"Hi, Tim—I’m the other Tim,” says Tim Eads, extending his hand to fellow artist Tim Portlock. Both are in high spirits. As Philadelphia-based artists, they’ve each won a coveted spot in West Collects Philadelphia, an exhibition at City Hall highlighting new acquisitions of Philadelphia-made artwork by the West Collection. It’s sort of a big deal.
Although the West Collection had been collecting art for 15 years, the recession fundamentally challenged their philosophy. When the markets crashed in 2008, the West—founded by Al West of the financial services firm SEI in Oaks, Pa.— decided to make the most of their diminished resources. “We adopted a new approach,” says West Collection Director Lee Stoetzel. In a radical shift away from acquiring work exclusively from galleries and dealers, he says, they chose to democratize the process. “We decided to use the $100,000 we had and let artists apply.” Word traveled fast, and before they knew it, 4,250 artists from 80 countries had applied. “It was an unbelievable situation,” recalls Stoetzel. “It made us realize that it’s possible to collect great work that is also affordable.”
And a lot of that work seemed to be coming out of Philadelphia.
“In the first three years, we were totally blind making the selection, and we were always surprised by how many Philadelphia artists we ended up choosing,” says West. Stoetzel agrees, noting that, in the end, about one-third of the artists selected each year lived and worked in Philadelphia or the surrounding region. “We enlarged the budget, so this year, we thought, why not formalize it and dedicate $100,000 to Philadelphia artists?” Stoetzel used the newly dedicated West Collection funds to acquire work by 10 Philadelphia artists. “Not many people realize how much good art is being made here,” adds West, who hopes to change that.
But it’s no news to Philly artists that their peers have some serious talent. “It’s great because I’m friends with a lot of the artists chosen this year,” says Portlock, whose large-format digital print shows a crepuscular scene of a digitally deteriorated yet strangely beautiful Philadelphia. Eads was quick to agree. “I’m excited that out of all the amazing Philly artists, I tricked them into accepting me. The fact that there’s a foundation supporting unrepresented artists and Philadelphia artists is amazing.”
While Eads, Portlock and other West Collection artists are enthusiastic about their entrée into so dynamic a collection, they remain nonplussed about City Hall as a venue. Portlock’s inkjet print, "Salon" (2012), sums it up nicely: In a blighted cityscape, City Hall sits on the horizon as an ambiguous symbol of either civic hope or bureaucratic failure. In life, as in art, the real City Hall seems like an imperfect compromise. The space inside is dismal and—as usual—some of the art has been shoved into vitrines and stuck out in the hallway for people to ignore. On the other hand, it’s encouraging to see the city support the West initiative.
“It’s a challenge, for sure, because it is a public government building, not the white-walled space and open environment that you’d love,” acknowledges Paige West, the collection’s curator. “But we’re interested in how to introduce our artists to a broader community, and the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy has been very welcoming.”
What City Hall may lack in glamour, then, it makes up for in convenience. Located 20 miles outside the city and open by appointment only, the West lies well off the beaten path of most Philadelphia art lovers. “I think part of the decision to partner with the Office of Arts and Culture had to do with location,” observed artist Mark Stockton, whose larger-than life drawing of Arnold Schwarzenegger threatens to flex its way out of the cramped gallery. “It’s kind of a hassle to go out to see the West.”
Through Feb. 22, 2013. Art Gallery at City Hall, Room 116. 215.686-.912. facebook.com/ArtInCityHall and westcollection.org