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Friday, November 4, 2011

Old City Art, from ICON Magazine, November 2011 by Thom Nickels

In a troubled economy, people will cut out non-essentials in order to save money. Non-essentials might be anything from magazine subscriptions to purchasing perfumes on or books on Amazon. Buying art, be it an original work, print, serigraph or lithograph, would certainly count as a non-essential.

The recent economic downturn has forced small art galleries to reinvent themselves. From Boulder, Colorado, to Santa Fe, galleries are realigning themselves to the times, not always an easy task. The Boulder Camera, for instance, reports that artists are now pointing to collaboration over competition. That effort, at least in Louisville, Colorado, is called Arts Hub, where “a collective of artists who share a calendar and organize free events to try and draw larger crowds and a buzz, rather than relying on individual sales of a handful of expensive pieces.”

The number of art galleries in Santa Fe decreased from 103 in 2008 to a mere 84 member galleries today. In New York City alone, more than 2 dozen galleries closed between 2008 and 2009. The economic freeze has also spawned a rash of books and websites dedicated to helping artists navigate troubled times. In Jack White’s book, “The Mystery of Making It,” a practical polemic for artists, we learn that fewer than 50% of Americans have ever visited an art gallery.

So how are the art galleries in Philadelphia, and especially Old City, weathering the current economic draught?

Edward A. Barnhart, a Center City architect who opened Always by Design (AxD) at 265 S.10th Street four and a half years ago, at first thought he would have to end art shows and sales at AxD by the end of the summer, but then decided to stretch things out until 2012.

“We’ve had a trickle of sales from last year. We’d sell a piece or two in a show, but that’s it. Last spring there was a spurt of optimism. It began from the start of 2010 till early summer. I guess people were feeling that things were headed back in the right economic direction and they could be looser in discretional spending, but by mid-summer it totally tanked again,” Barnhart said.

The extension was good news to AxD managing director Ryan Mc Menamin, who told me, “At the end of the year we will re-evaluate in what incarnation the gallery is going to be in the new year.”

In September the gallery hosted the work of twelve illustrators from The Autumn Society, an organization of University of the Arts alumni committed to creative networking. The 35 or so prints and illustrations focused on basic graphic arts colors, and the various inks used in digital, offset and screen printing.

German-born artist Annette Cords will exhibit seven new paintings and ten collages at AxD from September 24 to October 29. The exhibition, Turnarounds, concentrates on what Cords calls “energies and transition and anticipation felt throughout one day.” Inspired by her physicist father’s world of science, Cords says that ever since she was a child she was always fascinated with her father’s work with “synchrotrons, electromagnetic fields and sub-atomic particles traveling near the speed of light.”
For several years now AxD has had to reinvent itself as a multi-purpose space in order to stay alive financially.

In addition to housing Barnhart’s architectural practice, the gallery has had rent out its space to theater companies as a rehearsal area, a reception area for author readings or private parties, film night or film castings venues as well as Philadelphia Fringe Festival rehearsals and presentations. This year AxD will host two Fringe Festival offerings, Neil Labute’s This is How it Goes (from Room6 Theatre Co.) and Dark Star Theatre’s The Witch in the Wood.

Like most small galleries in the city, AxD might attract up to 10 walk-ins a day for any given exhibit, a pale number when it comes to art sales.

“In August and September we will do some shows from the collection,” Barnhart says. “They will be more like composites of people we’ve shown in the past, a “best of’ from former shows.”

Barnhart believes that galleries can help their survival during economic downturns by being more active as a community resource. That, he says, is not about leasing prime space that goes for $2,000 a night. “That’s ridiculous. In a downscale economy, people are still looking to socialize, still looking to do the normal things they do, it’s just that they’re doing them in a less robust way.”

In Old City’s Muse Gallery at 52nd North 2nd Street, Muse collective member/artist Susan Wallack (an exhibition of Wallack’s work, “One-Part Paradise,” had been on display until July31st), told me that Philadelphia could be doing a lot more to support the city’s burgeoning Old City art scene, which many have compared to Soho in New York.

“I was in Soho before it was Soho,” the former New Yorker said. “I can tell you right now that Soho is a tourist destination. There are guided tours there in which people are walked in and out of the galleries. Philadelphia hasn’t gotten to that point yet.”

If Wallack had her way, she’d have those fake Old City Benjamin Franklin tour guides take a walk on the wild side and extend walking tours of the area to include something else besides the Liberty Bell and the Betsy Ross House.

“Walking around looking at the Liberty Bell is fine, but they need to have moving docents, who say to tourists that this is Philadelphia’s Soho, and here’s a place to eat, or shop, and here’s an art gallery. New York’s Soho was really promoted when it stopped being a lower part of Greenwich Village. It was promoted so well that the city changed parking regulations there. The city did everything they could to get people to visit and live there.”

Could Philadelphia follow suit, despite the ruinous reputation of the Philadelphia Parking Authority?

Although pleased that several of her Muse pieces sold, Wallack says that art gallery sales could be better in Philadelphia. “You go anywhere today, whether it’s too the Mall, to Bloomingdale’s, to Macy’s, and you see that these big stores are all empty. They don’t draw in the crowds they once did. And basically very little is happening now in the Philly art gallery world because everybody here is so uptight about spending money.”

Muse was founded 34 years ago as an all female arts collective on Rittenhouse Square. In the 1970s, Rittenhouse Square was still touting its legacy as Philadelphia’s version of Greenwich Village. Iconic Philadelphia legend/ art collector Henry Mcilhenny was still alive then, his mansion on the Square having become a magnet for international celebrities like Tennessee Williams and Andy Warhol (who once stayed there and made a sketch of Cecil Beaton’s feet). Other gallery owners, like Roger la Pelle, also had their starts there, until it became apparent that not enough people were coming to the Rittenhouse area to buy art. While both Muse and Roger le Pelle would later move to Old City, Old City was not without a snag or two. In Muse’s case, one snag became landlords chronically addicted to rent increases. This problem necessitated one Old City move for Muse from the middle of 2nd Street to its present corner location.

“Muse never let men in until the mid 1990s” Muse Director Nancy Halbert told me. “We don’t censor art. The environment of a co-op is different from a regular gallery.”

Muse members, in fact, pay a monthly fee, attend monthly meetings, and take turns “sitting” in the gallery. Halbert, who’s taking time off from her directorship because she recently underwent a spinal fusion, describes herself as a figurative artist and mentions a recent review of her work by Philadelphia Inquirer critic, Victoria Donohoe. “It was a good review but I didn’t sell this time,” she says. “Muse cannot really rely on sales, and that is why in August we rented the space to five really great abstract painters from Bucks County. They will pay the rent for August!”

For Rodger la Pelle, who first opened his la Pelle gallery in 1980 in an old basketball court in the former Rittenhouse Fitness Club, moving to 122 N. 3rd Street in Old City was a life saving measure.

“People just weren’t going to 20th Street and Rittenhouse Square Street, so now we are 26 years in this new location,” la Pelle says, adding that he thinks “the whole city must be depressed.”

“I don’t get art students outside of First Friday, which is like a date night. No, I don’t see many art students from all the art schools. I don’t see the faculties; I don’t see the curators and I don’t see the out of town art tours anymore. I think somehow Philadelphia must have gotten bad press because we used to sell to people from Washington and New York. Of course, everyone is still depressed because Philadelphia only got second place in the dirtiest category!”

La Pelle blames the city for making it tougher for art galleries to flourish.

“In Philadelphia there’s a 2% sales tax, a use and occupancy tax on commercial use of the space even if I make no sales. I pay on gross receipts whether or not I make any net profits. The economy of Philadelphia is so bad that the bookends of business, Goodwill Industries and the Mafia, both went broke here.

“And do you want to know something else?” he asks, “the Parking Authority is not giving money to the schools despite a 2007 agreement they made in which they were supposed to do this. The PPA has accumulated some 48 million bucks but now the city wants to raise taxes because they can’t collect the money from PPA.”

Get la Pelle going and he’ll tell you how he once met art historian, architect and Philadelphia Museum of Art Director Fiske Kimball; how he used to have amiable Rittenhouse chats with Henry Mcilhenny (while the later walked his poodle) and about the time that Whoppi Goldberg visited his gallery and promised to buy something at “a later date.”

“Though Whoppi said, ‘I’ll be back,’ I’m still waiting. I try to outwait everyone,” la Pelle says.

On any given First Friday, you’ll find soda and cookies at la Pelle’s, but not wine. “I don’t want to compete with restaurants,” he says, “and I don’t want to deal with a drunken crowd. But yes, we stay open till they stop coming, and that’s after midnight sometimes. I sold a $2500 painting after midnight recently. That’s a good time for chats and to dispense advice to young artists. I tell these young artists that if they see stuff that’s a great bargain and if you have 100 bucks, buy it. I try to tell them about the time I bought a print for 8 bucks and sold it for $3500.”

While almost all Old City galleries are at street level, the James Oliver Gallery at 723 Chestnut Street is a 4th floor walkup.

For serious collectors willing to walk the four flights of stairs to Oliver’s upscale “perfect space” environment, a glass of wine awaits. Oliver’s easy manner can perhaps be attributed to his Austin, Texas roots and the fact that for many years he was a musician by trade.

“We went all out to make this into a really beautiful space,” he tells me. “For starters, we have beautiful arched windows overlooking Chestnut Street.”

Then there’s the art, mostly minimalist with the accent on contemporary paintings, sculpture, photography and glass art installations. Very often there are “theme-inspired” shows in the gallery that Oliver says are designed to attract the more sophisicated art lover. “The fact that not many galleries in Old City and in Philadelphia have not closed because of the economic downturn is something positive to recognize,” he says, “but overall sometimes the galleries in the city are a little wanting-- often there’s a lack of consistency in the whole gallery scene in general.”

Oliver admits to having some reservations about the First Friday crowds, which are not only getting larger, but younger.

“People generally have heard through the grapevine that it’s become more of a younger crowd, college aged, or they witness this fact for themselves. I sometimes get a little frustrated with it because the whole thing is more like going out for a party. People in crowds will walk by someone looking at a painting without acknowledging that the person is looking at a piece and that they need that space. “
Oliver says that while the economy has forced him to do some things out of pocket, generally the gallery is moving along and getting a fair amount of attention. “We’ve always had a fair amount of press,” he adds confidently. “We started from the very beginning to have very strong shows. We always try to up the ante.”

Christine Pfister, of Old City’s Pentimenti Gallery (145 N. 2nd Street), maintains that while Pentimenti has been affected by the economic downturn, Old City is still the place in Philadelphia to shop for art. “There’s no doubt about that. We are over 26 galleries over 2 blocks, all on street level [with the exception of James Oliver, of course].

Pfister, who hails from Switzerland, says Pentimenti is doing fine. “We’ve been in business for 18 years. I think the longevity of the gallery is a help to the current crises in a sense, and I do have clients who have always collected art.”
The art scene in Old City, she says, reminds her of Chelsea rather than Soho. “Because Chelsea is the place in New York for art today, not Soho.”

“First Friday is still important because it’s when a large number of people will actually come to our city. Serious collectors, if they want to buy work at your gallery and if they know that this show is upcoming, will come before the opening.” Pfister thinks that despite the social aspect of First Friday—“people meeting and having a good time”—the event is still important. “I’ve had people in town from San Francisco stop in and buy something to take home with them. You never know who you are going to meet.”

Old City’s Gallery Joe (304 Arch Street) was opened by Becky Kerlin in 1993. Originally from Ohio, Kerlin lived in New York City for a while before heading to Bucks County in the late 1980s. Intent on establishing a more urban environment, Kerlin traded Bucks County for Old City “because opening a gallery in New York City wasn’t really an option.”

Old City, however, was the kind of place where Kerlin felt she could grow and learn rather than “disappearing” in Manhattan.

Gallery Joe deals in contemporary drawing, mostly abstract with at least half of the exhibiting artists from Philadelphia, the other half, as Kerlin says, “from all over the world.”

For Kerlin, Old City “has been great. She’s also pleased with the area, where she says that only one or two galleries have closed, although she’s quick to explain that in some cases “closed” just means they moved and reopened elsewhere. She mentions a couple of student galleries that have come and gone but for the most part she’s adamant that Old City as an art Mecca is pretty stable.

In September, Gallery Joe will host the work of Washington, D.C, artist Charles Ritchie, at which time Kerlin says she will welcome First Friday revelers until the gallery’s slightly early closing time. “For those of us who show very delicate work, we tend not to be open too late. Some people that are showing large items, it’s less of an issue and they stay open for the party aspect of First Friday, and that’s very good.”

For Tereza Gowden, a native of Brazil, and assistant manager of the Knapp Gallery (162 N. 3rd Street), First Friday is the best thing “they ever did for the city.”

The Knapp Gallery, which opened in 2006, is owned by Rebecca Knapp. It’s a mixed-use space. In 2010 Knapp hosted a staged event presented by the Center City Opera Theater.

As for contemporary art sales, Gowden tells me, “Well, we cannot complain. We are not selling 5 paintings a month but we are selling them. Of course it’s not enough. It could be better!”

That refrain is echoed by The F.A.N. gallery (221 Arch Street) owner Fred Al-Nkb, who says that Philadelphia galleries in general don’t make enough money to compete with New York galleries. “There’s no consistency in sales. One December could be good, another December terrible. But I cannot complain,” he adds philosophically, “I have a lot of loyal clients that buy from me, and I enjoy their business.”