An evolving landscape: Artists are rushing in to fill Philly's fresh canvas
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PHILADELPHIA -- David Kalinowski and his wife, Teresa Lee, heard the buzz. Philadelphia is the hot new city for young artists.
The New York couple -- he's a 38-year-old writer and illustrator, she's a graphic designer, 37 -- put up a posting a couple of months ago on Craigslist asking for feedback from artists who had moved here recently.
"I got 18 replies," says Kalinowski, "and everybody except one said, 'It's awesome.'" One expatriate New York photographer waxed ecstatic over his studio, with its French-style skylight.
"People were amazingly generous with their time and information," he says. "And I was thinking, 'OK, this is not like New York.'"
For years, young artists have been settling in Philadelphia in increasing numbers. Lately, the community has reached critical mass.
Hundreds, mostly recent graduates but also some with established careers, have chosen to make their homes and studios here, drawn by the very qualities that have long given the city an inferiority complex: blue-collar grit, block after block of industrial burial grounds, less fury in the grapple for the top rung.
As the immigration has quickened, artists are moving into areas with more poverty and more crime. Places where the landscape features dunes of trash and crumbling brick.
But also where those willing to reach out to neighbors struggling to get by can create an artistic nirvana. Make almost anything they can dream up. And do it in spaces with plenty of light at preposterously low rates for rooms so vast, the artists have to travel by skateboard to get from one end to the other.
They come from local art schools, where the accepted wisdom -- that you have to leave Philly to have a career -- is no longer so accepted.
After graduating from the Temple University's Tyler School of Art in 2006, Joe DiGiuseppe discovered 16,000 square feet for rent in a warehouse on the rusted perimeter of Philadelphia's Badlands.
The steel building faces a tight-knit Hispanic community on one side and trashed, weedy lots on the other. DiGiuseppe admits he was a little disturbed when he had to step over heroin needles to get through the door. But when the landlord showed him inside, the space was so amazing, he says, "it took my breath away."
Today, he and his friends lease the warehouse, where they operate FluxSpace gallery plus a warren of 25 artists' studios called Art Making Machine.
The building forms the prow of the artistic ice cutter making its way steadily north from the heart of Center City as real estate prices rise, making rents unaffordable for low-wage, if not starving, artists like DiGiuseppe's entourage.
With every year, they increasingly come from out of town.
Maida Milone, president and chief executive officer of the Center for Emerging Visual Artists in Philadelphia, says the nonprofit's two-year career development fellowship is attracting record numbers of non-Philadelphians.
"I've seen a substantial uptick in artists applying from New York, Baltimore, New Jersey and Delaware," she says.
So many come from Gotham that several New York publications have referred to Philadelphia as the Sixth Borough. As anyone who's been to Boca in February knows, the Sixth Borough has always been Florida. But the migration is real.
Newcomers say space and money are only part of the appeal.
"I didn't move here because I thought this is like New York, only cheaper," says Jamie Dillon, who settled in Philadelphia four years ago. "I moved here because you can do things like rent a giant space, do a bunch of stuff in it, live in it, ride your bike everywhere, not pay $1700 a month for a hole, and not have to fight everyone else to make it."
Philadelphia's lack of pretention allows artists to take more chances, says Dillon, 26, who runs Copy Gallery on South 11th Street with several artist friends.
"To do this in New York, you'd get scoffed at. ... Here you can do whatever you want, and if nobody pays attention, who cares?"
Shannon Kane-Meddock, a 32-year-old documentary filmmaker, had lived in London for seven years. Eighteen months ago, she and her musician husband bought a house in Fishtown.
Kane-Meddock, who grew up in Philadelphia, says she was surprised at how the city had changed.
"It's edgy and creative, and there's a lot going on culturally, and it's on the East Coast."
The city's lower RPM has had an unexpected beneficial side effect, says Kane-Meddock.
"There seems to be less of a need to prove immediately who you are and what you've done and why you're so important. I think it is conducive to better work."
She recently completed a documentary about urban anglers in Philadelphia.
"The film was very personal and not commercial. It's a project I can't imagine having made in London," she says.
Kalinowski, the New York illustrator contemplating a move to Philadelphia, says he's still not completely sold.
It would be hard to match the ethnic and sociological mix in New York. Although he is white, he sensed hostility from some of the white ethnic neighbors around Kensington, who, he supposes, must have pegged him as an obvious outsider.
And even for someone who has lived in edgy areas, he says, the trip he took on the El through Frankford was "sobering."
There is the problem, too, of a smaller market. Philadelphia is not a great place to sell contemporary art, though the market is improving.
While patrons of the arts come from all over the world to buy pieces at the Snyderman Gallery in Old City, many Philadelphians still believe that they have to travel, particularly to New York, to find high-end work.
Rachel Zimmerman, founder of InLiquid, an art and design network, thought she'd never move back home to Philadelphia after studying at New York University. But 15 years ago, she found a house in Old City, and watched as the arts community -- and the market for contemporary work -- began to build.
Her business recently moved to the Crane Arts Building, a converted factory that sits like a brick island in the concrete sea of American Street just north of Northern Liberties.
In an effort to build audiences and potential art collectors, InLiquid helps sponsor an annual "Art for the Cash Poor" sale in June. Most pieces sell for less than $200. Last year, the event featured 160 artists and drew a crowd of more than 5,000. "We rang up $9,000 in credit-card sales," Zimmerman says, "and that doesn't include the people who paid in cash and checks."
The youngbloods choosing Philadelphia to live and work in seem to be experimenting with new art forms and an alternative approach to life as artists, says Rick Snyderman, co-owner of the Snyderman Gallery and an eminence grise in the art community.
He recently found himself surrounded by people in their 20s at a lecture at Vox Populi, a nonprofit artists collective founded in 1988.
"I walked from room to room and just listened, and I sensed there was this whole other society that had nothing to do with the establishment and couldn't care less."
This new generation, he says, does not seem to be aiming for commercial success. "For them, it's not about selling, although I'm sure they'd love to. It's about doing something else as a job, and doing this as a passion. Their relationship to art is as much social as anything."
Rather than showing their work in established galleries, many display and sell their work in scrappy new spaces they create for themselves. Or in coffee shops and boutiques like Vagabond, an Old City shop that sells vintage and designer clothing and yarn. Every month, it holds an exhibit of works by a new artists.
Kathryn Moran, a 25-year-old painter from Connecticut, says: "The DIY (do-it-yourself) spirit in Philadelphia is awesome here. You can create your own scene, and people will show up."
In September, Moran's work was exhibited at Benna's Cafe on South Eighth Street. "I sold 75 percent of my paintings in a month."
Her work is more traditional than that of a lot of young artists, she says. "There's a whole other postmodern group. For them, it's about creating a community. That seems to be more where things are headed in this city."
In the tiny Bambi art gallery in Fishtown, two 60-ish women, Libby Rosof and Roberta Fallon, pore over 85 submissions for a future exhibit.
Painted, photographed, sculpted and videoed renderings of everything you can imagine, and a lot you'd rather not.
Rosof and Fallon run ArtBlog, an online confab about exhibits, the politics of culture, and the burgeoning young art community here. They have a good 35 years on many of the talented kids whose work they review and promote. But they understand these artists. Their motivation. Their struggle. And their creative process.
"Roberta and Libby are the patron saints of the young," says Nike Desis, 24, who works out of FluxSpace.
The next submission they review shows just how that scene is evolving. It comes from Peter Maslow, a Brooklyn artist who has a gallery in New York and has sold some of his medium-size paintings for as much as $9,000.
"I may end up being a part of the upcoming wave of New York artists moving to Philly," he writes in his artist's statement.
Rossof and Fallon like his work, but he is not one of the 18 painters, sculptors, photographers and videographers they choose.
No hard feelings.
Maslow planned to be in Philadelphia looking at real estate in Fishtown and Kensington.
First Published February 29, 2008 12:00 am