It’s a bright, cool Saturday afternoon when I park on Callowhill Street beside a row of warehouses. I walk around the corner to 319 N. 11th Street, home to Vox Populi, Philadelphia’s longest running artist collective, and a bunch of newer collectives, studios, and artist spaces: Grizzly Grizzly, Marginal Utility, Tiger Strikes Asteroid, Napoleon, and others. Oddly memorable names: they seem like they should belong to bright and strange new worlds—and they do.
Guided by big arrows painted on the walls, we climb the battered wooden steps, duck through a red metal door, and find ourselves in a vestibule with bright green walls. We are on an ICA field trip, a special program for members of the museum’s donor clubs, Leadership Circle and Art Council, people whose financial and personal support of ICA underpins our ability to do our work.
The first stop is Grizzly Grizzly, founded in 2009, making it one of the older gallery spaces here. A cooperative, its seven members pay about $25 a month to rent the narrow room on the second floor where Skye Gilkerson and Sarah Steinwachs are sharing wall space this month. Perhaps because I’m a writer, I’m particularly taken by Gilkerson’s work in which printed texts are excised of all letters, leaving only a tracery of punctuation.
“We all contribute, we all look at the work, and we all curate,” says Mike Ellyson, one of the founding members of the cooperative. “It’s not about making money. I just want people to have the chance to show their work.”
Variations of this avowal—I almost want to call it a manifesto—ring out repeatedly over the course of the afternoon. David Dempewolf and Yuka Yokoyama, co-founders of Marginal Utility, talk to us about conversations they had with the artist they are showing now, Hadassa Goldvicht. When they told her the opening would be on a Friday (openings are always on Fridays), she said she wouldn’t be able to come because it was the Sabbath. After insisting there was no choice—the opening had to be on a Friday—they suddenly realized there was a choice after all. They opened the show on a Thursday, and on Friday, when the building was full of people attending other openings, a grate made it possible to see in: “Instead of changing the artist, we would change the gallery. We try to fulfill the artists’ needs rather than producing something for us.”
Napoleon (the name is a joke based on the tiny size of the space) is the newest gallery in the building. “When we were putting this event together,” ICA Assistant Curator Kate Kraczon tells us, “Napoleon didn’t even exist yet.” For Commonplacing, Napoleon’s first group show, each member of the group chose work by an artist not associated with the space, “sharing a little of who we are through the things that inspire us,” according to Jordan Rockford’s curatorial statement.
Except for Vox, which is comparatively expansive, it’s difficult for all of us to squeeze into any of these spaces, which makes the experience of looking at this art feel intimate, slightly strenuous, and correspondingly valuable. Not many people have seen this work: we’re pioneers. When we like something, our response is peculiarly pure, a form of discovery. I love this, but at the same time, something else is happening to me: I can’t stop thinking about money. It’s like what happens when someone says, “Don’t be aware of your tongue.”
Let me back up. The people on this alternative spaces field trip are here because a.) they care about art, and b.) they have given a certain amount of money to ICA. Without this money, we could not do our work: could not present exhibitions, could not organize programs, could not publish catalogues—could not connect exciting and important new art to the world.
Artists need money too, of course, both in order to eat (and for all the other things in the category of supporting life) and to buy supplies (and for all the other things in the category of supporting art). The galleries we’re seeing today may operate on a shoestring, but even a shoestring costs something. I keep following the links of this chain around and around: these small galleries are giving value to our donor clubs, which supports us, which helps us support artists—maybe even some of the artists whose work we’ve seen today. The exposure to a broader audience is good for these spaces; the exposure to these spaces is good for this audience; connecting the two together is good for us. It’s like a water cycle, filling pools and making rain, or maybe it’s more like a Möbius strip, with no inside and no outside.
As I wrestle with metaphors, trying to find the right one, I think back to something Grizzly Grizzly’s Mike Ellyson said, trying to describe the trajectory of his gallery:
“It’s turning into…I don’t know what it’s turning into. But it’s turning into something wonderful.”
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