Why Are So Many Philly Art Galleries Closing?

By Katherine Rochester
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 12 | Posted Aug. 8, 2012

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End times: Slogans from a 2008 FLUXspace exhibit seemed to promise an open-ended future, but the gallery closed its doors in September.

"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.

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 12 of 12
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1. J.W. Bussmann said... on Aug 8, 2012 at 02:23PM

“I'd venture that one thing this points to is a disconnect between the art and art administration communities in the city. There should be more engagement between those with formal training in art "making" and those from an art "business" background. These cordoned off silos that exist within cultural organizations also seem to pervade the cultural landscape at large.

I also think it's a mistake to place too many collective hopes and fears on Pew/PEI. They wield power and are influential, but they are also not the only game in town. The overall impression that Pew/PEI alone represents a make-or-break determination on the life of a cultural organization flirts with the conspiracy-theory attitude presented by the film "Art of the Steal". Get to know the broader philanthropic landscape in your community. Dig and then dig deeper.”

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2. Rachel Reese said... on Aug 8, 2012 at 02:36PM

“I agree completely Jeffrey. I do not believe my thoughts on the PEI were represented in full here. The PEI is not a savior or an end game. There is a reason for the 2 year wait (which we support); it's not unique from other city's granting agencies. Daniel Fuller and Peter Nesbett were/are very supportive of our programming and had we not moved to Atlanta we would have be available to apply this fall. I do believe that emerging art spaces, however organized or not they are, should find unique ways of sustainability. Which, is something that I do believe Philadelphia should be lauded for.”

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3. Matt Kalasky said... on Aug 8, 2012 at 04:15PM

“Nicole Wilson penned a similar essay in this issue of the St.Claire Magazine:

http://the-st-claire.com/0712/0712_review3.html”

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4. pete said... on Aug 8, 2012 at 05:28PM

“Maybe galleries don't survive because there is nothing being
shown which is worth seeing, let alone buying.

TV/internet electronic media is immediately powerful and
offers some level of catharsis for consumers. Your gallery
cannot compete against the latest pop tune or hot movie.

Modern/contemporary art is difficult for the average person
to handle, and if they do "figure it out" they still might not
care. Why should anyone spend money on something
which has no value?

When I say "value" I am talking about entertaining distraction
which produces a narcotic/hypnotic reaction in the brain.

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5. One that pays close attention said... on Aug 8, 2012 at 05:34PM

“This article reeks of childish immaturity and delusional entitlement. Three galleries is not "so many" it is a FEW.

During its time Artblog darlings, FluxSpace had enjoyed major support coming from Tyler and from the City of Philadelphia Arts and Culture Program- having been widely promoted (paid for with city tax dollars/funds) along with having been both prominently exhibited along with taking up extended residence in City Hall. So please, refrain from coddling the spoiled brat-like entitlement stance taken in the article. It is despicable to say the least.

PEI rewards sustained achievement and has application standards/requirements as do many if not all grant making organizations.  This is common knowledge, common sense, and obviously reality.  "oh, you want thousands of dollars for exhibiting a cat litter box full of poop in the middle of your gallery?".....yeah, right.

Grizzly Grizzly forecasted and predicted their own closure and- guess what it happened!  That was a self fulfilling prophecy, one made by the gallery and admitted to
in the article. C'est la vie.

Jolie Laide seriously thinks that the PMA and ICA are just going to hand over their collector base, one cultivated over years if not decades, to a commercial pop up gallery?  You have got to be kidding. What are you guys smoking, drinking and/or popping?!?

This article has done a great disservice to the art community of Philly and has totally missed the point for/of experimental art venues, alternative spaces, and whatever catch words for such places that you want to put here.... 

My reality check question: What the in the world were you thinking opening an art gallery with no/little capital during such an economy anyway? If the space is an artwork in and of itself then treat it as such. Use your brains and creativity to create the place you want- rather than claiming that established galleries need to be "challenged".  Research
how and why they made it-due dillogence.  Invent ways to survive.  They did and have.  I know, I know it's a lot of work....but that is your job. Simple as that. Life is a game, play it well or lose. 

Congrats to Rebecca Templeton for giving me a shred of hope for intelligent curatorship/direction because  after processing the other gallery's statements it's no wonder failure was imminent.  Perhaps it's best that all have closed.  

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6. Jacque Liu said... on Aug 8, 2012 at 07:12PM

“Unfortunately this article is very misleading in two ways.

First, it implies that PEI funds are meant to keep doors open with general operating expenses. Not true, their guidelines are here: http://www.pcah.us/exhibitions/guidelines.

Second and more importantly, it implies that artist organizations can't survive without outside funding. Grizzly Grizzly, Tiger Strikes Asteroid, Napoleon, Marginal Utility and Practice - to name just a few - are thriving without it. Vox Populi also survived and blossomed for over 20 years without funding.

I hope that your article generates more dialogue than criticism.”

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7. Former Philly-art-dude said... on Aug 8, 2012 at 07:38PM

“This article i such a shocker for the spectacularly unreasonable expectations it projects... if you review Chamber of Commerce stats, you will find out that after restaurants, art galleries are the second most likely business in the US to fail.

Opening an art gallery, be it commercial or non profit or cooperative, is an act of heroism and love for the arts... a lot of rookies and a lot of artists who have opened galleries have been slapped in the face with the brutal realities of running a business - yeah a business...

Those Philly galleries that survive and even thrive, such as Pentimenti, and Projects and Templeton and many others do so based on HARD work, really f***** hard work, plus balancing at the edge of financial ruin every once in a while and meanwhile cultivating and developing their own collector base, one at a time... without having any big institutions (who are scrapping to survive on their own level) sharing or supporting in any way... this is not just a Philly story..”

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8. one that pays close attention said... on Aug 8, 2012 at 07:48PM

“ooops! I was not paying close enough attention!
Possible Projects not Grizzly Grizzly...my apologies”

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9. Angela Jerardi said... on Aug 9, 2012 at 09:27AM

“I feel that my thoughts about funding in Philadelphia (and specifically related to PEI) are a bit out of context here. And I'd like to echo what Rachel and Jeffrey and others have already stated. Like Rachel, I have found the staff at PEI including Peter and Daniel to be very supportive of our programming and projects, as well as of me personally. My intentions was to try to touch on the broader Philadelphia funding landscape for experimental contemporary art (and honestly the larger question of the common route of going 501(c)3 as the primary means to running an "alternative art space" as something that I think is worth being examined, and that perhaps we should be looking towards different and more creative ways to sustain these projects and/or to re-think their role and timeline). I think Rebekah Templeton's program for limited edition prints, as well as projects such as STAKE, a micro granting dinner, are interesting examples of possible new models of funding.”

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10. Anonymous said... on Aug 9, 2012 at 12:40PM

“I think Pete is on to something....

Disconnect between consumer, artist, and funder seems to be the biggest problem to me. It is a complicated issue because if you look closely there is a lot the city has to offer artists, and a lot artists have to offer the consumer, especially for its the size of each group.”

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11. Anonymous said... on Aug 9, 2012 at 05:03PM

“I like the idea of artists creating art spaces that have a definite shelf life and are themselves art projects. I think that different people want different things from the art spaces they create. If you're interested in operating a gallery long term then looking for outside funding probably makes a lot more sense than if your creating an art space that you know won't be around forever. Personally I find it very excited that so many artists in Philadelphia aren't waiting for anyone to give them permission (aka. fund them) to open a space, and even as a number of galleries have closed new ones have opened, take Fjord or Practice for instance. Having a regular turn over of art spaces keeps things fresh and allows artists who might not have been shown otherwise to get their art out there.

-B”

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12. Terry Newman said... on Aug 10, 2012 at 12:40PM

“How about the oldest art gallery in Philadelphia, as well as being the second
oldest art gallery in our great country, still in family ownership!
Newman Galleries! We're still here, operating out of the second floor of 1625 Walnut street, we had to lease out our first floor to survive in this economy
and we are still hear and doing business in Philadelphia since 1865!

Terry Newman”

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