by Annette Monnier
The following essay, originally published as part of the Citywide exhibition catalog, stems from a conversation on writing about local art. The participants were Chip Schwartz, an independent journalist who writes for the Knight Arts Challenge blog; Edith Newhall of the Philadelphia Inquirer; Matt Kalasky, director and chief editor of The St. Claire; Jacob Feige of Title Magazine; and Libby Rosof and Roberta Fallon founders and primary authors of theartblog. Ryan McCartney, Tim Belknap, and Annette Monnier moderated the discussion.
It Takes a Village
With less than a handful of exceptions, writing about art in Philadelphia is largely a labor of love mixed with the lofty idea of building something from the raw materials of the existing art scene. Many of our writers were artists first, which parallels the spark of inspiration that creates artist-run spaces. Many of the publications (a term defined here as both online and printed content) that exist do so because the person(s) behind them saw a scene creating interesting work and a void in writing, sharing, and discussing, which needed to be filled.
For the traditional news source, there is not much incentive in writing about Philadelphia’s artist-run spaces. These spaces do not buy ads in glossy magazines, and often do not advertise at all. They are frequently not open on a regular schedule. Many are walk-ups in run-down buildings in remote sections of the city, with dirty bathrooms or broken floors. The same obstacles that prevent reviews can prevent more traditional viewers from seeing the works that would be written about. Make no mistake; these are obstacles for the galleries and spaces themselves. The result is art journalism that is written primarily by a certain group of people for that self-same group: made up of those who are largely unpaid but who feel a need to contribute to the community’s growth and the upbringing of a scene.
The Gift of Having an Institution to Define Yourself Against
Thinking of a critical art publication as a type of artist-run space can help put some issues surrounding these works into perspective:
“Artist-run spaces fit all kinds of models. They are testing grounds and springboards to the commercial art world, intimate gatherings in apartments, and places for reading groups and shared meals. They are little pockets of activity that serve particular audiences at particular times, filling gaps and holes for all that the art world fails to provide. Sometimes they are meant to be temporary, and other times they can grow to become professionalized institutions that a later generation of artists define themselves against.” (1)
The great majority of art writing happens online, and many publications have a short life span with writer-artists being asked (or asking themselves) to create content pro bono. Still, a front-runner has emerged, which has largely become the “professionalized institution” that newer projects “define themselves against.” This is theartblog, an online art publication founded ten years ago by Libby Rosof and Roberta Fallon. Rosof and Fallon’s diversity of reporting and spirit of stick-to-itiveness has established the blog as one for university curators and traditional newspaper reporters who may lack connections with underground scenes and who can read about interesting art they are not typically privy to.
Many newer writing ventures seem to define themselves as a) being more critical or academic then theartblog, b) being so fed up with the status quo and anyone who seems to be working alongside it that they are attempt to create something completely different, or c) emulating theartblog.
Art Writing As Community-building (We Are Not New York)
This is still nebulous, but writing about the scene may be a way to give it a definition. There is a builder’s spirit in Philadelphia that is unique. Often the city has been compared (unfavorably) to New York City. Some cite the “laziness” of artists in Philadelphia or the fact that many artists known in Philly are not known in other places—or they assert that once an artist “makes it” in Philadelphia, s/he will move out of the city and into a more glitterati arena. Largely these criticisms arise from Philly’s proximity to New York, as the former is sometimes referred to as “the sixth borough.” (2) Many artists take this criticism to mean that Philadelphia should strive to create more professional spaces and commercial venues in an attempt to emulate the New York City art world.
An idea has emerged among artists and writers in the area that Philadelphia can have something that isn’t driven by a commercial art scene typified by cities like New York, and may yet become a community in which art lives instead of one in which art is sold. Matt Kalasky expressed this idea eloquently during our conversations:
“The end goal is to make an art community like New York City, right? And I feel like in Philadelphia there’s actually this point where we have a real opportunity to formulate what an alternative art community would look like—one that’s not based on getting a commercial gallery spot. That endpoint, that whole system, is fucked. It makes people poor. It makes people miserable. We’re in a position here to envision what an art system—or an art community—would look like that doesn’t rely on commercial galleries. That doesn’t come with all that burdened, commercial, capital weight that goes on in New York City. [As for] whether or not [Philadelphia] artists are lazy—I think it’s just because they’re not chasing after something that they know is stupid and is not worth chasing after.”
And Now for Something Completely Different
Philadelphia has the raw materials to create something different. It has an established online arts journal devoted to the artist-run scene and its artifacts, and it has a new (not to be confused with young) generation of artists hungry to define itself rather than be compared to other places. Title Magazine creates engaging, well-written criticism with volunteered content and theartblog leads readers unfamiliar with the Philadelphia area on “art safaris” into the heart of our open but often obscure art spaces. Meanwhile The St. Claire has recently begun a series of “night courses” that allow for a quasi-academic exchange of ideas through panel discussions, talks, and classes. Artists are developing the way art will be talked about, though this does not necessarily mean it will be reviewed or critiqued.
(1) Satinsky, Abigail. “Making-do: a pragmatist approach.” Artists Run Chicago Digest. Eds.
Caroline Picard and Shannon Stratton. Chicago, IL: threewalls/Green Lantern press, Chicago, IL, 2009. Print.
(2) Pressler, Jessica. “Philadelphia Story: The Next Borough.” New York Times 14 Aug. 2005. Print. The sixth borough, after New York City’s five.
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.