Philly Artists—Sick of the Mainstream Gallery System—Revive the Alternatives

By Nicole Finkbiner
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 12 | Posted Dec. 14, 2011

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As longtime members of the Philadelphia Cartoonist Society, a grassroots art collective founded by three local artists in a Fishtown basement 14 years ago, both Patchell and Dix feel like they have an entire support system behind them. “There’s no dues or anything like that, just people who like to make comics, cartoons and artwork,” Patchell says. “We help each other move house and home, get each other work and help teach classes together and guest lecture.” He adds that “many of my former students are now members of the Society and we exhibit side by side. If that’s not a symbol of an improving art scene in Philly I don’t know what is.”

The fact that Philly artists are coming together and making it happen is nothing new— hence the city’s many longtime artist collectives like the Sketch Club and alternative spaces like Vox Populi. The difference is the renewed surge. “The energy here is really amazing,” says Andrew Suggs, executive director of Vox.

Now that many of the city’s original art collectives and co-ops like Vox and Nexus have become more established—becoming nonprofits and opening their programming to include artists outside of Philly—it’s the start-ups in North Philly like Part Time Studios, Little Berlin and extra extra that are offering spaces for young artists to make the kind of artwork they want and actually have it seen. “It’s a community situation for them, but not necessarily an exhibition opportunity,” Suggs says.

Gary Steuer, the city’s chief cultural officer, says the alternative art scene has “really picked up steam within the last two to three years.” And he expects that trend to continue. “As Philly becomes more and more recognized for these alternative ventures, more artists want to come here.” Steuer says the reality is that “no one is coming to Philly to buy an original Robert Rauschenberg, But if you’re looking for the next Robert Rauschenberg, that you will find.”

For Suggs, the idea that in many ways, “you’re not in competition with the commercial scene,” is one of the most exciting things to happen to the art scene in Philly.

Despite having been shooed away (on behalf of complaining gallery owners) by officials from the Department of Licenses & Inspections earlier this past summer, the decades-long tradition of hawking art on the street appears unfazed. During last month’s First Friday, local artisans braved dropping temperatures to sell their array of works—jewelry, knits, ceramics, prints, you name it—along Second Street in Old City just as they have since spring. “Caricatures, one dollar! One dollar! Caricatures, one dollar!” yells one young woman aggressively pursuing the attention of pedestrians quickly bustling in and out of many of the fine-art galleries on the strip.

Dix points out that “all those people on the street are people who could never even imagine trying to get into those galleries.”

And really, they don’t need to.

Alex Styer, program director for Philly Art Alliance, agrees that things have changed over the last three to five years, and that while galleries are still relevant, they’re just not as vital to an artist’s success as they once were. “You don’t need gallery representation,” Styer says. “Marketing doesn’t have as much weight as it used to … you don’t need to have your show mentioned in the Inquirer’s Sunday Arts Preview. That’s not the end all, be all in the art scene anymore.”

As one of the few local artists making a living solely on their art, Yis Goodwin aka “Nose Go,” is a prime example of this liberating movement—he got his first big break while in college when he entered and won Converse’s nationwide sneaker design and his shoe was distributed worldwide. In addition to having covered the city with his vibrant street art—two murals with Mural Arts Program and installations in too many places for him to count—the South Philly native has exhibited work in galleries across the country. An original Nose Go currently sells for an affordable $300-$400 while commissioned pieces garner $1,000 to $2,000. “I’m often told I under price it,” Goodwin says. “But I don’t need to sell it for like a ridiculous price.” Goodwin’s production company, Broken Compass Studios, also just launched its first iPhone app—a hand-painted game called “Cat Ball Eats It All.” “It’s meant to feel like you’re playing a piece of art,” he says.

Still, as successful as the 26-year-old has been traveling the nontraditional route, there’s a sense of acclaim that comes along with gallery acceptance that, deep down, every young artist can’t help but want. Two summers ago, Goodwin co-curated “Made in American,” a group show at TRUST Gallery. It was a dream come true. “I was so stoked that I got to be doing a show inside of it and have all the artists that I wanted,” he says. But his excitement was quickly squashed. “I guess some of the work wasn’t the owners’ cup of tea so they made us take down the entire show after the opening night,” says Goodwin.

Fortunately, he always has the streets. Goodwin recently participated in “WheatPaste Your Heart Out,” a citywide project curated by friends Dietrich Meyer and Linnea Vegh—two artists with no interest in trying to get into the Old City commercial galleries.

Back in September, the two 24-year-olds nailed 30 large wood panels to walls of abandoned buildings and other public areas across the city where, for about six weeks, they served as a blank canvas for Philly street artists. “We put up the panels in various parts of the city to see what would happen, to essentially let them grow organically over time and leave them up to the elements,” says Vegh, a New Jersey native who recently graduated from the University of the Arts.

The duo originally intended to go the legit route and ask local businesses to agree to display the panels, but that didn’t pan out. “A lot of businesses didn’t like the thought of inviting people to come and essentially put graffiti up on their walls,” says Meyer, an Art Institute dropout who’s living off his savings. “They were afraid it would invite people to go and actually deface the buildings themselves.”

So they took matters into their own hands.

“Wheatpasting is fun because it’s anonymous,” says Vegh, a barista by day. “You can just put stuff up, you can make a statement, you don’t have to answer for it and you don’t have to worry about finding gallery space.”

After spending the past few years immersed in the alternative art scene sprouting up in Fishtown, Kensington and Port Richmond, Vegh and Meyer finally got to see their artistic experiment come to life last month, as every inch of wall space inside Vox’s AUX Space was temporarily wheatpasted—the array of artwork including everything from photo collages and poster art to hand-drawn illustrations and paintings. Underneath, the wooden boards the two young artists had spent months agonizing over were almost undetectable. Capping off the installation, a graffiti-covered honor box and construction divider were placed in the center of the room.

On a large map of the city, Vegh meticulously denoted the original locations of all 30 panels with pushpins. By the time she and Meyer went back to retrieve the panels, a total of nine had been jacked. Those that remained had been covered from top to bottom.

While a DJ blasted club beats in the corner, Vegh’s boyfriend manned a makeshift bar selling craft beers and raffle tickets for a chance to win one of the plywood panels. With the exception of only one panel, the entire instillation had been the work of their friends, many of whom had been there alongside them till 3 a.m that morning helping to install the show and had now returned to join them in celebrating.

“Seeing the panels finally up was one of the most gratifying things I’ve ever felt,” Meyer says. “I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t believe it.”

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Comments 1 - 12 of 12
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1. PhillyTee said... on Dec 14, 2011 at 12:02PM

“Really enjoyed this article. Very informative as well!
Well Done!”

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2. Anonymous said... on Dec 14, 2011 at 01:18PM

“My man, Fishtown Jim!”

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3. Anonymous said... on Dec 14, 2011 at 02:13PM

“"My man, Fishtown Jim!" ---- your a loser dude”

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4. Bluestone Fine Art Gallery said... on Dec 14, 2011 at 05:31PM

“Bluestone is new to Old City. We opened our doors last May. We are a combination of a traditional and contemporary run gallery. We accept works of art from emerging artists to well established artists. Our works of art start at $10 and go up to $5,000. We represent artists who don't view success only through the price of their art. We are open seven days a week; including evening hrs. You should stop in and check us out! Gallerist, Pam Regan”

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5. Blinky Comix said... on Dec 15, 2011 at 02:27AM

“Finally! Sounds like the way the art scene was around NYC in the 60's and earlier 70's. That's what draws people in- catchy excitable stuff.”

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6. Barry G said... on Dec 15, 2011 at 11:22AM

“What a load of hipster dufus crap most of this article is.”

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7. Colleen D. Gjefle said... on Dec 16, 2011 at 01:24PM

“Love this article as it does express what so many artists feel. Perhaps Barry G is a traditional gallery owner?”

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8. Anonymous said... on Dec 16, 2011 at 01:42PM

“How in the hell do you get in contact with "James Anderson" to find out where his next show is going to be??? There are like 1mill James Andersons on fb:/”

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9. Anonymous said... on Dec 16, 2011 at 08:48PM

“Yis is an amazing artist, to be honest I am not sure who the others are. Judging by James's blatantly obvious hatred for galleries it's good that he does not want to have a gallery show, and that is also why comment number 8 is unable to find him. Galleries have an important role in the life of an artist. I also like what Patchell had to say about Brave New Worlds business practice, “If we sell our artwork for under $20 and someone doesn’t pay with a credit card, they won’t take a commission.” That is called not paying taxes. Galleries take a cut of which they need to in order to say open. At the end of the day an art gallery is not the devil and should never be viewed as such, it is a small business that is simply trying to survive. It makes it hard to look and buy art work without a gallery.”

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10. Marc Etch said... on Dec 17, 2011 at 09:27AM

“This article is full of completely misguided non-sense. The government will rape you sideways with taxes (as suggested by comment nr. 9) once they smell a whiff of money being made by any artist. More significantly the central problem in the PHL art scene is the lack of capital. That is to say, no one is buying it here. Do you get it? It doesn't matter whether you are in a tony gallery on N 2nd or off in the wilds of Kensington. There is little to no support locally for serious artists. It's a great place to make art for certain. Frankly if you're smart you'll get into the export business. And another issue is that much of what is being discussed in this article is commercial art. I can see why hipsters would confuse the issue; as hipster is just the new word for consumer.”

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11. blahblahblah said... on Dec 17, 2011 at 05:30PM

“james anderson can be contacted through his website”

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12. Cassandra said... on Jan 13, 2012 at 02:09PM

“Gallery ML, the world's first collective body art gallery, is run by three talented artists in their mid-twenties. They are moving to a HUGE gallery space in Old City in April and plan to dedicate half of the gallery to body art and the other half to local artists. They really are committed to supporting local artists, because they also feel that there are too many talented people in the local art scene that aren't being recognized. Their current show, "The Lunatic and the Lover," is their first non-body art exhibit and it serves as an introduction for what is to come. Read more about it here:”


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