Hulking concrete walls now divide the 5,000 square feet of the Icebox Project Space, once an open, echoing white room at Crane Arts. The change, although temporary, confronts the entrant with maze-like partitions, sudden stops and turns that eventually swallow one’s view of the way out. The obstructing walls serve as an apt metaphor for the exhibition installed on them, Begin Where You Are, which addresses and attempts to break down the compartmentalization within the Philadelphia arts scene.
Featuring 32 artists, all in varying stages of their careers and from neighborhoods across the city, the show will run through September 13, with programming throughout the month, and a closing reception on September 11, 6 – 9 pm. We spoke with Co-Curator Anna Neighbor, who, along with Timothy Belknap and Ryan McCartney, formulated the idea during a series of studio visits that not only opened doors, but opened up an underrepresented side of local arts history.
Tell me about the exhibition.
Through Begin Where You Are, we wanted to create a survey of Philadelphia that is earnest, vibrant, and relevant. It needed to be aware of itself—aware of the formal and conceptual connections between artists and works—while also aware of the landscape we all call home and through which which we travel to our studios.
I heard you went through about 500 artists for the show.
Oh no! Lose a decimal point. We went on about 50 studio visits.
It is amazing to have this license to be in the middle of someone’s world – to see them, their work, how they move, how they wrap words around the things they make, what they keep close by in their studio/home, what they see when they step out onto their block—the fusion of all of that. And I think as artists we know this. We know that our studios are mirrors. That the work sits between there. Seeing that play out 50 times over was fascinating.
How did you go about the process for selecting the final 32?
Yeah, it was vital that we not approach the studio visits with a curatorial theme. This sounds like an impotent non-statement, but we trusted that the final form of the show would be born out of the directive power of the work we were seeing. The choice of artists and works—the curation—was a matter of making those individual artists and the connections between them shine. It was also important that Philadelphia, as a city that is a certain kind of creature, show itself through the work. The division of the Icebox via the walls we built was essential to illuminating for an audience the threads from studio to studio within a contained expanse.
How did the idea for putting together this exhibition come about?
A few things, really. First, we have such a deep love and respect for the work being made in this very complicated place. We wanted to create a thoughtful show on a semi-institutional scale that could give Philly its due.
We also saw that there seems to be many lines drawn in the sand of Philly’s artworld, and Begin Where You Are as a chance to muddle all that up. Anyone who lives here knows this is a city of neighborhoods, and I think Philly’s enclave-like nature has affected the psychology of how we choose to circulate, or more often don’t, outside of our art community comfort zones. There is this foundation of older artists (I’m 36) who went through the same programs that many of us did, started the galleries we now show in, worked with the curators and directors who have shaped our institutions, and taught at the same schools that we now learn or teach at. They’ve laid a lot of groundwork, and I think that the younger artists have inherited or disinherited a lot of their language and structures, but there is so much unawareness of one another. To sit and eat a meal with someone who’s been painting in Philadelphia for 50 years, and the stories that they have to tell and the communities that they’ve built around themselves– it’s so timeless and it’s exactly what we’re doing now. Eating, drinking, arguing, making, loving. And it’s just so magical to see that—that I can just keep doing this for 30 or 40 more years. Of course we know this, but to sit next to it makes it palpable. That was one of the most powerful things to come out of it. There is a history here, there’s a lineage, there’s a thread. And to try to tease that out, follow it, and gather strength from it. It’s invaluable.
What sort of work, other than the studio visits, has gone into putting this exhibition together so far?
You know, like so many of the artists here in Philly, we just made it happen. We did the research, the visits, we curated, we are building the walls, party planning, managing press, paying out of pocket for the thing and getting a lot of donated labor from friends and family. Classic Philadelphia.
Can you tell me a bit about yourself and the other curators involved in the show?
Tim and Ryan have been working in a curatorial partnership for several years now and have mounted many shows as Co-Directors of the Icebox. We are also working artists with our own studio practices. A year ago we collaborated as artists on an exhibition just down the hall. It went well, and they asked if I would be interested in working with them curatorially, so this was a first for me.
Are there any big-name artists that might draw a crowd?
Aw, we’re all big names. Just depends on who you ask. We have people right out of grad school. People who have been making and showing here for decades. People who live here but only show outside of Philadelphia. People who don’t really care about showing but are always making. People who are in the thick of the artist-run spaces with little to no contact with the commercial galleries, and vice versa. They’ll all draw their crowd.
The studio visits – they seem to have been so impactful to you – do you think that’s an important thing for an artist to do, to open up their studio to the audience?
That’s a great question. You know, so many here complain so often about the state of Philly’s art scene—about a complacency, a lack of careerist ambition, a lack of opportunity– and we had grown tired of that dialog. I think we could use a re-tooling of what it means to be ambitious and successful. In studio after studio we saw artists doing the most they could with what they had and with nothing left wanting. I mean, Quentin Morris has been painting for decades in a basement studio in which he can’t even fully stand up. Another artist upended his whole house in order to install viewing space for the studio visit. Nursing mothers. We’re all doing this. Resourceful. The “lack” of marketable, ambitious professional artworld opportunities and monies in Philadelphia ferments a certain anarchical, self-directed freedom that is the very thing responsible for the amazing opportunities we do have. There are always other cities.
In terms of opening up the studio, I often talk to my students about this. You feel like you’re asking for a favor from someone when you ask them to come to your studio – a curator, a fellow artist, a critic, a writer. And you feel really vulnerable, like you’re just sticking your neck out. But it’s actually a generous act, to ask someone to come and share your space with you. And those people you’re reaching out to are often flattered that you want to have them in. There’s an actual reciprocity there that I think we forget as artists. And if they don’t like your method and say no thanks, they weren’t the right person in the first place. Like, in courtship, right?