A Philadelphia Story

On April 2, 2011, in Blog, by BHQF

Two hours outside of New York City, our fair nation’s commercial fine art mecca, Philadelphia’s art scene is built on the backs of non-profits, alternative spaces, and a few prominent art schools. As we learned from the conversation generously hosted by Vox Populi, a twenty-three-year-old collectively organized exhibition space, most of the funding for these types of spaces is coming from a single source, the Pew Charitable Trust. The political scrambling and squabbling produced by this money funnel is an interesting counterpoint to the dominance of New York’s for-profit galleries as well as its diversity of charitable sources.

The obvious danger is the centralization of power. Despite a continuous influx of new artist blood to the city thanks to its art schools, proximity to New York, and comparatively cheap rent and available space, the promise of a continuing artistic practice in Philadelphia often threads back to the same fount, the decision-makers at the Pew Charitable Trust.

This is a source of anxiety for artists working to create new venues and self-organized projects. Yet, from what we gathered from the conversation, artist-teachers working within the institutional frame of the university system are feeling more burdened by the bureaucracy of that system than by the difficulties that come along with self-organization. Some professors we spoke to expressed a sense of guilt from encouraging students to pursue formal education.

Philadelphia’s art schools aren’t the most expensive in the country, but they do “compete for students” like everywhere else, selling themselves on their facilities, faculty, and the cultural capital of the city. These schools provide many local artists with teaching jobs, which sound to be much more stable than the situation of adjunct professors in New York schools where competition produces rapid turnover.

Artist-students in Philadelphia have the benefits of a relatively inexpensive city, a large potential network of artist peers, and a well-established history of alternative venues and artist-run projects. But the supposed safety net of institutionalized education clearly predominates. Many expressed a desire for some kind of contemporary apprenticeship model. Finding a way to cross the generational divide outside of the established institutional frame is a concern.

We met students who have begrudgingly taken on a great deal of debt to be in art school because it does manage to provide the kind of rigorous critical environment it’s not always easy to find otherwise. And we met students who managed to find scholarships and so are able to attend school relatively anxiety free despite some concern over that value of the institutional setting. And we met students who made the decision to forgo graduation school entirely, feel great about that decision, but are faced with the difficult work of a self-organized education.

The challenge is to create some sense of shared purpose among students who have chosen different routes. It’s easy enough for each student to make decisions about their education in the moment, what they can afford, what they’re willing to put up with. The difficulty is to imbue our decisions regarding our own education with a sense of solidarity. Our participation in systems that may help us individually in the moment contribute to the continuing predominance and professionalization of those systems, ultimately to the detriment of the larger artistic community.



4 Responses to A Philadelphia Story

  1. Eric says:

    Saw you guys today thanks for the light

  2. Sophie White says:

    Does an art scene need to attract a certain amount of money to be considered legitimate?

    There is a living, functioning, decently populated community of creative young people here in Philly. Unfortunately, no one was available to attend your dialogue at 3PM on a Monday. The Philly art and music scene that I’ve gotten to know in the past year and a half that I’ve lived here is funded mainly by itself. Young artists, writers and musicians take advantage of their huge spaces, drunk neighbors and lack of legal oversight unique to Philly, to host rent parties and performances every week. Some galleries that I’m acquainted with get help from a non-profit called Fractured Atlas, which is based in NY and doesn’t get money from Pew. I have yet to attend an event or show here in Philly that is funded by Pew other than the major museums.

    Bloomberg’s New York is a kingdom of finance. There simply isn’t space and time for creative New Yorkers who aren’t wealthy to foster a scene like the ones New York has birthed in the past. Hip-Hop, Fluxus, the 70′s Punk scene, the Harlem Renaissance, et- al, grew and prospered during very rough economic times. What you guys have is a unique combination of funding and creativity. You’ve used this to foster a youthful, creative scene in New York, conveniently near my parent’s house, which I personally enjoy. Better yet, a lot of your work is really original and potent.

    It seems to me like you found what you wanted to find in Philly and didn’t really take the time to learn anything new. Your anti-art-school-industry lecture was great, but what is you actual prerogative? Are you a heroic, punk-rock alternative to the grip of industry and finance on the art world? No, you aren’t. You can pretend to be, like Rage Against the Machine on MTV. It’s an act that many are willing to fall for. I think your act needs a little more work, or you need to cop to your actual role. Calling your baseball team the Aristocrats is a legit move.

    I’m not suggesting that BHQ become involved in the Philly scene. I doubt that we could sustain the attention. DIY venues are closing all the time because too many people are showing up to party. I’m just pointing out that your review of Philly is totally inaccurate and I suspect that this may have been due to a conscious choice that you made in order to self promote. I’d appreciate it if you could do more to fool me, since you are artists.

    See you in Tribeca,
    -Sophie White

    Here’s an informative article relevant to this:

  3. Some notes on the Philadelphia stop of the tour by a local art blog…

    Review of the rally: http://funnelpages.com/?p=3646
    Review of the discussion: http://funnelpages.com/?p=3663

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