"Cutting-edge is a word I like to make fun of,” Angela Jerardi admits over a beer at Dock Street. The erstwhile organizer of the nonprofit gallery FLUXspace, she’s trying to characterize the kind of art they were known for presenting. “We liked to joke that we were more on the ‘bleeding’ edge,” she says, “because we were the furthest out in terms of the distance you might be willing to travel to see art in Philly.”
She’s not kidding. Located north of Lehigh Avenue in East Kensington, FLUXspace had enough spit, grit and vision to put on some of the sharpest shows in Philadelphia—like German artist Oliver Herring’s gigantic, participatory “TASK” parties, for instance, where audience members drew instructions out of a hat in order to assemble a sprawling art installation.
But FLUXspace closed its doors last September. And an alarming number of other small art spaces have followed suit.
The subsequent closures of Possible Projects, Extra Extra and Jolie Laide have cast a long shadow, raising questions about what makes Philly simultaneously such a great and such an infuriating city in which to run an art space. Because, sure, the art scene is a revolving door, but it doesn’t always swing this fast. What’s behind the recent wave of closures—and why are some spaces opting to turn away from the nonprofit model entirely?
“You start off with a lot of energy and motivation,” says Rachel Reese. “Then, you either can’t afford it anymore or you feel like you’re running your wheels for nothing.”
Until two months ago, Reese and her fellow-artist husband Trevor were co-directors of the Kensington gallery Possible Projects, which they’d opened in 2009. The duo turned the tiny storefront space to their advantage; their carefully conceived exhibitions often featured only one or two pieces of art, providing a focused viewing arena with a heavy curatorial hand. When they opted in May to move back to Atlanta to raise their new son, Philly lost a creative couple whose carefully conceived exhibitions and artist-centered publications put Philadelphia in dialog with other cities.
The Reeses had explored the idea of pursuing 501(c)3 status to make Possible Projects a nonprofit, which would have mitigated the burden of funding the space themselves. But they felt hemmed in by the strictures of the grantmaking guidelines of the Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative (PEI), a program of the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage and Philadelphia’s major arts grantmaker.
Although there is no minimum operating budget required of applicants’ organizations, PEI expects an arts organization to have completed two full years of programming and to have at least one full-time staff member in place in order to be eligible for funding. That’s tricky for many small arts initiatives. “Two years is a really hard time period,” Reese says. “That’s like your make-or-break time. The PEI grant was totally a factor,” she says, in the decision to close Possible Projects.
Jerardi echoes a similar refrain, pointing out how the application requirements for foundations like Pew can actually stifle creativity instead of fostering it: “Organizations that can’t guarantee longevity can’t get funding, even if they never claim to want longevity.” She doesn’t think that an art organization’s worth should be calculated by the number of programming years under its belt. “I think a lot of projects, including ours, see themselves as an artists’ project, a potentially creative endeavor for the people involved. To see it through is as much about their own creative desires as it is about creating a space for other artists and audiences to attend.”
That’s why closing FLUXspace seemed like a logical next step, she says: “I guess one of the reasons I’m proud and happy that we ended when we did is because I think that you should be able to make changes and be a small, swift moving boat. There’s real value to that, especially within the arts. To the detriment of the current contemporary art field, that’s not something that is traditionally valued within funding streams.”
Paula Marincola, PEI’s executive director, disagrees, noting that since PEI opened up its grants process to small spaces and independent curators in 2008, PEI has consistently awarded grants to artist-run operations. “Our staff actively reach out to smaller spaces to inform them about PEI and its resources,” she says, “and will continue to do so as an integral part of our work in the community.”
For nonprofits that have received PEI funding, Marincola’s statement rings true. “I think they’re very supportive of smaller nonprofits,” says David Dempewolf, who runs the Chinatown nonprofit art space Marginal Utility with his wife, Yuka Yokoyama. They received funding after only two years of programming a roster of emerging artists spiked with internationally recognized names—and although they continue to apply each year, they’ve only struck gold the once. “But they actually followed up with us afterward about why we didn’t get it [again],” recalls Dempewolf, obviously impressed. “They critiqued our proposal and encouraged us to apply again the next year. In my opinion, they’re really trying to make us a better place—not necessarily a bigger place, but a better place, and I really appreciate that. It’s been really helpful, the door’s always open.”
But just because the door’s open doesn’t mean everyone wants to walk through.
Like Jerardi, the founders of the collectively run West Kensington art space Extra Extra were wary of getting trapped in the granting cycle. “Like a lot of smaller spaces, we didn’t want to be a nonprofit,” observed Derek Frech, who founded the gallery in 2009 with Joe Lacina and Daniel Wallace, fellow Maryland Institute College of Art graduates. They knew they wanted to avoid what they perceived as the significant administrative burden that accompanies grants in order to focus on the art. But Extra Extra’s decision to forgo 501(c)3 status also had a lot to do with the concept they formulated for the gallery, which included staying nimble and responsive in regard to current trends by leaning heavily on digital art works and using the Internet as a medium. “When we started the project, we kind of knew we’d be running it in a way that wouldn’t be that sustainable,” Frech says. “We figured it would last probably three or four years.” They closed in May, hitting their target date right on the money.
Unlike Extra Extra’s demise, when commercial gallery Jolie Laide closed, it wasn’t exactly planned in advance. The space was well-loved, belonging to that rare breed of commercial galleries in Philadelphia that artists openly admire. It’s spaces like this that counter the commercial drive with a commitment to experimentation. Such a niche is hard to carve out; director Travis Heck often felt that balancing the experimental with the commercial was a precarious act. “That’s something I struggled with. There’s such an anti-establishment scene in Philly,” Heck suggests—meaning that artists here seem quick to embrace rough-and-ready, ragtag projects run by other artists, but approach galleries that are out to make a profit with a healthy dose of skepticism. “But you have to put money into the hands of artists. ”
Or at least that was the idea. But Heck says, despite selling what he considered “a fair amount” of work, Jolie Laide didn’t meet its owner’s financial expectations, and the gallery closed in December. “I was pretty burnt out at the end,” Heck admits. He’s since moved to New York to accept a position at Leo Koenig Gallery.
As he sees it, the root of Jolie Laide’s financial hardship stemmed not from a lack of compelling work for sale but, rather, from the general dearth of collectors game to buy emerging artists in Philly. “The problem we were facing was trying to get the collector base in Philadelphia to support what we were doing,” he says. “It seemed extremely hard to get a lot of Philly collectors to come in.”
Heck believes that the more established institutions in Philadelphia could have stepped in to make a difference. “In my mind, Philly has such great institutions—and a lot of the supporters at the Institute of Contemporary Art and Philadelphia Museum of Art are the collector base here. I was hoping that these institutions would point collectors toward the galleries, to put money into the city by buying Philadelphia artists.” But Heck never saw these relationships materialize: “There was just really no support from larger institutions to get the collectors to the galleries.”
Ben Will, co-founder and owner of Rebekah Templeton Gallery on West Girard Avenue, agrees that although big-name collectors pop up on Philadelphia board lists, they don’t often invest in Philadelphia talent. “A lot of the collectors we get are not coming from Philadelphia. We get a lot of inquiries from out of state.” He doesn’t blame Philadelphia’s larger institutions for that disconnect, though. “Sure, I would love to have the board of the PMA over for a gallery tour—but it’s also my job to try to get those people interested.” So far, he admits, he hasn’t had much success. “There are multiple art worlds. There’s the institutional level and the emerging level, and the people that are on the boards of these institutions are interested in the highest level. What they think of as ‘emerging’ is not what I think of as ‘emerging.’” Translation: You could score an original by Philadelphia-based Tim Eads at Rebekah Templeton for as little as $200. Compare that to a recent show at Bridgette Mayer Gallery, where Costa Rican artist Federico Herrero’s work went for tens of thousands of dollars.