By Jacob Feige
In 2010 my wife was unexpectedly offered a job in Philadelphia. We liked our apartment in Queens but didn’t have a good reason to stay in New York indefinitely. The move would put me a little closer to my adjunct teaching gig in Baltimore and a little farther from the one in Providence—a zero sum gain. So we moved, almost on a whim. Neither of us was much of a bicyclist, so we bought a car. Most drivers seemed to want us dead. I drove around in a rage, and my wife cried. The stress of it blindsided us. I spent too much time looking for parking spaces. Irate men on the street screamed at me (probably only a handful of times, but it felt constant). I decided to establish modest, short-term goals: hide out, pay less rent, and make work for a show in New York. I met some interesting artists, but I didn’t feel at ease or at home. My dealer at the time took the train from New York, and he was impressed by my big studio overlooking the abandoned Reading railway viaduct. That made me feel like I had credit as an artist, living in Philadelphia. It really looked like an artist’s studio, in the way that an industrial space in 1970’s SoHo is now commonly simulated. It felt authentic. But I was doing the same thing I did in New York, albeit more economically and with a little more grit: paying a real estate developer each month in order to make art. It wasn’t enough to justify living in Philadelphia, and it wasn’t actually authentic. My wife and I thought we would ultimately have children and move away.
After about a year in Philadelphia, a new friend, Daniel Gerwin, asked me to attend an informal meeting and potluck. We were to discuss the prospect of starting a new outlet for art criticism in the city based on the collective model used by galleries in town. About fifteen people attended with varying levels of enthusiasm and commitment. I eyed a couple who went on to open a successful small gallery in New York. As other interested parties made suggestions, their eyes gave them away: tepid interest faded to distain. Others were enthusiastic, but we didn’t hear from them again. So it goes with an open call to form a collective. I told the group I might give six months to the project. That was five years ago.
Following initial meetings, the group winnowed itself down to five editors and two others giving technical and design support. We couldn’t agree on a name, so we wrote Title in place of a name in our early self-defining writings. It stuck, for lack of anything better, and the Title Magazine that apparently went to print for a while in California never sent us a cease-and-desist letter. We didn’t file for non-profit status, but we got a website. Each editor would be in charge for a month, on a rotating basis.
After several months of publication, a few of the people involved in Title approached me about two editors. They weren’t satisfied with the work of the two editors and wanted them out. It hadn’t occurred to me that Title could be so serious as to warrant dismissals, and it didn’t bode well for my role being temporary, unless I screwed something up. Nonetheless, I gave their move to dismiss the two my approval. That left us with three editors. Not much of a collective. In wake of this editorial shakeup, we developed guidelines for contributors and editors that would serve as ideals for much of our subsequent content: be to-the-point, critical, analytical, and objective where possible. Avoid jargon and assume that the reader is educated but not necessarily an art insider. We especially wanted to avoid conflict of interest, given how small and interconnected the world of art can be in Philadelphia. We have declined to publish numerous pieces that were written by someone too close to the subject of the article. In a few cases, we disappointingly discovered later that reviews had been written by interns and former employees of the galleries whose exhibitions were the subjects of the review. Other times, there was a clear connection between the author and subject—sometimes essentially one and the same, as in the Citywide essays—but we felt that the articles were self-critical and not self-promotional, so we published.
Since our brief early turmoil, we’ve fluctuated between three and four editors, and by necessity we shifted from a collective model to one in which anyone with sufficient editorial chops and a willingness to give time to the project could be editor. We typically begged a talented writer and they often joined up, editing until they moved away or couldn’t take it anymore.
Improbably, I am the last of the original group of Title editors to continue with the project. I can’t say that I am suited to be editor for an art criticism publication, in particular in Philadelphia. I didn’t go to school in the city or grow up in the area, I’m dyslexic, I mostly don’t like Philadelphia as a city, and I have the stubborn vanity of people who define themselves foremost as artists. This aside, I can muster the patience to look at three drafts of a review in order to make it pretty good. What’s more, despite my ambivalence towards the city generally, art in Philadelphia forms an interesting, problematic world that I am compelled to be a part of, at least a little bit. It’s free from the impersonal, ungrounded ethos of the art fair version of art. Most people and institutions are approachable. Artists in Philadelphia tend to be remarkably friendly, given how prickly Philadelphians can be on the whole.
The grit of the city is indeed something that can motivate artists, even if the artist as occupier of industrial outskirts is now in its fourth or fifth decade of mythic cliché. There is a sense that artists can still play a role in shaping neighborhoods in Philadelphia, when that role has been given over entirely to developers in New York and Los Angeles. There is true power in that. The trade-off is in a lack of commerce surrounding art in the city that could better connect art here to art nationally and globally. For better and for worse, art in Philadelphia remains mostly a regional scene.
Problematic (and often soul crushing) as the commercial art world can be, it is certainly motivating and energizing, There are too many artists and not enough people playing other roles in Philadelphia; it needs more gallerists, critics, and collectors. This variety tends to form around a commercial gallery scene, because there are ways for various kinds of arts professionals to eke out a living. Artists must somewhat perversely fill these roles without financial benefit in Philadelphia, if other people don’t. At Title’s founding, I wasn’t personally interested in doing any of these things, having both worked and exhibited my own work in the commercial art world. But I was at least capable of editing and writing. I have benefitted from thoughtful, critical reviews of my own work, and Title has been my way of paying back into this pot for karma’s sake, and for the sake of art in Philadelphia. Artists who invest themselves financially, emotionally, and artistically in public exhibitions, as I have, deserve a cogent, critical appraisal of their work. They usually don’t get it, especially in Philadelphia. My hope is that Title has given some artists this critical appraisal, or at least a little bit of attention, when they otherwise wouldn’t have received it. The temptation in Philadelphia is to let a platform for art criticism become an outlet for critical writings by artists, rather than reviews, because artists are usually the ones writing. There’s no harm in that. But I am satisfied that on the whole, Title has published reviews—what artists need most from writers.
In Title’s first year of publication I applied for academic positions across the country, and improbably I ended up in one within commuting distance to Philadelphia. I moved out of the city, but as the crow flies I am closer to Center City than my last address in the city itself. I am both gone from Philadelphia and still there, geographically and psychologically. I can see exhibitions and meet friends, but I can also spend weeks on end avoiding the city. As an artist, I have mostly shown elsewhere. I am a person close by, not an insider. Editing Title has contributed to this state of limbo, because I correspond with writers, and probably even see them at gallery openings, but I often don’t actually meet them in person. Most artist-led ventures in Philadelphia create community, but Title is more like ether that occasionally forms a residue on the existing community. I hope that readers have thus far found it to be a good sort of residue. For the time being I have to step away from Title to focus on my family, teaching, and art making. Thankfully, my co-editor Samantha Mitchell will carry the project forward, just as Daniel Gerwin led the initial phase. I am grateful to both of them for their high standards and long hours invested in Title.
Jacob Feige is an artist, dad twice over, and Assistant Professor of Art at Stockton University. The Phaidon Press anthology Painting Abstraction includes a section on his work.