An Ecology of Philadelphia’s Art Scene

by Daniel Gerwin


Photo depicts a public discussion scheduled as part of a series of programs developed in conjunction with “Francis Cape: Utopian Benches” (November 10, 2011 – January 2, 2012). The theme of this particular discussion, which occurred on Dec 14, 2011, was “Crafting Ideal America: Material Culture and American Utopianism”. The conversation was led by Lynsey Graeff (student enrolled in Temple University course entitled “Ideal America: Reform, Revolution, and Utopia” taught by Margaux Cowden, Visiting Assistant Professor Women’s Studies & American Studies, Advising Coordinator, LGBT Studies, Temple University). Photo credit: Jordan Richards

After three days driving from Iowa, my wife Julie and I pulled into South Philly and began unloading the Penske rental truck while Sadie and Theo, our Great Dane and Swiss Mountain Dog, stretched their legs and tried to stay in the shade. It was June 2009. Finishing my MFA at the University of Pennsylvania the previous summer, Philadelphia seemed a good place to be an artist. Only two hours from New York, the city was affordable, had a small but dynamic art scene, and appeared poised to grow.

We found a place near Pat’s and Gino’s, the cheese-steak joints where lines run down the block when the Phillies or Eagles play. Julie began her five-year residency training in Otolaryngology at Thomas Jefferson University, and I took a part-time research job at Drexel’s School of Public Health, and set up my painting studio in our home. For the first two years we choked on a stench from a neighboring three-story row house with blankets covering its windows. The place was finally raided, and 86 chihuahuas and one cat were rescued over a long night, as reporters milled around and helicopters clustered overhead. The house was condemned until people in hazmat suits cleaned it out. Then it was OK. And that’s Philly: dysfunctional, but livable in its own quirky way. 

If your curiosity is strong enough, you can reach just about anybody in town and they will make time for you. I met Ingrid Schaffner, Chief Curator of the Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA), when she was a senior critic in Penn’s MFA program, but we got to know each other during talks and salons at the ICA (Schaffner is now curator for the 57th Carnegie International). One day Ingrid mentioned an artist she thought I should meet, Ditta Baron Hoeber. It turned out Ditta lived just five blocks away from me. In the following months she had a solo show at Moore College of Art and Design, and I reviewed it. Things like that just happen in Philly – it doesn’t feel like the fifth largest city in America: it’s human scale.

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Ditta Baron Hoeber. 8 Minutes 52 seconds. 2013.

Throughout my five years there, I taught as an adjunct at University of the Arts (UArts). Teaching was for the joy of it, I loved my colleagues and encountered some great student work. Em Kettner (named after Emily Dickinson) made dense, delicate drawings in ballpoint and built odd plywood structures to display them alongside broken glass and other ephemera. Kayleigh Starr was a quiet student who diligently honed her observational painting skills for four years, then knocked everyone out with a thesis show of deeply personal and restrained images based on photographs from her father’s service in Iraq and Afghanistan, many painted under magnification. I remember especially her painting of sheep seen through the window of a tank.

Teaching sharpened my awareness of the vitality arising from Philadelphia’s densely packed BFA and MFA programs, including those at Penn, Moore, Tyler, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA), UArts, and others just outside town. With so many schools, teaching jobs in Philadelphia are more attainable than in most large cities, and the universities offer a multitude of exhibition spaces, including permanent installations like Ocean Without a Shore, Bill Viola’s meditation on the dead, at PAFA (my favorite in Philadelphia). Even Drexel, whose weak art program has not been much more than a source of employment, is making a contribution since the ambitious 2013 upgrade of its Leonard Pearlstein Gallery.

UPenn’s ICA is by far the city’s best place to see and think about contemporary art, and a gathering place for artists, writers, and curators. UArts’ Rosenwald-Wolf gallery, comparatively tiny, is a mouse that roars thanks to its curator Sid Sachs. His shows are as important as they are under-attended (he has shown Anna Betbeze, Rose Wylie, and John Stezaker, to name a few). My students walked by his gallery daily but most did not realize what glory lay on their doorstep – I had to prod them to enter. Significant small galleries can also be found at Rowan University nearby in New Jersey, where I saw Joyce Kozloff’s work, and Arcadia University out in Glenside, PA, curated by Richard Torchia. Although the commute is aggravating, I regularly had my mind blown by Arcadia’s shows, including of Ray Johnson, and Martha Wilson. Torchia manages to present exhibits that, as he described to me, “need to be seen now and might not otherwise be presented to the community we serve…[while] attempting to avoid any redundancy or complicity with the marketplace.”

Compensating for Philadelphia’s market vacuum is the financial power of the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, whose support of culture in Philadelphia makes world-class exhibitions a regular presence, allowing even the slender Arcadia University gallery to commission and present JG (2013), a film by Tacita Dean. The Pew Center gave out $9.3 million in 2014, helping to fund 320 exhibitions, performances, and events. They also award annual $75,000 fellowships to individual artists, a powerful career boost. I got used to seeing the Pew Center’s fingerprints on exciting events, like the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s (PMA) Dancing Around the Bride in 2012 (an exploration of artistic influences and relationships among Duchamp, Cage, Cunningham, Johns, and Rauschenberg), or the ICA’s 2013 Jason Rhoades show. This funding activity is more important than ever as America’s museums rely increasingly on the money of commercial galleries to create exhibitions with baked-in conflicts of interest (see, for example, Christopher Knight’s Museums’ disturbing transformation: relentless commercialization, July 17, 2015, Los Angeles Times).


Douglas Witmer. Installation view at TSA. September 2015. Photo courtesy of Douglas Witmer.

Art schools and museums like the PMA, the Fabric Workshop Museum, and the Barnes, undergird the scene synergistically with their collections and major exhibitions, helping local artists understand their ideas within a larger context. But these institutions have been around a long time – the recent growth of Philly’s scene is tied to other developments. The New York Times attributed the influx of millenials, along with Philadelphia’s increasing retention of its university graduates, to “the growing job market, greater availability of housing, improved amenities such as public parks, and a vibrant downtown restaurant scene.” (A Philadelphia Workplace With Millennials In Mind, July 7, 2015) Philly is a town where you can hold a part-time job, be in your studio, and still make rent. The cheap housing enjoyed by artists is due in no small part to the rampant poverty in Philadelphia, the poorest of America’s ten largest cities. This situation is ironic considering the leftist politics of most artists, but hardly unique.

Philly’s concentrated geography is another significant catalyst for artists. There are three focal points for galleries and you can bike between them: Washington Square Park (a fancy part of town) has two of the biggest commercial galleries, Locks and Bridgette Mayer. A few blocks north lies Chinatown, with Fleisher Ollman, an outstanding commercial venue specializing in “outsider” art but showing many of Philadelphia’s best artists, and Space 1026, one of the city’s older functioning artist collectives, whose shows are rarely remarkable. Just past Chinatown is 319 North 11th street, an old industrial shell housing Marginal Utility, TSA, Grizzly Grizzly, Vox Populi, Practice (all artist-run non-profits), and others. You have to push farther north to reach Girard Avenue, with Rebekah Templeton Gallery, the Icebox (gargantuan at just under 100’ long and adventurously curated), and the Frankford Avenue corridor that runs north to include Fjord and Little Berlin plus other, newer spaces. Old City, once a center for galleries, has had a recent spate of closings due to higher rents (see The Vanishing Philadelphia Art Gallery, December 6, 2015, The Philadelphia Inquirer), and no longer houses any especially worth visiting. There are dozens more venues, but their shows tend to be less compelling. Overall, commercial galleries are outnumbered by the sum of collectives, university galleries, and museums, leaving artists and curators to decide much of what gets seen in Philadelphia, a welcome and unusual state of affairs.


Todd Baldwin. Installation view at TSA. October 2014. Photo courtesy of Douglas Witmer.

You can’t be an artist in Philly without feeling the powerful DIY energy, evinced by its long tradition of artist collectives and its active punk scene. It wasn’t long before I found myself swept up. Travis Heck, a painter friend from graduate school, was hired in 2010 to direct an upstart commercial gallery in Chinatown, which opened under the cornball name of Jolie Laide (two years later the backers pulled out and it closed). I wrote their press releases, did interviews with artists for their shows, and just kind of hung out at the gallery. Travis had a gift for pulling in dynamic people from out of town: Wendy White and Bill Saylor curated exhibits, and the gallery’s shows included works by Brian Bellot, Fabienne Lasserre, Yevgeniya Baras, Paul de Muro, and Joyce Pensato, plus local heroes like Alex da Corte, whose ability to combine vivid color, pitch perfect design, and everyday objects elevated to metaphor, has since garnered him an international reputation.

Jolie Laide was part of a surge of Philadelphia spaces presenting exciting and rigorous art. By then New York was already catering increasingly to the wealthy, so talented transplants were washing up on our shores. In 2009, Rachel and Trevor Reese came from Deitch Projects to take jobs at Fleisher Ollman while running their own non-profit space, Possible Projects, below their home in Fishtown. Marginal Utility, another non-profit, opened the same year, run by the accomplished artist David Dempewolf with his wife Yuka Yokoyama. Both couples immediately began presenting people from other cities, including Abigail DeVille, Elaine Cameron-Weir, and Rachel Mason. The Reeses had a baby and left town to be near the rest of their family in Atlanta, but Marginal Utility is still going strong.

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Alexis Granwell. Installation view at TSA. October 2015. Photo courtesy of Douglas Witmer.

Other ambitious collectives opened and survived, including Grizzly Grizzly and TSA (TSA went on to open a second space in New York, and now boasts a Los Angeles affiliate, and also created Artist-Run at Miami Basel, remarkable feats for so few years). All these spaces show artists from across the U.S. and beyond, helping Philadelphia transcend its historical insularity and, as a consequence, raising the bar on local artists and other galleries. Heretofore somnolent commercial spaces such as Paradigm and Gross McCleaf are beginning to show artists more sharply engaged with contemporary visual discourse, with the same change visible in regional museums like the Woodmere, or at community venues such as Abington Art Center. Even the city’s ghastly Mural Arts Program has realized it can no longer continue to smother neighborhoods with dull illustrations. “Psycholustro”, a 2014 commissioned work by Katharina Grosse in which she spray-painted the landscape in passages of intense color along a stretch of train line running north out of Philadelphia, is exemplary of Mural Art’s new direction.

Improvement in the quantity and quality of exhibitions came with a concurrent development in local art writing. Already while I was in graduate school, conversations kept arising about how the art in Philly deserved a better critical discourse. In 2010 a group of us created Title Magazine, focused on visual art in Philadelphia, and successfully online for five years now (I wrote and edited for the first four). Two other DIY publications were also active: a print zine named Machete, which began in 2009 (and ceased in 2012), and The St. Claire, another online publication addressing the local scene that is still active. Like all artist-run efforts in Philly, Title and The St. Claire are the voluntary labor of their editors, webmasters, and contributors. The conversation continues to improve – ArtCritical’s Review Panel expanded from New York to Philadelphia, where it consistently finds an enthusiastic audience.


Douglas Witmer. Installation view at TSA. September 2015. Photo courtesy of Douglas Witmer.

Philadelphia’s artist-run venues create a sense of ownership: you know the people running the spaces, and you are the primary (sometimes only) audience, rather than the wealthy collectors to whom most commercial galleries cater. Strong exposure in Philly will not by itself grant you a professional career in the conventional sense (sales, critical recognition); exhibiting in New York remains a more decisive measure of this type of success. Other concerns lie at the heart of Philly’s scene: Cindy Stockton Moore, writing for Title Magazine about her involvement in the collective Grizzly Grizzly, explained that her voluntary efforts earned her relationships “outside of established circles of friends, coworkers or former classmates. By necessity I work with a larger group of people dedicated to pursuits that run parallel to mine. I learn more.” Such expanding and interlocking relationships not only generate energy and ideas in the studio, they engender communal power for artists who otherwise work in relative isolation. Philadelphia’s artists recently played a significant role in winning the right to vote for the unionization of adjunct teachers at Temple University.

To date, the city’s art scene has been an experiment in inclusivity. It remains to be seen whether this model can achieve a level of dynamism comparable to centers like New York and Los Angeles (if this is even a desirable goal). Certainly, the ease of mounting exhibitions enables a fair amount of self-promotion and reciprocal back-patting, which supports mediocrity and a kind of perpetual graduate school environment. Back in 2010 Torchia was already wondering if the scene was “approaching a point at which there are more individuals on stage than in the audience?” (Toward a History of Artist-Run Spaces in Philadelphia, 2010) Other problems inhere in DIY: the ubiquitous unpaid internship is frequently criticized as exploitative, as are institutions that expect artists to provide performances or other services without being remunerated. Are Philadelphia’s collectives unwittingly abetting a waning public support of the arts by jumping into the breach, or are they mimicking the commercial art world while hoping to be invited in? These questions gain trenchancy given that the vast majority of exhibits in the city’s collective galleries could as easily appear in for-profit galleries, raising questions about the ability of collectives to offer truly alternative modes in our 21st century art culture, wherein a stabbing at Art Basel could be mistaken for performance art.

Clearly, without the artist collectives there would be far less interesting art to see and think about in Philadelphia. But the ground is shifting: will local artists maintain their tightly knit community as the city gains economic strength? DIY spaces may face challenges as development continues and real estate prices go up, a reality in Old City and a broader possibility presaged by the imminent renovation of the historic Divine Lorraine Hotel on north Broad Street, derelict since 2000. If 319 North 11th Street were sold to a developer, the best artist-run spaces would be simultaneously displaced and likely dispersed. For the moment, however, Philadelphia’s artists enjoy a remarkable goldilocks moment: the art scene is neither too hot nor too cold, and is likely to get better before it gets worse.

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