Should artists run their own galleries?

Stayin’ alive (and stayin’ creative)

For more than half a decade, cultural mavens have described Philadelphia as a place where artists can flock when other cities become too expensive. (Even comedian Hannibal Buress is up on the trend.) Part of the city’s allure, aside from the cost, is its prevalence of artist-run spaces, or co-ops— galleries where artists themselves have a stake in the ownership of the business.

Vox Pop's home on 11th Street: Refuge from commercial pressures?

Last week, five fixtures in the local art scene gathered at 319 North 11th Street, a building that houses Vox Populi and other artist-run spaces, for a panel discussion about the effect these galleries have had on the city.

“I always thought the Philadelphia art world was more comfortable for me,” said Yuka Yokoyama, who runs the Marginal Utility gallery there with her husband, David Dempewolf. “It was very different from how New York commercial galleries function.”

‘More big paintings!’

The panel— hosted by Automat, an art collective based in the same building— featured Yokoyama and Dempewolf as well as painter Jacob Feige and artist-woodworker Scott Kip. Each of the participants has some relationship with the 319 building. (Marginal Gallery is not an artist-run space, however.) The panel accompanied an ongoing installation by Abby King and Marie Manski that examines the history of the building.

Dempewolf described how artists associated with commercial galleries sometimes feel pressured to keep producing the same kind of work, since owners want something they know will sell. In a co-op model, by contrast, artists tend to enjoy more room to experiment. “In their minds, they’re a couple of years ahead of what’s being shown,” he said.

Building on this point, Feige mentioned a New York commercial gallery owner who, upon viewing Feige’s work, clapped his hands together and exclaimed, “More big paintings!” On the other hand, Feige warned, there’s no ideal solution: co-ops aren’t always purely about art, nor are commercial galleries always preoccupied solely with making money. And sometimes one leads to the other.

“A lot of artists start galleries that go on to become established,” Feige said. “That’s something I think we could see a little more of in Philly.”

Avoiding cutthroats

Still, owning the space where you work does afford an artist many freedoms. When Kip, who has had his studio since 2001, needs to cut holes in floors and walls, there’s no landlord to stop him. What’s more, artist-run spaces feel less pressure to adapt to the changing demands of the fickle art market.

Artist-run galleries like Muse and Third Street Gallery in Old City date to to 1978. Vox Populi opened a decade later (although it moved to its current 11th Street location in 2007). Then there’s Little Berlin in Kensington, Highwire Gallery in Fishtown and the Da Vinci Art Alliance in South Philly, to name a few. 

“The co-op now is almost the same as it was in the ’60s and ’70s, when it became relevant,” Feige said. By contrast, he noted, commercial galleries have had to contend with the rise of art fairs, for example.

Despite the crowded market and a number of high-profile closings in the Philadelphia gallery scene at large, one of the biggest advantages to artist-run spaces is the absence of a cutthroat atmosphere.

“Some people have this feeling that other artists are their adversaries,” Kip said. “I don’t think that’s the best way to get things done.”

Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Want previews of our latest stories about arts and culture in Philadelphia? Sign up for our newsletter.