Identity through art?

Artists like Charles Burwell, Chad States, and Symone Salib grace the new Fashion District

3 minute read
More than a mall: Streets Dept’s Conrad curated art by Symone Salib (left) and Meg Wolensky. (Photo by Marta Rusek.)
More than a mall: Streets Dept’s Conrad curated art by Symone Salib (left) and Meg Wolensky. (Photo by Marta Rusek.)

The first thing I noticed about the newly christened Fashion District (Philly’s former Gallery at Market East shopping center) is how clean it is. It’s a little too clean for the city that boasts legendary shopping spots like Reading Terminal Market and South Street, and the current offering of stores is a mixed bag of factory outlets and unexpectedly specific niche shops (Beef Jerky Experience, anyone?). Gallery 2.0 is a mall that’s not sure what it wants to be, but what it lacks in identity it attempts to make up for with its art exhibits.

We have art curator Bridgette Mayer to thank for that. To fulfill the City of Philadelphia’s Percent for Art requirement, Fashion District’s developer, Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust (PREIT), hired Mayer to integrate artwork within the mall on a $1 million project budget.

More than a sculpture

“My goal was to make this project as robust and inclusive of as many artists and art communities as possible within the given budget,” Mayer told BSR. “I didn’t want to do what’s traditionally been done before, like taking one major sculpture and installing it in front of the building, and having that be the Percent for Art project.”

Mayer’s approach from the beginning was an ambitious one—to help as many artists as possible realize their artistic projects, while also creating a must-see art destination in the city that’s home to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Barnes Foundation. Her “traditional art in a nontraditional place” gamble pays off with eye-popping installations like Goniochome, a wall sculpture of aluminum scales that shoppers see at the mall’s main entrance at 9th and Market (produced by New York-based design studio SOFTlab), and a series of wall paintings by local artist Charles Burwell and art collective Amber Art & Design. Their paintings, inspired by the seasons of the year, are on display on the second floor.

Streets Dept at Gallery 2.0

And then there’s the glorious Streets Dept Walls gallery in the food court, curated by Streets Dept founder Conrad Benner. Overworked Philadelphians and roaming out-of-towners can admire an eclectic collection of murals as they indulge in the tastes of eateries like BurgerFi, Oath Pizza, and original Gallery fixtures Cinnabon and Tiffany’s Bakery. Marian Bailey’s Self-Assured self-portrait and Symone Salib’s quote and rendering of nonbinary poet Quinn Rodriguez are instantly iconic, and Chad States’s affirming neon showstopper You Deserve It will no doubt become a top Philly Instagram moment for years to come. The inclusion of Winged Victory (Work in Progress) by Meg Wolensky was fitting, given the many “Coming Soon” signs signaling the mall’s slow progress to full capacity.

Art for all?

In spite of having uplifting works of art to appreciate while I chow down or shop, I am bothered by how the installation of the artwork assumes that everyone who comes through the mall can experience them visually. The sculptures and canvases on display are introduced by printed description plaques, without a braille version nearby for shoppers who are blind or have low vision.

At a time when more art museums are adding audio and braille descriptions for visitors who need them, it would have been forward-thinking if the Fashion District’s developers had likewise installed technology and resources to promote a more accessible experience for shoppers with disabilities. The textured walls of sequined brand logos could be built upon with video displays describing the installations (and the creative process that went into bringing them into existence). More multi-disciplinary approaches, like small touchable versions of the wall installations and sculptures, would help transform a mall experiencing an identity crisis into a cutting-edge cultural destination for all.

What, When, Where

Fashion District, featuring artists like Charles Burwell, Marian Bailey, Symone Salib, Chad States, and Meg Wolensky. 901 Market Street, Philadelphia.

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