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.”