by Colin Keefe and Annette Monnier
The following essay, original published as part of the Citywide exhibition catalog, stems from a conversation on the differing life spans of artist-run organizations and how that affects definitions of their success. The participants were Andrew Jeffrey Wright, artist and founding member of Space 1026; Beth Heinly, artist, recent member of Vox Populi, and former member of Little Berlin; Tristin Lowe, artist, founder of the now defunct Blohard, and former member of Vox Populi; and Mark Stockton, current member president of Vox Populi. Colin Keefe and Annette Monnier moderated the discussion.
Staying Alive or Death Death Death (1)
Imagine a map of Philadelphia (you can turn to the one in this book, if you like). Imagine that map as a time-lapse animation beginning at X and extending past the present day. Imagine that every time a new artist-run space pops up it appears as a little flicker of light—a bubble of energy. Sometimes that bubble might stay around for a minute and other satellite bubbles might flicker around it; other times the light might appear somewhere off by itself, fading quickly. There may be periods in which the map appears mostly empty. There may be flickers of intense activity in other periods. We (the collective writers of this book) may think that our part of the time line is pretty bright. It could be a bubble about to pop, or which has just begun to exist.
If we were to think of an art scene as an institution, then we might assess that Philadelphia’s is one with very little institutional memory. Many spaces have lasted for only a handful of years and have since been forgotten, just as many of the spaces in this book won’t exist three years from now. The purpose of this essay is not to fight a battle against forgetting (2) but to try and sort out some of the reasons for these short and longer bursts of activity, without making a judgment call on what they mean for success (and without taking a stab at understanding what success means in the context of an artist-run space). Does the amount of time a space is active add to its influence over the time line? What are the factors that lead to an existence of one year, over ten years, or over twenty? Does an organization have to act institutional to in order to have the life span of an institution? Does longevity have more to do with people than the idea of the space? How much does time matter? How does place (Philadelphia) influence time line decisions?
Those Who Bring It and Those Who Cannot Get Kicked Out
Each with an impressive amount of years that make them the two most senior participants in Citywide, the glues that keep Space 1026 and Vox Populi together are formed from entirely different compositions. Studio renters at Space 1026 run the exhibition space there and, for the most part, they have avoided any form of institutionalization. Decisions are made through casual consensus. In our conversations, Andrew Jeffrey Wright postulated on the criteria used for gaining new members:
“There was a long period where people were just staying, and then people started moving out slowly, and then it was, like, friends of friends or people who used to intern. There was no voting, there was no review of portfolio; there was none of these things. Because the primary part was finding someone who could pay studio rent, and who was nice.” This selection process appears to inspire a family-type environment at Space 1026. When asked, the only negative thing Wright could point to was: “You can’t kick anybody out [laughs].”
In direct contrast, Vox Populi has an exacting proposal process through which potential new members are reviewed by the current artist-membership and each member is given a solo exhibition every fifteen months. Amongst conversations about the potential stagnation that can come with institutionalization, Beth Heinly pointed to a positive aspect of working with a more formalized organization: “When I left Little Berlin, I was completely burnt out. Because it was so much work. Everyone’s volunteering their time, so who brings it is who brings it, and you just take what you can get. It really is DIY, like, for real. At Vox, I have people that are working for me. We have paid employees. That is so helpful!”
A space’s success has less to do with the amount of time that space has operated than the amount of creative capital its programming accrues in the form of idea circulation and “institutional memory.” Nowhere is this notion more evident than in the reputation that enfolds Blohard’s one-year run. Established by Tristin Lowe and Richard Harrod in 1999, this raw space was consciously established as a temporary project venue, with the intention of showing artists from outside of Philadelphia. Its exhibitions were “distinguished by the elegance and sensitivity with which they were installed.” (3) It is this idea, of bringing outsiders into a scene that was viewed as insular, which remains most firmly stamped on Philadelphia’s cognizance.
With time comes the issue of how a space is to be maintained. Vox has found success in becoming a legitimate nonprofit that applies for grants and seeks donations from patrons to continue operations, while Space 1026 survives on the rent money paid by artists. Wright discussed playing with the idea of a commercial revenue stream: “I know with Space 1026, there [was] a point where [we said], ‘Oh, galleries are supposed to make money. Let’s try and make money.’ It wasn’t working [so we asked], ‘How do you make money? Oh, you sell art. How do you sell art? That costs more money than the kids who come to check it out can pay. Oh, you find corporate people who buy art. How do you find that? I don’t know.’ So then it went from trying to make money off the gallery to: ‘Let’s have a spot where people can come and show whatever they want. This can be the place—a staging ground, maybe for a show they want to do in a bigger place…an experimental place where they can just do whatever they want and not have to be concerned with selling anything.”
The resulting conclusions are conflicting. Stagnation is something to struggle against but structure can help aid an artist in reaching loftier goals. A short-lived space, or even a one-night “guerilla gallery” (4) can hold as much or more gravity on the time line as a space that has been around for twenty years, with the right amount of documentation and word-of-mouth respect.
No matter what your political views of institutionalization, when thinking about the life span of an artist-run space in Philadelphia, it is important to remember that map with its flickers and more stable bursts of light. The stable bursts become satellite beacons to the outside arena of the larger art world. They are the natural first contacts for anyone seeking to do art business within our alternative sphere.
(1) Refers to the title of Blohard’s last exhibition.
(2) Torchia, Richard. “Toward a History of Artist-Run Spaces in Philadelphia.” Vox Populi: We’re Working on It. Philadelphia, PA: Vox Populi, 2010. Print.
(4) Frank, Peter. “Guerilla Gallerizing.” Village Voice 7 May 1979: 95. Print.
COLIN KEEFE is an artist, curator, and co-director of Mount Airy Contemporary in Philadelphia, PA. Recent solo exhibitions include Robert Henry Contemporary, New York, NY; Abington Arts Center, Jenkintown, PA; and RHV Fine Art, Brooklyn, NY. His work has been reviewed in the New York Times, Village Voice, Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia City Paper, Toronto Globe and News, Los Angeles Times, Sculpture Magazine, and theartblog. Keefe received his BFA in sculpture from Washington University and an MFA in sculpture from Cranbrook Academy of Art.
ANNETTE MONNIER is the Executive Director of the University City Arts League, a community-based non-profit organization dedicated to education and cultural enrichment in the arts for all people. Prior to her post as Executive Director Annette organized art residencies in public schools for The Clay Studio’s Claymobile as that program’s Director. Annette is a respected art writer and critic, writing independently for ARTnews. She is a founding member and curator for alternative art institutions; Black Floor, Copy, and PRACTICE galleries.