The Philadelphia Story: A Check-up

Posted: 6/10/11

At the first NMStC planning meeting there was some debate over whether or not the content of our journal should be exclusively specific to Philadelphia. My position was that the lack of in-depth art criticism cannot be filled by looking inward, only. This is the problem with Philadelphia, I proclaimed, it has no real vetting. But I hadn’t done the research, and I’ve only lived here for two years. Nevertheless, I felt vehement enough about it to write a scathing letter to Robert Storr after seeing the Victory for Tyler Show at the Icebox. Here is an excerpt:

“Aside from a few excellent artist-run spaces, a couple commercial galleries, and the occasional innovative programming, Philadelphia’s cultural landscape lacks luster. While there is a lot to love about the city’s supportive communal ideologies, it’s frustrating to see so many shows sidestep curatorial precision. The general lack of healthy competition among artists, curators, and galleries helps to maintain an exceptionally low bar for a city with so much potential. I am frustrated with the all-inclusive attitude of the art scene. The lack of quality control that is endemic to this city appears to have infected your decision making process. Works On Paper is a weak curatorial device used as an excuse for the show to not take itself seriously. The show left a bad taste in my mouth mainly because I believe the Tyler community deserves better representation as a force within Philadelphia and the art world at large.”

What I wrote was based on a real frustration I harbor towards exhibitions in Philly but it also stems from my impulse to romanticize New York, in all its brutality. Like a sadistic coach or a desperate and damaged, over-achieving quarterback, I thrive on cut throat competition and negative reinforcement.

The comparisons between the New York and Philly art and music scenes have been made for at least the past twenty-five years, and I thought, they should be revisited for our first issue; an attempt to dispel some of my own snobbery, and to enlighten those without it. The paradox of being an artist in Philadelphia is phrased perfectly by Paul Galvez when he says: “Like all cities living in the shadow of former glory and of a newer, shinier, nearby metropolis, its inhabitants suffer from a split personality that swings between extreme love of everything the region has to offer and a bitterness bordering on self-loathing.” Whether or not it is true that Philadelphia is “a shadow of its former glory,” there is no doubt a dialectic between acceptance and rejection of the provincial and the untamed. What is considered Philly’s former glory is up for debate. Is it our past as the country’s capital, albeit for ten years, more then two hundred years ago--or, a more recent history marked by a murder rate so high that Philly adopted its cherished moniker, Naples? (The Homicide rate is 300 hundred per year with a population of 1.5 million. (1). Compare this to New York’s 19.5 million people with only 94.5 reported homicides per year.(2)) It’s the crime and corruption Philadelphia is plagued by that keeps gentrification at bay, allowing for artists, and entrepreneurs with modest means to carve out a space for themselves. This essay is the first of a series aimed to explore this space, its history, and the galleries that develop from it. Personally, it marks a quest to disband my own grudges against spaces that are malleable and inclusive. Through this exploration, I hope to identify strategies for the future, and evaluate the successes, failures, events, economies, and key figures resulting.

For many of the artists and curators here, deciding whether to stay or to leave is a tough call. Virgil Marti, who received his MFA from Tyler in the 1980’s, decided to stay in Philadelphia despite the “stigma around it.(3)” Marti claims he couldn’t have experienced the same success if he moved to New York, but it is Chelsea’s Elizabeth Dee gallery that represents him. A similar story is true for Alex Da Corte whose local celebrity has reached its capacity, and is now spilling over into several New York venues, MOMA included.

Then there are the galleries. William Pym and Sande Webster, the directors, respectively, of Fleisher Ollman, est. 1952, and Sande Webster Gallery est. 1976, both moved to Philadelphia from New York. Pym left New York after a discouraging stint as an artist, became a preparator at Fleisher Ollman, and began curating shows within his first year in Philly(4). Sande Webster came, partially out of self preservation (leaving a husband and lifestyle in the suburbs behind to follow her bliss where she could afford it) and partially to fill a void; In a city as black as Philadelphia, (44.2% black and only 39% white)(5) Webster saw the under-representation of black artists as her mission(6). (Sande Webster’s story, albeit somewhat hoary, is its own fascinating subject of an entirely different essay.) 

The aim for this series is to focus on what happens when people stay in Philadelphia as a means to capitalize on what the city offers: a penetrable, decentralized gallery scene-- one that is independent of a substantial art economy.  And then there are the artists who receive their training here, or simply put their time into the local scene and then split. This impulse to split is evident in the city’s steady population decrease (since the 1950’s) from 2.07 million to 1.5 million, (though the decline has reached a plateau in the past six or seven years)(7). Webster, Pym, Da Corte, and Marti are just four examples of what I will begin to explore over the course of this series; the failed New Yorker, the opportunist, and the straddler. Of course, the lines between these categories are blurry and their pejorative simplicity, for effect.

Most people cite the seventies and eighties as a time of real change; Philadelphia became a stronghold for the burgeoning civil rights movement, the Punk, and DIY scenes (which demanded more opportunities for female, gay, and black artists) coinciding in New York that gave birth to Vox Populi and other artist-run experimental spaces, some of which are now defunct, or have moved to other cities. Here is a short list: The Nexus Gallery est. 1975 the first, artist run, cooperative in the city. GALA est. 1988, “dedicated to creating opportunities for [LGBTQ] visual artists to exhibit their work in a gallery setting.” Étage, established in 1975 running until some time in the eighties was a venue for “bricolage, welcoming poets, musicians, and other performers(8)” is a ghost haunting the space now occupied by Bodega, itself an exhibition and  performance space. The Muse Gallery was founded in 1977 as an all women group inspired by A.I.R, the first independent women’s gallery in New York founded by Barbara Zucker, Nancy Spero and others(9). Momenta Art, now in Brooklyn, despite its 1986 origins in Philly, was one of the key exemplars for Vox.  As old artist run or non-profit spaces close new ones pop-up: Extra Extra, Little Berlin, Bodega, Tiger Strikes Asteroid, Marginal Utility, and Basekamp are some examples from the past ten years. Aside from the DIY, squatting/punk culture, a result of the low cost of living and big, cheap, empty warehouse spaces, I was sure that the racial demographics of the city would play a big part in its written history. It seems, at least superficially, that this history has been excluded as is so often the case when racial and economic inequalities are responsible for keeping the real estate affordable to young transplants mining for subversive cultural trends. It’s ghetto tourism on the one hand, and opportunism on the other. “Without a doubt, the current rage for art produced in far-flung locales is a predictable offshoot of the more general expansion of the global market place…it is not surprising then,” continues Galvez, “that the artists who make it through the system tend to insert just enough “ethnic” or local content(10)” into their work. He goes on to say that New Yorker’s often speak of Philadelphia as an outpost, something exotic, and affordable. Galvez questions how to “produce a local economy that is not subservient to such illusions.” The 2005, New York Times article titled “Philadelphia Story: The Next Borough,” boasting new development like the Piazza, a cost of living that is 37 percent lower then that of New York’s, and an anti-scene culture that allows artists to “do whatever they want,(11)” may have amped up New Yorkers’ interest in our city, and caused many a discouraged artist, musician, entrepreneur to set up shop, it did not change or   eradicate Philadelphia’s status as an outpost or satellite city. Maybe Philadelphia doesn’t want that anyway. It doesn’t need it. Right? And New York certainly doesn’t need a sixth borough. New York doesn’t need anything.

“Philadelphia is not the new Chelsea — or the new Williamsburg or the new Lower East Side for that matter. The city provides a community of generosity. This generosity affects the work. For artist and visitor alike, Philadelphia offers a respite from overheated scenes, unwelcoming galleries and the economy of the latest thing(12).” This generosity is undeniable. It creates an accessibility not to be taken for granted. For many artists, myself included, the ability to traverse the Philly art scene is like a breath of fresh air after living in New York.

What I continue to question is whether or not this generosity, indiscrimination or “tribal spirit(13)” is as genuine, thoughtful or political as it should be. As alluded to in the essay by Galvez, some of this homespun culture is usurping the space and the aesthetics of truly marginalized people. This is not a new problem. And while Philadelphia’s deflated market has value to many artists who might not otherwise be able to make a living selling their work, and it is questionable whether there is potential for spaces like Jolie Laide (whose original intention to show emerging artists has proven otherwise) to actually have a positive influence on the slap-happy, anti-scene that is Philadelphia. I think, by and large, the reluctance of some of this city’s spaces and artists to elevate the level of competition diminishes-by-association the venerable and successful efforts being put forth by many.  Let the pre- 1990’s arrangement of 19th Century European art at the PMA as described by Michael Kimmelman serve as a metaphor: “Monet’s hang in a room with chairs by Thonet, Behrens and Mackintosh, and Cassatts behind bedroom furniture. It's the sort of quirky approach that strikes a few sparks but is often more distracting than enlightening or evocative(14).”

Many of the observations from Kenneth Baker’s review from 1990 of “Contemporary Philadelphia Artists” at the PMA, I found to still be true today. Like that there was so little truly abstract work, and that “even the paintings that look abstract at a glance, turn out to have figures in them.” Or, “a number of painters practice a kind of retrograde realism seems to be a way of not thinking about the very tradition it reprises(15).”

Indeed, often, the Philly “i-don’t-give-a-fuck-what-you-think-about-it attitude” falls short of producing any kind of dynamism. Although, sometimes the opposite is true. A variety of examples include the Quadruple-Consciouness show at Vox this winter, Basekamp’s Art and Activism: A Political Playing Field, and the hilarious sofa make-out performance at Little Berlin this past weekend.

It goes without saying that a Chelsea gallery experience is often far from enlightening. An inflated market and celebrity artists with a branded schtick isn’t that impressive either. Shows like Dan Colen’s Poetry at Gagosian or Sterling Ruby’s 2traps at The Pace Gallery, both last year, collude wealth and fame in a way that trumps any potential for intellectual production and occur frequently. Yet, they fail to undercut the power of alternative venues like Electric Arts Intermix, White Columns, the Kitchen, Art in General, and other daring galleries in Chelsea and the Lower East Side.

So, although downloading a free PDF catalog of Locally Localized Gravity and reading through its eighty-something pages stirred up an appreciation for collective practice I may not have not had before, I am still skeptical. My fear of collective artistic practice is that it is utopic, at best. Many of these efforts, as I've seen in Philadelphia and New York, bypass commitment to discipline and turn a blind-eye to the hierarchies already in place that allow it to function. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. The alternative, not trying, is devastating to artists who will never be picked up by a gallery. So when William Pym said he’s seeing “more smart, globally aware, unprovincial work each year” let us all hope that doesn’t mean the erasure of invaluable spaces like Vox, and Bodega, and the values they represent but rather a continuation of the nuanced limbo between two lands; one where Richard Prince is the controversial leader and another without a leader, but instead various sects of a hippie religion, some more devout than others.

1. The FBI website: http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/08aprelim/table_4mt-oh.html
2 .New York State Government website: http://www.criminaljustice.state.ny.us/crimnet/ojsa/stats.html
3. Stern, Steven, Liberal Arts in Philadelphia, (The New York Times 2006)
4. Stern, 2006
5. Statistics from U.S. Census Bureau
6. From a conversation with Sande Webster
7. Pressler, Jessica, Philadelphia Story: The Next Borough, (The New York Times 2005)
8. Torchia, Richard, Toward a History of Artist-Run Spaces in Philadelphia, (Vox Populi: We’re Working  On it, 2010)
9. Ault, Judy, A Chronology of Alternative Structures, Spaces, Artist’s Groups and Organizations Alternative Art in New York City 1965-85, (Alternative Art, New York, 1965-1985, 2002) University of MInnisota Press, 33
10. Galvez, 24
11. Pressler, 2
12. Stern, 3
13. This Phrase was used by the curators of “Locally Localized Gravity” A ten week exhibition and programming series that ran at the ICA from January 20-March 25 2007. It featured work from over 100 artists and artists collectives and focused on the theme of “artist as producer” an, “artist-run scene”, and ado-it-yourself ethos.”
14. Kimmelman, Michael, Art View; A Puzzling Rearrangement in Philadelphia, (The New York Times, 1994)
15. Baker, Kenneth, The Philadelphia Scene: An Outsider’s View, (The Philadelphia Inquirer, 1990)


Art into Fashion:
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Oh! Pears: Variety Show

Sheila Hicks: 50 Years

Kari Altmann:
Core Samples

Optimistic Opposition

The Philadelphia Story:
A Check-up