CITY SOJOURN: Old City gallery scene not looking good

In hard times, art is of­ten the first thing to go.

In a troubled eco­nomy, people will cut out non­es­sen­tials in or­der to save money. Non­es­sen­tials might be any­thing from magazine sub­scrip­tions to din­ner at a loc­al tav­ern. Buy­ing art – an ori­gin­al or a print – cer­tainly would count as non­es­sen­tial.

But if people stop buy­ing art, what hap­pens to the art gal­lery boom in Phil­adelphia, spe­cific­ally Old City, which has been com­pared to New York City’s Soho be­cause of the dense con­cen­tra­tion of small gal­ler­ies there? Dur­ing my travels, I find my­self walk­ing past many gal­ler­ies, usu­ally in the middle of the day, and more of­ten than not, they look empty. I might see a desk clerk in­side at a com­puter, but, for the most part, people are ab­sent.

I checked with a few Old City gal­lery own­ers to find out how they were faring in the eco­nom­ic drought, and I got some sur­pris­ing an­swers.

Ed­ward A. Barnhart, a Cen­ter City ar­chi­tect who opened Al­ways by Design (AxD) at 265 S.10th St. four and a half years ago, says he is ceas­ing art shows at AxD as of the end of the sum­mer.

“We’ve had a trickle of sales from last year. We’d sell a piece or two in a show, but that’s it. Last spring, there was a spurt of op­tim­ism. It began from the start of 2010 un­til early sum­mer. I guess people were feel­ing that things were headed back in the right eco­nom­ic dir­ec­tion and they could be looser in dis­cre­tion­al spend­ing, but by mid­sum­mer it totally tanked again,” Barnhart said.

AxD has had to re­in­vent it­self as a mul­tipur­pose space. In ad­di­tion to gal­lery shows, it rents its space out to theat­er com­pan­ies as a re­hears­al area, a re­cep­tion area for au­thor read­ings or private parties, film nights, film cast­ings, and Fringe Fest­iv­al re­hears­als and present­a­tions.

Like most small gal­ler­ies in the city, AxD might at­tract up to 10 walk-ins a day for any giv­en ex­hib­it, a not-so-good num­ber when it comes to art sales.

In Old City’s MUSE Gal­lery at 52 N. 2nd St., I spoke with col­lect­ive mem­ber and artist Susan Wal­lack (an ex­hib­i­tion of Wal­lack’s work, “One-Part Para­dise,” is on dis­play un­til Ju­ly 31), who told me that Phil­adelphia could be do­ing a lot more to sup­port the Old City art scene.

“I was in Soho be­fore it was Soho,” the former New York­er told me. “I can tell you right now that Soho is a tour­ist des­tin­a­tion. Guided tours are walk­ing people in and out of the gal­ler­ies as part of a tour. Phil­adelphia hasn’t got­ten to that point yet.”

If Wal­lack had her way, she’d have those Old City Ben­jamin Frank­lin tour guides ex­tend walk­ing tours of the area to in­clude something else be­sides the Liberty Bell. “Walk­ing around look­ing at the Liberty Bell is fine, but they need to have mov­ing do­cents, who say to tour­ists that this is Phil­adelphia’s Soho, and here’s a place to eat, or shop, and here’s an art gal­lery. New York’s Soho was really pro­moted when it stopped be­ing a lower part of Green­wich Vil­lage. It was pro­moted so well that the city changed park­ing reg­u­la­tions there. The city did everything they could to get people to vis­it and live there.”

Un­for­tu­nately, in the world of art gal­lery sales, the re­ports aren’t good, even if Wal­lack told me that sev­er­al of her pieces at MUSE sold re­cently. “You go any­where today, wheth­er it’s to the mall, to Bloom­ing­dale’s, to Macy’s, and you see that these big stores are all empty. They don’t draw in the crowds they once did. And ba­sic­ally very little is hap­pen­ing now in the Philly art gal­lery world be­cause every­body here is so up­tight about spend­ing money.”

Well, maybe people are just up­tight about spend­ing big money on art: con­sider the long lines at Rita’s Wa­ter Ice stand in the Rich­mond Shop­ping Plaza. On one warm Sat­urday af­ter­noon I coun­ted nearly a hun­dred people stand­ing in line for wa­ter ice. While that’s not art in my book — frozen yogurt, my friends, is art! — it tells you that people will open their wal­lets and pock­et­books rather quickly when it comes to cool­ing off.••

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