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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But while the Rebekah Templeton Gallery might not boast a roster of blue-chip collectors, it nevertheless succeeds in something equally, if not more, difficult: getting regular people to buy art. “We thought we’d do something really inexpensive,” explains Will, who asks each exhibiting artist to create an editioned artwork to accompany their exhibition. “We fund editions that are priced at no more than $200—and that’s our attempt to really build collecting in Philadelphia. A lot of them have been purchased by other artists and not by big collectors. And that works in Philadelphia.”

That idea, Rachel Reese says, holds the key to making Philadelphia a more hospitable city for the artistically inclined: more commercial galleries with less conventional strategies. She points out that the common wisdom of the local art establishment is that there are only three long-term-viable commercial galleries in town—Fleisher Ollman Gallery, Locks Gallery, and Bridgette Mayer Gallery, which have all been delivering their particular brand of salable art for decades (60, 44, and 11 years, respectively). “We need somebody who’s going to question that. Those places get sleepy and caught up in making a profit and keeping their space open. But I hope something comes up and challenges those spaces.”

For the Rebekah Templeton Gallery, the strategy of appealing to a self-selecting audience of artists and art lovers is working out well: “I feel very positive about our space,” says Will. “We’re taking a long approach to it, hoping to build something that can be sustainable. We’ve developed a good following, and we’re getting to the point where we can represent artists.”

Jerardi, on the other hand, sees the dismal count of successful commercial galleries in Philadelphia as an opportunity to capitalize on other kinds of spaces. “Philly struggles with a commercial gallery scene,” she says, “so it’s surprising to me that there aren’t more spaces that are really doing conceptual, alternative projects rather than trying to create a small white box.” After all, one of Philly’s greatest assets is its relatively cheap and voluminous space for rent. FLUXspace had a 30,000-square-foot mill; Extra Extra had a house and a gallery for less than what it might cost to rent an apartment in New York; Possible Projects benefitted from a similar deal. “I found it to be an amazing gift that this city offered,” Jerardi, says; she hopes to see other art initiatives take advantage of Philly’s affordable and unconventional spaces.

So—how to start an art space, who to involve, and when to decide that it’s run its course? You might be lucky enough to have some expendable income, a group of friends with a common vision, or a connection to someone in real estate who can hook you up with an exceptionally rad space—but whatever the strategy, Reese offers this advice: “Just do it. And be realistic with your expectations.”

Jerardi agrees. “There’s the possibility to do great things in Philadelphia. Just don’t beat yourself up if it isn’t everything you dreamed it would be. In many ways, Philly can be a difficult place to keep something like that going.”

With FLUXspace, Extra Extra and Possible Projects challenging the notion that success must be tied to longevity, “keeping something going” year after year may not necessarily be the goal of experimental art projects anyway. And even if it is, you’ll be in good company. “We’re staying here,” insists Dempewolf, of Marginal Utility. “We have no intention of closing down.”

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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:


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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.


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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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