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City Blocks: Neighborhood Galleries

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By Nick Gilewicz

The Arts Corridor project on Frankford Avenue is just one example of artists finding new neighborhoods and new venues for their art.  It is happening throughout the city - an organic movement, often centered around the large number of co-operative and collective spaces being created by artists, many of them relatively new to Philadelphia.

These co-ops exhibit new work, provide a space for the exchange of artistic ideas, and create microcommunities across the cities that sometimes extend their reach into both surrounding neighborhoods and the wider art world.

One example is Basekamp, a collective whose home is upstairs from Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto's restaurant at 723 Chestnut Street. Its focus is collaborative work. Their major project in 2010 is Plausible Artworlds, a weekly potluck meal open to the public

Artists and other groups talk about their work, and people from around the world participate via Skype.  

Artists at Basekamp

Artists at Basekamp.png"Although exhibitions occur at Basekamp, they're infrequent," said Greg Scranton, a digital artist and member of the collective. "They're not the focus. If somebody wanted to put on an exhibition, we'd take into account whether the work was collaborative or in the spirit of some sort of collective endeavor. We wouldn't feature the paintings of one painter. It's not in the mindset of Basekamp."

The co-ops are springing up, in part, because Philadelphia can be a tough town for artists.

"The arts market--it is conservative and limiting," said Jeff Waring, a founder and the current director of the Highwire Gallery, a co-operative space on Frankford Avenue. "There are people like Paul Santoleri [an artist known for his work with the city's Mural Arts Program] and Isaiah Zagar [whose mosaic work covers buildings across the city] who aren't selling their work," he said.     

Philadelphia's successful private galleries--such as Locks Gallery, Fleisher-Ollman Bridget Mayer and the Rosenfeld Gallery--might disagree, but many artists find that space to show their work in the city is limited.

So, they have created their own. New spaces seem to pop up every year, and by developing communities, these co-operative endeavors help keep young artists in the game.

Eighteen months ago, on the gritty 1900-block of South Bancroft Street members of the Cha Cha Razzi co-op rented a building that includes studio space for seven people and a large room, accessed by a metal garage door, that they use for a reading series, band rehearsals, dance parties, and concerts.

Sam Allingham, a writer, musician, and one of the group's founders, said that most of the members reside in West Philadelphia group houses, and but that the co-op, which is near 16th and Mifflin Streets in South Philly, provides a separate artistic space.

                                                                        Cha Cha'Razzi's Home Garage

ChaChaGarage.jpg"There's the sense of community about the art you make," Allingham said. "I didn't have a studio or a real community for the first two years I lived here. [Cha Cha Razzi] provides that sense of community. It also makes it easier to feel like what you're doing is important."

In Kensington, Little Berlin's gallery occupies what was formerly a storage room for a large textile warehouse. The cathedral ceiling is   pitched at a 45-degree angle, and most of the ridge of the roof is made up of windows, letting soft bright light into the space. The gallery became an artists' collective in early 2009.

Robert "Tim" Pannell, a printmaker and founding member who curated Little Berlin's first show as a collective, expressed sentiments similar to Allingham's. The day after I visited him at the gallery, he emailed to follow up about a question that was, in essence: In a market where it's nearly impossible to have an arts career, why bother?

"I think part of it is control," Pannell wrote. "Even with a small collective like Little Berlin, there is a sense that you are in effect, shaping the Philly art scene one show at a time because you are determining who gets to exhibit/perform in your little corner of the city. You feel like a participant and not an outsider, you make decisions that affect other artists in the city (hopefully)."

Andrew Suggs graduated from Harvard in 2005 and moved to Philadelphia shortly thereafter. A member and the executive director of the Vox Populi Gallery on North 11th near Callowhill Street, Suggs said that the organization provides him an important space to develop his work--installation-based pieces and performances that examine queer history and rhetoric.

"There's this built-in community of artists," Suggs said, "with whom to have extended dialog about your practice. If I had moved to New York, I don't think I'd be making art right now."

The desire to work collaboratively and create new spaces is not new. Vox Populi, established in 1988, and Highwire, established in 1987, have mounted shows for nearly a quarter-century.

 Vox Populi Gallery on 11th Street

Vox Populi Gallery Philadelphia.jpg"Selling wasn't the main impetus" for Highwire, said Jeff Waring, its director. "We're happy just to put a show together, and we hope to get a few reviews. Because there's no market, you have to find support from artists--by coughing up money, by gallery sitting. All of the money to support the arts comes from the artists. Artists are the arts community and the economy."

Some of the co-ops have met with quite a bit of success. In May, Vox Populi exhibited at the "No Soul For Sale - A Festival of Independents," a show celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Tate Gallery in London. The group also just received a $30,000 grant to build out a performance art space and studios that it will rent to artists.

The money came from a Creative Industry Workforce Grant through the city--a new program created by federal stimulus money that plans to give capital grants to similar arts projects.  The allocation of the money is a another hopeful sign that city government is beginning to see the connection between arts communities and broader community development.

 

Nick Gilewicz is a freelance journalist who writes frequently on arts and culture.

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