Painted Bride Art Center will lose its “place” in Philadelphia

Runaway bride

This week, I received an email with this quote: “Looking at the Mona Lisa in a dark basement versus the Louvre surrounded by people taking photos creates two different memories.” The idea took on greater resonance when I heard that the Painted Bride Art Center (PBAC) will sell its iconic Old City building at 230 Vine Street.

The Painted Bride's iconic Isaiah Zagar mosaic facade wraps around the building's exterior. (Photo via Creative Commons/Wikipedia.)

The Bride says proceeds from a sale will ensure that “artist-led projects” will continue. The biggest difference is that these will be developed and staged in “venues throughout the city and in public spaces.”

PBAC is a vitally important and historically significant Philadelphia arts and culture venue. Much of its history is encapsulated in a statement from the Bride’s founder and longtime artistic director (who left in 1999), Gerry Givnish.

He recalls, “I thought I had a social responsibility as an artist and found that South Street in 1969 was an ideal place to realize that. . . . The Bride pioneered the artists’ co-op gallery, multidisciplinary programming, and artist-run nonprofit organizations. In 1982 . . .  [we] purchased the Old City elevator factory and adapted it for reuse as a performance/gallery space. [It] included social change into its mission in 1985, [and] linked community development with community arts organizations to spur neighborhood revitalization. When the South Street Renaissance group stopped the crosstown expressway, it provided a lesson in the role that the arts can play in community development. The same phenomenon was repeated in Old City where artists were the prelude to (the) rise of real estate values.”

Place matters

To me, the Bride was a place where emerging Philadelphia artists could have a legitimate shot at getting their work out of the basement and seen by a broader cross-section of audiences. More important, it has always been a welcoming space to artists operating outside the mainstream.

To be fair, there are other city venues with an artist-centric focus, such as University City’s Rotunda, the Art Church of West Philadelphia, and Germantown’s iMPeRFeCT Gallery. In the wake of PBAC’s dramatic departure from Philadelphia’s arts and culture scene, it is imperative that these and other venues step up in a big way in 2018.

Being part of the 2015 and 2016 artist cohort of the Bridal Salon/Souls of Black Folk program changed my career trajectory. The experience completely transformed how I used my medium to investigate questions of race, class, and place-making. It gave me the courage to push the envelope without fear of being penalized or further marginalized for my views.

Givnish is also an artist, shown here with his watercolors at a 2016 iMPeRFeCT Gallery exhibition. (Photo via imperfectgallery.squarespace.com.)
Givnish is also an artist, shown here with his watercolors at a 2016 iMPeRFeCT Gallery exhibition. (Photo via imperfectgallery.squarespace.com.)

In short, place matters. I’m discovering this as I wrap up my experience as a Philadelphia Assembled collaborating artist. Since 2011, I’ve been documenting in photographs the impact of gentrification and displacement on several Philadelphia communities. 

It absolutely matters that I photographed neighborhoods such as Germantown, Brewerytown, and Lower Kensington. It matters that I got to know the people who inhabit those spaces, listening to their concerns, hopes, dreams, and fears. I centered their voices and approached this work with as much honesty and sensitivity as I could muster.

I’ve shown my work in many spaces, but none of those experiences compares to having my work hang in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Perelman Building. Folks who never saw my photography on display at community events or in community spaces made an effort to view and seriously contemplate it when it was at the museum. None of this meaningful, community-driven work matters much if there are no legitimate, established spaces willing or able to showcase the fruits of our labor.

Artists out front

If you’re an artist trying to build and sustain a career that will be taken seriously by others — audiences, funders, peers — place matters. And if you’re like me, an emerging artist constantly on the lookout for welcoming venues that will not only host your work but also promote it vigorously, you understand that place absolutely matters.

I always admired PBAC for putting Philadelphia artists front and center. Bride executive director Laurel Raczka said in a statement that the names of a committee of artists and other community members will be announced in January. They will be charged with “having a programming plan in place in March.” She also hopes PBAC’s many multicultural community and artistic partnerships will be key components of the plan.

Raczka noted the historic and artistic significance of the building and its Isaiah Zagar mural. The organization is researching appropriate measures to reduce its chance of destruction if the building is sold to developers, though Givnish expressed doubts about the feasibility of saving it.

In 1999, long before Spike Lee adapted it for film, Roger Guenveur Smith performed his solo show 'A Huey P. Newton Story' at the Bride. (Photo via Creative Commons/Wikimedia.)
In 1999, long before Spike Lee adapted it for film, Roger Guenveur Smith performed his solo show 'A Huey P. Newton Story' at the Bride. (Photo via Creative Commons/Wikimedia.)

PBAC’s momentum will shift in a new direction with more investment in and support for artist-led projects, but the loss of the building at 230 Vine Street will still be deeply felt by many, including Givinish, who says, “[Raczka] felt the Bride’s relevance demands more investment in time and money for artist-initiated projects. It is a bold and risky decision but one I support.”

Gentrification and displacement

When PBAC reemerges in late 2018 in a less tangible form, I hope it will continue to maintain its core commitment to presenting the dynamic and innovative artistic content its audiences expect and appreciate. I also hope it remains welcoming and open to both emerging and established artistic voices.

Either way, the arts and culture community needs to have a serious conversation about the negative impact of gentrification and displacement on our economy. It’s not enough to advocate for affordable housing for individuals and families; our institutions also matter. Can we honestly afford to lose a venue like the Bride, and what will be the direct and indirect effects of this loss on Old City and the city of Philadelphia?

When shell-shocked arts and culture venues are left with no other choice but to sell their most valuable and important assets and justify it by saying “place didn’t really matter anyway,” what are we really saying? That artists should no longer concern themselves about where their art is consumed and experienced and that all host venues are created equal?

What does this shift really mean for future resourcing of artistic works? These and other fundamental questions deserve careful consideration as PBAC reimagines its “place” in Philadelphia’s creative community.

Our readers respond

Victor Schermer

of Philadelphia, PA on December 13, 2017

I agree that the Painted Bride has occupied an absolutely crucial place in the arts and performing arts in Philadelphia, It has brought to our attention works and their creators of great importance and pleasure that we would never have known without the Painted Bride's daring and intelligent programming over many years. Perhaps there needs to be a strong petition to the city to protect and preserve this hallowed institution and its ownership of a property that they designed to house such incredible art, music, dance, etc. Thanks for posting this article.

Lisa Nelson-Haynes

of Philadelphia, PA on December 13, 2017

Although I do understand the sentiment that space/place matters, I think this bold move by the Bride will complement its mission and allow it to go where the art and the artists are creating and contemplating the work. This will ensure the Bride remains nimble and possibly embed itself in communities throughout the region, thus showcasing work to audiences who never even thought about visiting the Bride's space in Old City.

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