding that as artists we don’t owe anyone anything.
Zach Zecha is a fairly recent Philly transplant, moving here from Colorado in 2013 to get his MFA from PAFA. He was a founding member of Automat, a gallery he started with some fellow PAFA MFA-ers on the second floor of the 319 N. 11th st. building. He makes paintings and assemblages that remind that we are not in control, and that is beautiful. His work is glorious chaos at first glance and then slowly you begin to find meaning in the connections he makes, going from a loud scream to gentle whisper. I never thought hot pink duct tape could make me so sad. An inner conflict ever-present. Symbolism both invented and universal is presented, redacted, and then re-presented in a different form. He cites Baudrillard, Plato, and the like; but really, in the most human terms, his work asks us to stand back and appreciate the beauty of our chaotic, broken world as it crumbles in front of us; at the same time, he asks us to work hard to make meaningful connections. Very relevant work for our current political climate.
-Veronica Cianfrano, curator
Beth Heinly is a leader in the alternative arts community in Philadelphia. She’s talented, opinionated and original. As a member of Little Berlin and Vox Populi, she has curated and shown work by herself and others. Her interest in science led to a wonderful art and science exhibit at Little Berlin; as a collector of art, she curated a memorable collections show at Vox Populi; as a zine maker and collector, she organized a zine library at Little Berlin that now is archived at Temple University Libraries. No matter what she’s working on—comics, a performance art piece, an exhibition or her experimental performance art festival—Beth works from her life and her passions.
-Roberta Fallon, curator
In an after-art school moment in 2007 I decided to stop painting, start making comics, and experiment with performance art.
For my first official performance I hired an actor (asked my friend to perform). They dressed as a comic character my high school BFF Maureen Cummings and I invented, Pumpkinhead. Pumpkinhead is a stick figure with a pumpkin for a head who pees gasoline and lights people on fire. IRL he wears a black sweatsuit, has a pumpkin over his head, and pees yellow paint from a water bottle concealed under his sweatpants. This has no relation to the famed KXVO Pumpkinhead even though it’s the exact same costume. I can only consider the coincidence proof of the collective unconscious. It was first friday in 2007 at the 319 building. Pumpkinhead was in a corner lobby area peeing on comic books Maureen and I had self-published. It did not go over well. Not only did everyone pretty much frown and walk by the spectacle, they seemed offended and just all around confused.
I stand by Pumpkinhead. It was performance art. I was not wrong. Peeing is so common in the performance art trade, tired even, from Viennese Actionism to Lady Gaga (Fergie did it first really). The audience was wrong.
I made this video of the performance illegally using the Gary Jules theme song from Donnie Darko, “Mad World.” The video aptly documents people’s aversion to the performance, from Old City to Chinatown. (I’m kind of embarrassed to show you this. So emo.)
What’s exhilarating about performing for an audience is creating the visceral experience. In 2007 when I disgusted and/or offended First Friday gallery goers it was not pleasant in that I want people to like my art, but it was real. It was an honest reaction from an audience. When you see performance art in a gallery the performer will challenge that space, but the audience already knows that, so what is the challenge? What are we learning about the present, the experience, the surreal happening? Was “The Artist is Present” real? Really? Reading about the Fluxus Art Movement, where the idea of the happening emerged, was a catalyst for me in wanting to perform in my art practice. I wasn’t feeling it with the art audience. I’ve discovered recently with my practice that performing in an art gallery setting is generally more safe and thus not so visceral. How do you perform with the educated postmodern audience where the singularity is defined by artists who came before? Imagine watching a standup comedian perform a routine you’ve already seen performed. Is your laugh genuine? And in terms of the performance that is attempting to enact the deep-rooted experience—is an art gallery really the place? The jury is not out considering that I perform from an educated perspective, but these questions led me to try another space.
In 2014 I wanted to move out of the gallery and into the public space. An unsafe space. A space that is real where my performance is inspired. As a performer you are choosing to react to that space, change its dimensions, interact with an audience across a wide spectrum that comes with a multitude of reactions, all within the unspoken trust between performer and public audience. The Fluxus artists performed outside. In the 60’s, they were already bored with the gallery, the institution, and the art scene as viable spaces for creative expression. The Situationists of the 60’s were another movement in art where the idea of guerilla performance emerged.
I preferred to create a spectacle rather than perform alone while also shaping the performances in reaction to the public space. With those two aspiring attributes I created the Open Call Guerilla Outdoor Performance Festival, otherwise known as OCGOPF, as an open call for performers to join me. There are other performance events that engage larger audiences and happen in the public sphere in Philadelphia, for instance the Fringe Festival and SoLow Fest, but with OCGOPF the public is largely not expecting the performance and you are assigned by my curated selection where the festival will take place. We are also not asking permission to perform, which at times can mean a performance is stopped by the police or city officials.
I decided that part of not asking for permission is acting like you have permission. I send out press releases a week prior to the events and have maps up online beforehand giving OCGOPF a sense of legitimacy. The maps also create an archive, and guide people who may want to seek out the performances. That said, performances do not happen on schedule and the maps generally tell you where something is happening, but mostly you will feel like you are on a scavenger hunt. People who show up specifically for OCGOPF seem to enjoy themselves, but they are not the target audience.
As OCGOPF is an open call, my roles as curator are selecting the public space, organizing the data, printing maps, and bringing together artists in discourse. If you participate in OCGOPF there is a mandatory meeting prior to the event to discuss your piece with the other participating artists. When I send out the open call I urge that the performances should be in relation to the public space. What happens in the end is a performance festival that is actually about the landscape and the people who occupy that landscape. The most important part is engaging the general public with the alternative art scene in Philadelphia where no money is expected to be exchanged that occurs within an unexpected time table. All of this to inevitably make the performances themselves happenings.
The first OCGOPF happened in Wissahickon Park in November 2014. Eleven artists participated over one weekend including myself, Tara White, Diedra Krieger, Annette Monnier & Yvonne Lung, Elizabeth Weinstein & Anna Kroll, Jerry Kaba, Jessica Gamble, Peter Morgan, Tyler Kline, and Valerie Perczek. There were a total of fourteen performances happening from 8AM – 9PM. The performances ranged from work that related specifically to the landscape and the park’s history to work that reacted to the public who frequent the park like joggers, dog walkers and duck feeders.
Jerry Kaba & Dan Ostrov
Believe It or Not Baptism
The second, most recent, OCGOPF happened in the Center City Underground Concourse in March 2015 for two consecutive weekends. I was interested in the variety of passersby: the everyday commuter, the pubcrawler, the homeless. The landscape was much more dismal, yet full of creepy wonder and potential for the performer. The performances as a result were more politically charged. It was exciting to see artists socially engage this bleak public space. Anna Kroll responded to the Jehovah’s Witnesses who populate nearly every corner throughout the concourse handing out pamphlets about their religion. Anna handed out her own pamphlets which instructed the correct way to roast brussel sprouts. In a disheartening public space the Jehovah’s Witness approach in offering salvation is no doubt a good one, but it was Anna’s lighthearted gesture that made people smile throughout the day.
Artist Matt Kalasky gave a drinking tour of Dunkin Donuts, of which there are a plethora within feet of each other at Suburban Station. The performance was entitled “The Subterranean Suburban Station Drunkin Dunkin’ Donuts History/Capitalism Crawl.” His script was partly derived from an original Dunkin Donuts commercial mixed with historical context and propagandistic overtones: “This song written by the group They Might be Giants, a group long known for subversively hiding nihilistic messages within folk pop overtones.” At the end of his speech Matt held up a jelly donut comparing it to the capitalistic heart of us all and stated, “For our final pairing I offer the ripe blood red and raw interior of our jelly donut hearts injected with the combustible gasoline fire of Everclear.” Matt then crushed the jelly donut. Could you imagine working that shift?
There were the surreal performances which added imagination to the eerie tunnel landscape. Laura Bernstein, known for composing outdoor performances in ornate costumes, made a suit of eight pairs of feet in an effort to take up space. The performance brings to mind our own physical space in relation to how we share space with one another. Artists Danielle Toronyi, Amber Johnston, Amy Ritter, and Cory Kram performed a spring ritual on top of an old water fountain base that is now underground at the crossroads of the Green Trolley Lines, the BSL and MFL. Their beautiful, ethereal performance contrasted the raw architecture and fluorescent lights.
The guerrilla aspect of the performance festival aligns it with street art and this was more so apparent with the performances happening within the desolate urban landscape versus the picturesque landscape of the Wissahickon. Performances from Jerry Kaba for OCGOPF clearly link the aesthetics while calling specifically to the landscape and history of the underground concourse. Shown specifically in “Safety Chess”, which stems from an well known urban myth that the tunnels were partly created as a fallout shelter.
In total the second OCGOPF had 22 performances from 15 artists: Tara White, Yvonne Lung, Dave Kyu, Jerry Kaba, Laura Bernstein, Faith Griffiths, Danielle Toronyi, Amber Johnston, Amy Ritter, Cory Kram, Matt Kalasky, Sean Thomas Boyt, and Anna Kroll. I could go on forever (haven’t I?) describing all the wonderful performances that contributed to the whole festival. I’m mentioning performances here which call to mind ideas that have been ruminating in relation to what OCGOPF does. Please visit ocgopf.tumblr.com to view more of the work.
The third OCGOPF is happening this June, and I am currently accepting proposals! Deadline May 1st. It will be during the week at lunch time (noon – 2pm), June 20th-24th in two center city parks blocks from each other, Rittenhouse Square and John F. Collins Park. I am interested in seeing the dynamic of performances between the two spaces. John F. Collins is small and guarded, urging the performance to be more subversive, while in Rittenhouse Park the performance artists will be side-by-side with the plethora of street performers already working there. You can read more information about the demographic of the audience and facts about submitting on the facebook event page. Please RSVP, share, and invite friends. Do not delay. I am not sure how many more OCGOPF’s will happen. It will probably end when the public audience is as expecting in Philadelphia as they are on a New York subway.
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.
Angela McQuillan is a mixed-media artist and curator based in Philadelphia. Her art practice as a whole is a study of various ways that art and science intersect and inform one another. Her ideas involve experiencing the living world with infinite curiosity and appreciation, while coming up with unique solutions to problems through artistic and scientific investigation. Angela is a former member of the Little Berlin collective and currently works as the Curator of the Esther Klein Gallery at The Science Center in University City.
-Jessie Hemmons, curator
BioArt is an avant garde art practice that is emerging and gaining popularity all over the world. By definition, BioArt is a practice where artists work with living organisms and life processes as a medium to create artwork. This work provides commentary and explores the cultural implications of biotechnological advancement, as well as presenting creative applications of technology to come up with unique solutions to problems.
You may be familiar with the work of the Brazilian artist Eduardo Kac, a very famous pioneer of BioArt who is known for creating a transgenic fluorescent green rabbit named Alba back in the year 2000. Or maybe you’ve heard about the “Victimless Leather” project in 2008, where a group of Australian artists from SymbioticA, directed by Oron Catts, grew a tiny coat made out of immortalized cells that had a leather-like texture. While these are some extreme examples, the world of BioArt is thriving . . . just not in Philadelphia.
Why is this? We have a huge community of artists who are interested in scientific topics. My theory is that we are lacking an entry point. The laboratory is not traditionally considered a place designated for art making, and many artists don’t even realize it is an option. Additionally, the average person cannot just walk into a science lab and start playing around with the equipment, so how are artists supposed to get started when they don’t have any previous experience? Accessibility is a major obstacle, but we are not lacking the scientists or research facilities. Philadelphia has many universities with high quality curriculum in the biological sciences for both undergraduates and graduate students. Our city also has many internationally known research centers that house cutting edge equipment and innovative technologies.
What we need in Philadelphia is more collaboration between artists and scientists. We have all the tools, we just need to form more networks and pathways and learn how to share our resources. We need to make it clear that science is NOT the opposite of art, and in fact they very closely related on the creativity scale. We need to promote the idea that biomedia is an option. Universities need to offer BioArt courses and open up their labs to art students. Scientists who have specialized knowledge and equipment should take up an artist in residence.
We can look to other cities for inspiration. Genspace located in New York City, is a non-profit community lab space where people of all skill levels can learn their way around a science lab and work on their own projects without a science degree. The School of Visual Arts, also in NYC, has its very own BioArt Lab and degree program, along with a summer residency. SymbioticA is an artistic laboratory and research facility located at the University of Western Australia, dedicated to the intersection of art and biology. They offer a Master of Biological Arts degree program as well as artist residencies. The Finnish Society of Bioart located in Helsinki organizes the annual Ars Bioartica Residency Program where they promote the study of the Artic environment.
Bringing the conversation back to Philadelphia, there are plenty of issues in our city that can be addressed through a scientific approach to art. One example is trash pollution. While I love shopping at IKEA, I really hate particleboard. It doesn’t last long and it is also usually made with formaldehyde and other toxic chemicals. Vacant lots in Philly are full of discarded particle board furniture. A new technology is exists where particle board is created from mushrooms. More specifically, the toxic binding agent in particle board is replaced with mycelium fungus, and the board literally grows into itself to form a super strong surface. It is also biodegradable. Amsterdam-based designer Erik Klarenbeek creates some amazing furniture using this process. Artists in Philadelphia could embrace this new form of biotechnology to create some interesting sculpture that brings awareness to new ways of sourcing building materials.
We do have a few good assets for artists interested in the sciences. One important space is the Esther Klein Gallery in University City, which exhibits artwork focused on science and technology. As the curator of EKG, I am always on the look-out for artists using biomedia in their work. Most recently, we had a BioArt exhibition featuring work by Juan M. Castro who travelled from Japan to show his work exploring protocells and artificial life. While I love bringing international artist to our city, I would love even more to cultivate a community of artists doing BioArt locally. A message to Philadelphia: we have all the resources, we just need to make the right connections.
Caleb Rochester has the unique and sought after skill of creating work that is totally uninfluenced by others. This might be because, to my knowledge, Caleb doesn’t care about the “art world.” Trends and movements don’t interest him. His pieces are the kinds of mini masterworks that seem to only be achieved by those who have an inherent gift and no formal training. He has also lived in Philadelphia for decades and has seen a lot more than most of us.
-Adam Peditto, curator
As a native of this city, I have seen the evolution of the mural industry in Philadelphia from its humble beginnings thirty years ago into a large, well-funded, and fairly famous machine today.
The original incarnation of the Mural Arts Program was the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network (PAGN), which still exists today. Mayor Wilson Goode started the program in 1984. It had a low budget and a novel concept. In an effort to eradicate graffiti from the city, kids who were arrested for defacing property were forced to paint murals instead.
These kids were supervised by artists fresh out of school. The typical mural crew might be six “graffiti writers” and one “real” artist with a bunch of brushes and buckets of paint. The crew would set up scaffolding in front of a blank wall, whip up a design on the spot and start painting. Sometimes the neighbors would put in their two cents in the beginning and sometimes not. The kids often could not draw, and frequently knew nothing about art. Some of the murals that they painted were very strange. Some of them were stupid and some of them were hilarious.
Most of the weirdest ones are long gone. They have been painted over by the now organized Mural Arts Program, or built over with new buildings, or destroyed along with the buildings they were painted on.
One day in the 90’s I stumbled on one of the “survivors” in South Philly. I think it was somewhere around 20th and Tasker, but I’m not sure. I’ve actually gone looking for it a few times since, but I could never find it.
The elements in the painting seemed like they could have been chosen at random, yet also seemed to be telling a story of some kind. Let’s see if I can put this the right way: the painting was more than one thing. It was a badly-executed painting telling a poorly articulated story, but it had a mystery to it, like ancient hieroglyphics from a forgotten civilization.
When you take it out of the context of that forgotten civilization, the story does not make sense. The place and time where this mural came from is gone.
I have never forgotten that mural. I only saw it once, and I’ve never seen a photo of it. The stained glass window is a TRIBUTE. I drafted it out of memory.
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.
Megan Bridge might be best-known as co-curator of <fidget>, which, together with neighboring Mascherspace, presents some of Philadelphia’s most exciting experimental performance. As a choreographer and dancer she has performed with artists as diverse and lauded as Lucinda Childs, Jerome Bel, Willi Dorner, Headlong Dance Theater, and Group Motion. Her most recent project, Dust, premiered here in Philly at FringeArts in April before touring the country. Bridge is also a critic, and has recently taken over as executive director of thINKingDANCE. Bridge is ubiquitous in Philadelphia’s experimental dance scene, so asking her to curate a week of content was a no-brainer. Here she discusses something very much at the tops of our minds: financing art.
– Julius Ferraro, co-founder
Once the nation’s capital (a status it lost to DC in 1800) and the center of culture in America (a status which gradually, and for reasons beyond the scope of this article, trickled away to a certain island just to the north), Philadelphia is currently the second largest city on the East Coast.
With a population of 1.5 million, Philadelphians have struggled for decades to escape the little sister syndrome. Philly is a city of hard workers. Local pride breeds a certain provincialism, unfortunately perpetuated by constant reminders that New York City, an economic and cultural giant that lies only 100 miles to the north, is still very much in people’s minds the art capital of the world. But with increasing glocalization, and visibility and accessibility through the web, not to mention the burgeoning population of young artists in cities other than New York and the new energy they bring, New York’s hegemony is pretty much over (I know, Brooklyn, it hurts).
Unfortunately, the chip on Philadelphia’s shoulder remains. Philly artists have an inferiority complex which is perpetuated by an institutional imperative to look outside of Philadelphia to find “excellence” in the arts.
This actually happened to me.
I was at the very beginning of working on a new project, choreographing an evening-length dance. It was a big project, and I needed big funding. I met with a small group of representatives from a Philadelphia foundation that I thought might be a good match. After describing my project and talking about the dancers I was interested in working with, I was directed by the head grant officer to not hire any Philadelphia dancers. In this person’s perspective (and . . . I inferred, the perspective of the foundation), there weren’t any dancers in Philly that were “good enough.” This particular grant officer even went so far as to name two specific dancers (one in New York, one in Europe) that they thought I should reach out to as potentially good matches for my project. I was flabbergasted. The audacity! How could a funder possibly suggest that s/he knows best what collaborators an artist should choose to bring into such an intimate relationship as creating art together?
After fuming for a few days, I used my application for that grant to get on a soapbox about my commitment to working with the excellent local artists in my own city, and about the intimate nature of collaborative relationships. From my application: “The dancers I am working with are LOCAL. This is an ethical and political stance. I believe in working collaboratively with performers, and in collaboration that is built on trust and personal/political/aesthetic relationships that grow over time in the studio…I believe in rigor and depth of inquiry, not “talent.” …There are many other qualified “experts” in this field that reside outside of Philadelphia, however I would not enter into a collaborative relationship of this depth with someone I don’t know.”
Needless to say, my application was rejected.
But so here’s my problem with art in Philadelphia. It’s that we keep going back. We keep letting these funders determine the nature and scope of our art, we jump through hoops as they change reporting requirements, budgetary guidelines. We spend as much time developing innovative marketing strategies (outreach! growth! capacity building!!) as we do making our art.
Could you imagine a Philadelphia where the richest funders required some basic proof every year that artists were regularly practicing, and based on that proof, the pie was divided evenly between all the artists? More art for everyone, with built-in diversity. Communistic-style. Down with capitalistic art and the way funders are holding us back from making our best work. Philly artists, what can we do?
Edwin Markham’s epigram Outwitted puts this much more eloquently, and I paraphrase for its application here: If someone draws a circle and excludes you, then draw a larger circle and include him. Can we artists band together somehow and draw a bigger circle that includes the funders? Choreographer friends of mine Gabrielle Revlock and Nicole Bindler have attempted this in a comedic way with their “2015 Call for Funders: Gabrielle and Nicole invite funders to apply to support The Dance Apocalypse’s 2015 creative work. Eligible funders must demonstrate a history of supporting radical, experimental, feminist performance for at least 5 years. To be considered please submit a letter of intent…addressing the following questions…” (read the full Call for Funders here).
Another approach is a boycott. Easy enough for those of us making work that would be an unlikely fit for large foundations. Many artists are making work with the support of small donations via crowd funding, or traveling around for tiny gigs to make ends meet. But it’s hard to blame those few of my peers, whose work does fit the foundation bill, accepting large grants to fund their work. And sometimes I even get hired as a dancer for those sweet gigs, sucking the tit of one of the foundations I’m so harshly railing against.
I don’t know the answer. But I do know that Philly artists need to support each other and keep reminding each other that WE ARE MAKING WORLD CLASS ART THAT NEEDS TO BE SEEN AROUND THE WORLD! By any means possible.
Photo credit: Michael Yu
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 Philly.com 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.