December 14, 2017; Philadelphia Inquirer
In 1969, a group of visual artists in Philadelphia went looking for an alternative space in which to show their work. They found a vacant storefront that had previously been a bridal shop and they signed a lease; thus was born the Painted Bride Art Center. The nonprofit grew to accommodate many other art forms and relocated twice, but since 1982 has occupied a former elevator factory in the heart of Old City. Last month, the organization’s leadership announced that the iconic building—with an exterior fully clad in stunning mosaic murals by local legend Isaiah Zagar—is up for sale, sending ripples of worry through the local arts community. The building sale is intended to yield “a flexible source of creative capital” that will continue to support artists and art projects in other venues and public spaces. Just how that might play out remains to be seen.
“The Bride,” as the arts center is often called, had gained an international reputation by the 1980s, “with curators who scoured the country and the region for the best in new performance, theater, dance, and the visual arts. But one by one, the curators fell away and were not replaced,” writes Stephan Salisbury in the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Without their special expertise, The Bride became less of a go-to place for audiences and artists.”
In recent years, the space—with both a gallery and a 200-seat theater—has become more of a rental venue for artists and other nonprofit arts groups, and less of a curatorial organization. Meanwhile, new venues have opened around the city and other organizations have stepped in to curate and present cutting-edge arts experiences. For example, less than half mile from the Bride is the home of FringeArts, which opened in 2013; what used to be the once-a-year, pop-up Philadelphia Fringe Festival is now a brick-and-mortar, 240-seat performance venue with a brasserie and beer garden, plus year-round programming in addition to the 17-day annual festival. Other larger and smaller venues have sprung up as well—some focus on music or dance, others on multidisciplinary offerings. As Salisbury writes, “The Painted Bride, the city’s oldest alternative arts organization, would seem to be a fading flower competing for sunlight on an increasingly indifferent and crowded landscape.”
As executive director Laurel Raczka explains, “We were everything for everybody when we started. At the time, that made perfect sense, because there wasn’t anybody else. But things started popping up in a more focused way, and the Bride wasn’t as necessary in that arena.” Raczka has stated that the organization does not have an operating deficit and that its only long-term debt is the mortgage, which would have been paid off in 2019, the Bride’s 50th anniversary. She acknowledges that the budget has been tight in recent years, and the building itself is expensive to maintain.
The Bride is located in the heart of Old City, close to the gallery scene and the historic district, in an area that is experiencing significant gentrification. Once it is sold, the building is likely to be torn down—along with Zagar’s murals—leaving a hole in the cultural landscape. Artists like Tieshka Smith, who wrote about the loss of the Bride for Philly’s Broad Street Review, are asking larger questions about the loss of the venue, which she says has “always been a welcoming space to artists operating outside the mainstream.” For her, the Bride has been an important artistic home:
Being part of the 2015 and 2016 artist cohort of the Bridal Salon/Souls of Black Folk program changed my career trajectory. The experience completely transformed how I used my medium to investigate questions of race, class, and place-making. It gave me the courage to push the envelope without fear of being penalized or further marginalized for my views.
In a letter explaining the decision to sell the building posted on the Bride’s website, Raczka explains:
The whole point of this radical change is to be sustainable and responsive to artists and communities far into future. The planning process for the next phase will include assembling an advisory team of artists and core supporters to work closely with our leadership to imagine a new, responsive art-making model for the future.
Assuming the building is sold and the proceeds are used to establish a fund to support the organization, the role of the Bride going forward still seems a bit vague. Will a virtual organization be able to wedge its way back into a crowded curatorial market? Will individual artists still feel they have a “home” at the Bride when there’s no “there” there? Nonprofit arts organizations—like any nonprofit or for-profit venture—must stay attuned to the external environment and evolve their business models to fulfill their missions and to remain sustainable. But can an art center fulfill its mission and remain sustainable after the walls come tumbling down? NPQ will follow this story with interest.—Eileen Cunniffe