Lorraine Riesenbach is pretty satisfied with the way the last two decades have gone. As the owner and director of the Artists’ House Gallery on North Second Street in Old City since 1991, she tells the story of a booming arts community that took shape in her storefront before the area blossomed into the gallery haven it is today. And now, 22 years later, having built Artists’ House into a First Friday staple with a large clientele, she’s calling it quits.
“The main reason is age, frankly,” Riesenbach, says with a slight laugh. Her husband and business manager Marv, a white-haired former auto exec with his shirt firmly tucked into his slacks, intervenes. “That’s not something you’d necessarily want to say in a newspaper,” he says. “Well,” Riesenbach shrugs, “I don’t want him to say what my age is. But you reach a point where, how long can you go on?”
In the early 1980s, Riesenbach was already several decades into a career as a reading specialist in Haddonfield, N.J. The job she loved began becoming more about paperwork than teaching, she says, so she decided to begin a second career as an artist. It was a tough decision, especially considering she was in the middle of a Ph.D.
Without a portfolio to show the admissions board, she was rejected from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, but she did earn acceptance at Moore College of Art and Design (Reporter’s disclosure: I teach there), where she became its first student of nontraditional age to go back to school and earn a degree later in life. She stayed for four years and earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree.
At that point, Riesenbach had a portfolio. So, again, she applied to PAFA. This time, she got in. She spent four more years there and decided to set up shop in Old City.
“The expectation [of Old City at that time] was, it was going to develop into SoHo, and it never did that, but it did become a more active arts community,” she says. “There were three active galleries, when we moved in, in the entire Old City area. This street had nothing but kitchen equipment stores.”
When she opened the Artists’ House Gallery, Riesenbach thought—as its name suggested—it would act as more of an artist’s community of studios for former PAFA students. And that’s what it was, at first. She hired an architect to put up walls, dividing it into several spaces. The evolution to a large, several-room gallery was both gradual, she says, and sporadic, mostly because the studio’s artists kept using the front area as a spot to feature their work.
“A lot of our friends started saying, ‘Well, how about you show a few of my pieces?’” she recalls. “We said, ‘OK. You ought to pay us a commission, but we’ll publicize it for you.’” The deal made sense, she says, because for the most part, artists don’t really know how to market themselves.
Today, the couple says, 80 percent of the gallery’s artists are affiliated with PAFA, either by being a student, teacher or alumnus of the school, and all artists either live in the city or have a connection to Philadelphia.
Sadly, those artists will soon have to find another place to showcase their wares. The Riesenbachs recently put large letters on the front display window, reading “Retirement Sale.” The sale will only be going on through Sun., Aug. 25.
“You know, we’re both healthy; the gallery was successful, and we felt it was better to leave on top,” says Marv. “It’s better to leave now before one of us has a health problem or the economy…”
“And you can’t anticipate those things,” adds Reisenbach. “Everybody just assumes [retirement is because of] the work. It’s not the work. We’re still healthy and able and enjoying the work. But I do schedule a year ahead of time. … God forbid there’s a problem tomorrow, and you can’t come in the next day. What happens when you have a lease for another year, and you have a lease with artists? It’s a big responsibility.”