Monday, April 14, 2014

Philly Art Land

Marcel Duchamp, Why Not Sneeze, Rose Selavy?, 1921, painted metal birdcage, wood, marble cubes, porcelain dish, thermometer, cuttlebone

I went to Philadelphia PA this past weekend and I have to say, I had a great time and learned a lot about this City of Brotherly Love.  I am familiar with Philly as I grew up in New Jersey equi-distant from it and that other city, New York.  I have been to it more times then most cities and have had groups of friends and acquaintances that sometimes/still call it home but this last trip was eye opening because this time around I made it a point to actually look. Below are some highlights/lowlights gathered from ~24 hours in Philly Art Land.

Space – Oh my god, like oh my gawd.  The amount of space that you can get for living and studio space is insane.  I mean actually INSANE, like somebody sedate me because you have got to be joking insane.  The insane part is of course how cheap it is.  Inexpensive is not the word to use, cheap is.  How insanely cheap are we talking about? I saw a space that was around 3,000 square feet for $300 a month.  I’m not exaggerating.  It was actually that big for that little.  Studios here can be large and not just a bit larger then what you can get in NYC but six times as large.  They are also in these fantastic old buildings that used to be one thing or another and it still has a charming preserved thing going on because no one has any money to renovate.  Hard wood floors, weird beams, dusty machines and pulleys that seem to never end are scattered wonderfully in these spaces.

Apartments are like this too, mouth wateringly big and hearing that an artist, waiter, or other creative type in their late twenties to mid thirties owns their own house not uncommon.  It is truly baffling the square footage one gets for a buck in this city.

Poor – So very related to the above is that Philly is a poor city.  Yes, all cities have poor pockets, yes, Philly has a thriving center and some of the most expensive neighborhoods sprinkled about it but the places where artists have studios, where pop-up/collective spaces are and where many live is in poor areas.  Buildings look vacant, sidewalks broken, no one is outside.  There is a sense of desolation and that desolation is felt more because this is a big city, a wide city and it seems to sprawl for blocks on end.  Going out at night on foot is a no-no in certain areas.  It is not so much the poorness of an area but the eerie silence, the bombed out feeling of a place that seems to set stage for bad things to happen if you happen to be on that stage aka street. 

It is perplexing to see this in a city that has some neighborhoods and institutions that are incredibly wealthy.  It is a continuation of the history of oppression in this country and how it is manifest through race and economy.  It is there.  It has always been there.  Being far away from it or even near but unseeing doesn’t make it not there.

Artists have always migrated to poor neighborhoods because they are poor and need space.  Sometimes when this is done strong enough and long enough it can revive a place.  Sometimes it is done so well that it speed balls gentrification and another cycle of dislocation.  Will that happen in Philly?  I’m not sure.  I haven’t seen it yet but who knows that is possible in a city so full of empty buildings. 

Food  - Philly food it yummy.  It is fat food but who cares, enjoy it while you are there.  There are cute restaurants here and there and it is at these places people converge.  You don’t see anyone on the streets but enter a food place and it is filled with people from all walks of life.  This is nice to see and seems like an oasis of social interaction.  My friend took us to a place called Pisano’s it has sandwiches.  Those sandwiches are yummy and will put you in a food coma. 

Art Scene – I was defiantly not there long enough to get any real sense of a scene or to even explore it but luckily I had a most fantastic host/guide (Jamie Felton) and she brought me to this that and other things and it made me say, “Philly is great” a lot during the trip.  In most instances, the schools and its graduates in cities like Philly spur art scenes.  Some artists come to Philly from nearby states.  Some stay after they receive a degree.  There are a few schools and networks nearby but it feels tenuous.  There does seem to be lifers though.  Philly is a place where if you stay you really stay.  It is an identity to be from Philly vs. just another bob in the scene like in New York.  Those that do stay seem to have influence and generosity.  Small ponds are not bad if the pond is fresh and nurturing. 

Philadelphia Museum of Art – One of the main reasons I wanted to come to Philly in the first place was to re-see the Duchamp collection there.  I also wanted to see the Barnes but that was all booked up.  Marcel Duchamp left his work to this museum under the unmatchable leadership of Anne d’Harnoncourt and it is a gift to art lovers.  In addition to this amazing holding is the rest of the museum.  I saw mostly the modern wings and some extensions here and there going back and forward in time but all of it was just incredible to see.  There are master works that you think, ‘wow this is here?’ and then there are such surprises and new pieces that it made me giddy. 

More then what they have is how they show it.  The building is grand but it has this casual grace that can only be described as American although it is revival this and that.  The rooms, proportions, and flow of the space is superb and the lighting just right.  There is an intimacy but also a reserve.  Also the placement of the art in conversation with each other was smooth and enhancing.  Very smart, very good job whoever did this latest installment. 

Sometimes people in New York feel spoiled and then unappreciative of all the art that they have just a few subways stops away.  Philly may not have as many places but this museum is rich with the best things and it presents and preserves it much better then most. 

So there’s my brief summery about Philadelphia.  I know it seems far away but truly if you have not been or have not been for a while, go.  Sure, it may have only been a ~24 hour trip but it was fun, packed and invigorating for every minute of it.