Letter to Prophets
Response by Alex Conner, Co-founder of Philly Stewards
January 7th, 2022
It’s folly to attempt to predict the future. That great equalizer - Time - eventually makes fools of us who attempt soothsaying. However, the linear progression of circumstances, constructed by the historical narratives we write for ourselves, can occasionally provide insight into common themes of what the future may portend. A car salesman trying to tack on an extra charge for undercoating during the sale of a vehicle has become such a predictable event that it has been satirized by dozens of sitcoms over the past decades and leaked into the common consciousness as an event that is distasteful but expected. Other stories, such as a New York woman recently evading manslaughter and murder charges after admitting to killing her husband by pulling the plug on his kayak in the Hudson, is anomalous in regard to how we expect the Rule of Law to deal with issues of premeditated murder and doesn’t coincide as closely to an expected historical precedent. This is all to say that almost any speculation that follows this paragraph is folly - even if it is arrived at earnestly.
Before I can speak to what I imagine the Art World of Philadelphia being in 2022 - Why 2022? Why not. - I want to discuss some of the trends I have observed during my time in Philadelphia that I believe will influence the growth and sustainability of The Arts in Philadelphia. I moved here in June of 2008, and as such spent my next 4-5 years watching Philadelphia’s fitful recovery from the Great Recession. Mechanisms at the state and local level - business tax-abatement programs from the late ‘90s being allowed to continue, a reassessment of property taxes across the city for increased revenue, the Mayors courting of business interests in the information-technology and service sectors - have contributed to increased economic revenue for Philadelphia. This increased revenue has not been distributed equally across the city, but it is there. Additionally, the Census Bureau reports that in 2006-2016, Philadelphia experienced a rise in population of 79,000 people, or a little over 5% overall, and that population has been steadily rising for the past 10 years. National job growth in 2016, sits at 1.7%, whereas Philadelphia experienced 2.2% job growth over the same period.
So there is more money floating around Philadelphia and more jobs to pay people for, though not necessarily in the sectors for which native Philadelphians may be already trained. The trend of increased revenue for the city seems unlikely to stop with new businesses moving in every day and every year the previous tax-abatements expiring. The canary in the coal mine for me was the day I realized we had over ten Juice bars in the city so that the young and fit could trade a Hamilton for a revitalizing elixir of cucumber, lemon, celery & kale - disposable income much?
In the landscape of Trump though, facts and feelings hold equal weight and it is lucky for us that Philadelphia is not only factually doing better economically, but it is “feeling better” for a privileged portion of us. I grew up in South Jersey and remember the Philadelphia of the 80s and 90s. Once or twice a year we’d drive in, park in a garage, B-Line for the restaurant we were visiting, eat a meal, B-Line for the parking garage and then back over the bridge. I can even remember the heavy sigh that would escape my mother’s lips when we descended the Benjamin Franklin and found ourselves back in the Garden State. This is to say that Philly had serious issues of crime and violence - overblown by the media in many circumstances, certainly - but the “feel” of the city to an outsider was that it was a dangerous place to be. While I didn’t live through it, to get a good sense of Philadelphia in the 1970s, during a major period of economic decline, I recommend William Least Heat-Moon’s autobiography Blue Highway in which he travels through Philadelphia starting from the North and proceeding down Broad Street. The images he shares with the reader are eye-opening to say the least, especially for those of us who didn’t experience this period of Philadelphia.
So, much of Philadelphia is “feeling” better than it did 10, 20, 30 years ago, and I believe that this is because we are in a golden-age of entertainment. Almost any food, recreation or source of enjoyment can be had if you’ve got the money. Increases in infrastructure spending, a city-wide “greening” ethos taking hold to make the city more Philadelphia and less Philthadelphia, as well as the increasing likelihood that people will stay in Philly after sowing the wild oats of their 20s, is transforming the way in which the city can imagine itself to be. Vox, NYTimes, the Inquirer, HuffPo, Billy Penn, Uwishunu and hundreds of other sites on the internet have published articles over the past five years around a headline similar to: “Why Philly is so cool and why you don’t know about it”, enticing millennials and retiring baby-boomers looking to downsize to focus their attention on Philadelphia. It’s not a renaissance - so few things historically have been - but it’s a step in a positive direction for a large portion of Philadelphia. So, now that the stage is set as to where the city finds itself, with money in its pockets and a populace ready to increasingly engage in activities throughout the city, let’s talk about Art.
It’s the 7th of January, 2022 - First Friday. January is one of the best gallery months as it starts out the New Year, allowing gallerists to adjust programming and put their best foot forward. Gallery Mile - a disconnected walk from 2nd and Market to Front and Girard and then continuing up to Frankford and York - is the primary destination for the majority of Artists and Art-aficionados in the city to visit. Over the past couple of years Old City has been transformed with many of the co-op galleries having to relocate based upon rising rent prices. Wexler, E-Moderne and some of the more design-oriented galleries have been able to remain but most of the galleries familiar to us in 2017, have been replaced. On Stellar Rays now has an annex space where 3rd Street Gallery used to be. Corbett vs. Dempsey, that stalwart of the Chicago gallery scene, has taken over the building which used to house New Boone and, in their typical way, have renamed it Dempsey vs. Corbett. In a sign of 2017 Philadelphia still remaining, Andrew Jeffrey Wright was able to make a deal with Philadelphia city government to buy the building that had housed Mr. Barstool for years for a dear price and, through a Pew Grant, has set up what he calls a “grey-box” performance space. Of course you did, Andrew.
Traveling Northward, the corner of 2nd and Vine is now defined by the glass and stone facade of Region. Three stories tall, Region is a collaboration between The Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Woodmere Museum of Art and, odd as it may sound, The Plastic Club. The first two floors of Region are dedicated to showing Artwork created by Artists living within a fifty-mile radius of Philadelphia. The third floor houses a monthly rotating collection of works from the Woodmere as well as hosts daily art classes put on by members of The Plastic Club. This new institution came into being after a perilous and PR-negative weeks-long protest held by Artists outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2020, demanding that the Museum show more work by contemporary Philadelphia Artists.
Continuing along 2nd street, over the pedestrian walkways that now rise triumphantly above the intersection of 2nd and Callowhill, the brown cement and yellow brick buildings that used to house IEI Group, Ltd., City Electrical Supply and PPG Paints now present names familiar to an artist from 2017. Vox Populi, Napoleon, Grizzly Grizzly and almost all of the galleries that were in the VOX Building before it got bought and turned into condos in late-2020 are now located here. In a turn of heart during the second-half of 2019, Mayor Kenny recognized the incredible cultural benefit these spaces provided and, with the property group that owned this strip of 2nd street faltering on their loans, dedicated it as AI(b), a new zoning type for Artistic Infrastructure that limits the rate of rent-increases or, should the galleries buy the spaces, their respective tax burdens. The galleries’ doors are open as folks in their parkas and mittens spill out of them to the heat-lamp lit sidewalk outside to smoke and cajole each other. Critical conversations about what they just saw - kind, but deliberative and honest - echo in the final rays of the setting sun. Casting a long shadow before it falls below the skyline, the sun lingers last on Philadelphia Contemporary.
Philadelphia Contemporary is what it sounds like, a museum that endeavors to show forward-thinking, high-quality contemporary visual and performance art in Philadelphia. They’ve constructed, through the backing of the Lenfests, Hamiltons and a crowd-sourcing campaign, what has been hailed world-wide as one of the most innovative art spaces ever constructed. Straddling all four corners of 2nd and Spring Garden are four tall rectangular buildings of equal proportion, their exteriors are emblazoned with reliefs of every style of pilaster employed in historical Philadelphia architecture from its founding in 1682 to current. These vertical variables “supporting” each building give the impression of stability and variety. Air-bridges connect the four structures, crisscrossing from the fourth floor of each building, and their design pays homage to the raised structure directly to their east - the Spring Garden stop on the Market-Frankfort line.
Northern Liberties is the weak point in the First Friday walk up 2nd street. Having been created by a series of real estate investment professionals in the end of the aughts, the buildings have aged poorly. The shops which once dotted this “hip” district have become less specific and more “gifty”, giving the whole neighborhood a feeling of bland indecisiveness. Even the Schmidt’s Commons, that scion of revitalization in 2010, has become just another housing complex ever since the rigamarole with Jarred Kushner’s imprisonment in early 2019 for espionage - in 2013, his Kushner Realty Group purchased a controlling stake in The Piazza / Liberty Walk, look it up. The saving grace for the Arts in Northern Liberties is “Liberty or Death”, the six-story building built on the Southwest corner of 2nd and Poplar. Spearheaded by MaKen Studios, it houses artist studios and galleries and has a basement space that is one of the most coveted spaces for Artists to exhibit large-scale installations in Philadelphia.
Down the hill, then up the hill and then one block to the right, you pass not much but residences and restaurants. At the intersection of Front and Girard is one of the most important institutions to be created in Philadelphia, for Philadelphia, since its founding: Blackstar Arts. The brainchild of Blackstar Producing Artistic Director Maori Holmes, it gives the Black community of Philadelphia their first truly mixed-use Artistic space to produce work for. A beautiful series of furry onyx globes seem to grow and intermittently glow from its exterior walls. Their blinking is a product of a project by visiting artist Jacolby Satterwhite. He’s written a program for them to flash, in morse code, the entire text of Ta-Nehisi Coates novel, The Beautiful Struggle. Inside, the Blackstar Theatre can hold 5,000, which was needed after the 2018 kerfuffle, where the Blackstar Film Festival was surprisingly attended by over 4,000 individuals on opening day. Over the past year, Blackstar Arts has hosted important writers and thinkers such as Dorothy Pitman Hughes, Mandisa Thomas and Samuel Delany, to packed houses. Tonight the gallery is showing an exhibition of Satterwhite’s string-drawn diagrams for his Morse Code globes.
But we can’t stay, unfortunately, as it is First Friday and we’ve got more spaces to get to. Walking up Frankford Ave. to its intersection with Shackamaxon Street and Thompson Street there is a triangular lot separating Shackamaxon and Frankford. A peculiar building - a three-sided steel pyramid colored canary and eggplant and holding large panels of glass - covers the entire lot and rises upward 30 feet appearing like a tetrahedron made of bubble gum stretching skyward. This is the new Fringe Arts public performance space, “Tag”. One side of the pyramid rolls on gigantic casters to create an entry way ten feet wide. Each day there are anywhere from 1-3 free performances that, should you walk or drive by, you cannot help from viewing. Tonight they are putting on a play by a Belarusian artist who lives in Brewerytown that is an adaptation of Eugene Onegin where Vladimir, Olga, Tatyana and Eugene are performed as if they are Tyrannosaurus Rexes. Throughout the duration of the play, none of the characters are able to project their elbows beyond their torso and must swipe feebly in midair through all of their dramatic gestures.
Looking North, up the East side of Frankford to the intersection of Master Street, the new sign for The Hacktory blinks warmly in the cold January night. The old parking lot was transformed into a home for the tech-enthusiast crew and was made possible by a partnership with Eyebeam in NYC. The Hacktory organizes educational workshops for the community as well as puts on exhibitions of New Media work. Eyebeam in New York helps to provide organizational support and cooperates in an exhibition-long residency program where a NYC artist comes to Philly and a Philly artist goes to NYC. The city helped fund this partnership and the construction of the building because they were enthusiastic about encouraging a field of Art they saw as complementary to the boom in Information Technology companies moving into the city. N3RD Street is no longer a shared concept but a hard reality and some of the largest Tech companies in the US have set up offices along it. A little South-West of here, Google relocated their Alphabet offices to the Inquirer Building in 2019 and now calls Philadelphia their “thought-quarters”.
The next stop is Palmer Park, the eponymously named building West of the park, where an old parking lot once sat. In 2020, the five big Art Schools in Philadelphia got together and decided that affordable studio space was leaving Philadelphia quickly. To remedy the problem and keep artists in Philadelphia post-graduation, they created The Diamond in North-West Philly and Palmer Park on Frankford. The Diamond contains 200 studios and Palmer Park 125. PP, as it is lovingly known, is a seven story studio-tower clad in glittery stucco, with pediments for each window specially designed by Isaiah Zagar. Floors 3-7 of Palmer Park contain 25 studios each, whose rents are capped at $150/month. The building allows students to stay for up to four years, but when a rent lapses for more than one month or a student moves out, their studio goes to the next person on the list. Floors 1-2 have facilities for metal-working, wood-working, ceramics, printmaking, jewelry-making and an ingeniously designed “skylight studio” for painting and drawing models in natural light. On First Friday this place is jumping and tonight is no different. Scouring the hallways of open doors and navigating the chattering masses, I could make this my only destination for the night and never exhaust all the open studios.
Proceeding up Frankford, a number of homes rented by students and artists have developed a unique system of exhibition-planning. Dubbed “Living Room Galleries”, these homes’ occupants have agreed to leave their first floors devoid of any objects and their walls painted fresh gallery-white. They treat the first floor like a gallery, with new exhibitions each month, and the rotating membership of people living in the houses keeps the spirit of each show fresh. It’s nice to have this little bit of DIY in an increasingly professionalized Philadelphia Art World. Past these is the last outpost of the Gallery Mile up at the corner of Frankford and York. It is the new shared space called “The Twins”, the dual outpost of the Esther Klein Gallery and Slought Gallery. This is the newest addition to the Mile and portent of things to come most likely. It hasn’t got a big crowd tonight, but as it is the farthest “out” as well as the newest addition, this isn’t a big surprise. The Twins was lauded by Edith Newhall in the Inquirer just last week for their experimental *ist-in-residence program, where they work with a new leader-in-their-field from Philadelphia for each exhibition to write an essay about their unique interpretation of the works that are exhibited during the period of their residency.
But the Philadelphia Art scene isn’t just about First Friday. The range of exhibitions and spaces has exploded over the past several years. There was a brief period in 2019, when Holland Cotter of the New York Times penned an article entitled, “The Art I’d Rather See” lauding the Philadelphia Art scene. A lot of commercial galleries, mostly auxiliaries of larger spaces throughout the US, started popping up in the least-likely of neighborhoods in Philadelphia and with a strong commercial bent that didn’t understand the market into which it was launching. Besides the “Go-Go”, Gagosian’s bizarre Go-Go Bar / Gallery dedicated to Velvet Blacklight Painting hybrid where you can always find the most morose and drunk of Artists on any given night, most of them have folded by now.
There are many more collectors for emerging Contemporary Art these days and like anything properly Philadelphia, they are inscrutable and totally of their own creation. They didn’t react positively to the more commercial galleries moving in. They haven’t joined all the Arts organizations. They don’t have an interest in the pArty lifestyle. They buy what they love and are fierce proponents of the artists in their collections. They are philosophical collectors, but not willing to back down from a fight as may be witnessed at an opening night for a particularly anticipated exhibition. Five years ago, they were helping to establish the medium-sized businesses that continue to be the economic engine of Philadelphia and now they have time to sit and reflect on the city they’ve chosen to call home. Talk about a disjuncture - it’s an amazing thought to think that just five years prior Yuka and David of Marginal Utility had started their commercial annex and now they own MU, their gallery in Greys Ferry that is a must-visit destination for any Collector visiting Philadelphia. In fact, just last year they made it on to the ArtReview’s Power 100 and word is that they might be tapped to curate the Whitney Biennale in the next couple of years.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art, that temple on a hill with a still-incomplete Frank Gehry expansion, has had a tumultuous couple of years. The flop of their major 2018 Summer exhibition Fountain of Truth, where they organized a heavily one-sided exhibition of Social Practice work, included no local Artists prompting outrage from the local community. It took place inside and outside their building for three months to many commuters distress. The Inquirer raved, “Bullish and confusing!”, the New York Times proclaimed, “As unintelligible as trying to listen to someone give you directions while their mouth is filled with a turkey sandwich.” The ArtBlog posted the most understanding headline with, “We All Make Mistakes”. The Museum was feeling increasingly removed from their community, which is why many feel that they helped establish Region. They’re back on track now and are organizing a conciliatory exhibition in the Perelman building focusing on the history of Space1026.
Mural Arts is still operating in full swing and that human personification of “being the change you want to see in the world”, Jane Golden, is still at the helm. A couple of years ago, when the city cut off over 90% of Mural Arts funding, there was an outcry across the Philly Arts community. Mural Arts had easily been one of Philadelphia’s most successful public Art projects of the past Century and the thought that it may not continue was devastating. However, working with private donors, private foundations and corporations has extended Mural Arts influence into sectors of Philadelphia that it previously had no access to. Over 35 sponsoring companies host “Design Our Mural” contests amongst their staff-people, for a mural that will be placed on their building. The winning staff person then works with Artists from Mural Arts to design the final plan for the mural. This has been one of the most revolutionary changes in Philadelphia as it now brings huge communities of people who were previously outside the Arts inside, and allows them to appreciate that even though they might not have an MFA, they too can contribute to the Arts in Philadelphia. It’s gotten so competitive that a city-wide prize is awarded to the staff person and artist who collaborated to design the public’s favorite mural at the end of the year.
Speaking of Citywide - it finally happened! In the Spring of 2021, a major cooperative exhibition schedule between all the major Art Spaces in Philadelphia took place and was a camaraderie-boosting event for everyone involved. True to Philly form it was DIY as fuck and a complete blast. A lot of people think its major impact is why the artist representing the USA in the 2023 Venice Biennale will be Alex Da Corte.
In less positive news, the city is more expensive than ever to live in. AI(b) zoning has helped, as have the rent-controlled studio buildings dotting the city, but Artists still have a hard time making ends meet. The Art scene is still class-driven, though a little less so than it was five years ago. While diversity in race, gender, sexual identity and national background is much more evenly represented across all fields of Art in Philly, there is still a divide between those who live in poverty / hover around the poverty line in their relation to Art and those who are middle-income earners and higher . Why? Well, it seems everyone has an answer these days. Most of the “Art Interventions” staged in underfunded and under-resourced neighborhoods of Philadelphia recently have backfired when the communities to which they are oriented complained that while they might have enjoyed the experience, it didn’t help them put food on their table. Quite a few Artists who participated in these interventions have grown to become increasingly invested in the communities about which they assumed much and knew little and have started to work directly in them. Not always as artists either! Quite a few BFAs added MSW to their names and are now focused on being a lifeline for these communities. No one has a solution, but there are many earnest Art-adjacent people endeavoring to assist those in need.
I’ve just returned home after taking the subway. The transfer at City Hall was mobbed as people taking the recently opened Yard/Hill line (Navy Yard to Chestnut Hill) were confused about what platform to wait on. It’s odd to me that I’ve walked around all evening composing a recent-history of the Philly Art scene in my head. Maybe I should take a moment to write it down.