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The Benefit
January 30, 2015

Benefit v.15 Honorary Chair: Defending Space with James Dupree

About the Author
Erica Minutella

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At Benefit v.15, Win Back Your Space with our annual silent art auction and fundraiser on Saturday, February 7 at Crane Arts. All the elements for transforming your space – personal, office, or otherwise – are yours for the bidding. This week, we’re featuring artists who have transformed the space of their lives and of the world around them by tackling issues relevant to personal renewal and social identity.
Benefit v.15 Honorary Chair James Dupree recently celebrated a victory in a seven-year battle to save his studio from eminent domain seizure. Now he’s channeling that fighting spirit into a series of paintings, as well as acting as a spokesperson for others struggling to defend their private property. Read more about his plans for bringing an extensive arts facility to the studio space that will transform it from center of contention to center of creative growth.
Tell me a bit about the neighborhood you work out of.
I’ve been here for nine years, and I have a very large studio in the Mantua community, which is adjacent to Powelton Village and very close to Drexel University. My building is a fantastic studio. I tell everybody it’s the studio of my dreams. It’s roughly 10,000 square feet, a working and living space. And now the footprint is 8,690 feet, it’s a city block.
What do people normally confront when they go to your studio for a visit?
Currently they’re confronted with a large mural that I’ve started wrapping around the building, the front and one side. It’s about 70 feet. So it’s filled with a lot of color and symbols based in my personal experiences as I was going through the eminent domain law, when they were taking over my building for a private developer.
Can you break that down for anyone who’s not familiar with the battle you had to deal with?
At the beginning, I was not familiar with the laws of eminent domain and how they would apply to a private homeowner. Originally the law of eminent domain was a law that the federal, state, and city governments could use for public use: highways, school, library. And in Kelo v. City of New London, the Supreme Court passed a law that allowed private developers to use the law of eminent domain for public use. For example in New London, Connecticut it was a strip mall, and the term they used is for economic development. They have to make the homeowner whole through fair market value. Unfortunately in this case in Mantua, they blighted the area 35 years ago and then used the law of eminent domain to seize homeowners’ property at the lowest fair market value. They file Declaration of Taking, seize the property, and seize the homeowner’s free and clear deed. In my situation they didn’t even give me the courtesy at that time to come into the building. They appraised my building in a windshield appraisal, which means they just drove by, didn’t take a look at any of the contents. They seized my property and 1500 homeowners’ four days before the law changed in the state of PA to protect the rights of homeowners. We kept fighting back and my kids helped me by forming, and with that we got almost 6000 hits from around the country and around the world to sign a petition. What really saved us was the Institute of Justice. From that point on we had a commission that went to the Mayor’s office and Janie Blackwell’s office, and we just kept the pressure on through social media. And I’ve had newspaper articles, TV shows, social media is what saved me. And I’m the only person that I know that got his free and clear deed back. The city gave me my deed back after two years of filing the Declaration of Taking. And one of the things I contested was that through the law of eminent domain they were supposed to publish the what, the when, the why, the where, the how publicly. We never got that notification a year in advance. And so those are the things I continue to make public.
But now I’m a finalist for ArtPlace America with three other organizations that applied. I’m very honored and excited that Dupree Studios was one. This project here in Mantua, we called it Artvolution West Project. It’s three organizations: Dupree Studios, Community Education Center, and Philadanco. Each organization will outline their needs and how they bring about effective change in their neighborhood. They have long-standing in the West Philadelphia community. Here is the city trying to condemn me for economic development, and this grant will put me in the forefront of some real economic development. The financial support will impact the community, the kids of the community, and other art organizations.
I hear that you’re also helping people that are experiencing eminent domain issues. Is that still a project for you?
Yes, because no one has ever won, or very few have, and historically no artist has ever won. So we as artists come into these communities, pioneer these communities, and then we’re not able to live in these communities. And then somebody asked what makes you think it’s worth two million dollars? I said it’s worth more than that to me, it’s not the money, it’s the right to do as I see fit with my private property. And I was saying that this law for me was equivalent to a Jim Crow Law. It doesn’t just affect black people or people of color, but minorities and poor minorities, disproportionately their homes are taken. This law kills people. I have information to continue to help anybody who will call me and to act as a spokesperson against those few remaining states in the US that are still using the law of eminent domain to take a private homeowner’s property for private use.
I understand that you’re serving as the Honorary Chair for the Benefit to celebrate your victory in this case. Can you tell me why you think it’s important for people to celebrate victories like this?
Well first of all there’s so few, and it’s important to stand up for your rights. In my particular case I told everyone that asked me from day one that this studio is the studio of my dreams. Any artist would die to have this space. One of the things we all know is so important and vital to all of us is a working space. I have a working/living space. I have three full living apartments in this space, ten working classroom studios that I can change back and forth to visiting artist studios, to classrooms, to gallery rooms. In the beginning of all this I was teaching painting, drawing, printmaking, we had mixed-media class. I gave private tutorials. I had visiting artists, I had live-in artists, I had tenant artists. It was really doing well at the beginning, eight years ago. And the stress of all this – it’s why I continue to stand up, yes I won, I got my deed back. When I first heard about this I was so depressed I had a stroke, where I lost my sight, speech and mobility on my right side. I still have no recourse to recoup my seven years of pure hell. And as an artist, as we all know, we can tap into our personal emotions, so I’ve 300-400 paintings of some very scary art. And that’s what this place means to me. It’s a horrible, horrible law that must be stopped. And when you find artists who go into these communities all over the country, they get a building, they fix it up, they stay there four or five years, and then all of a sudden the neighborhood changes, the rent’s sky high, and they get forced out. Community after community after community.
I hope that people understand that I have the potential to build a monumental institution here that would be a multi-complex. The long-range goals would be to build something equilavent to the Manchester Craftsmen Center here in Mantua. I call it the Dupree Studio Museum in Mantua. We’d have a theater, I want 10 – 12 visiting and working artist studios, a museum, contemporary gallery, music school, afterschool program, culinary school, trade school. I have the potential with this grant to have it springboard into a major institution if I’m given the opportunity.
As a working and practicing artist living and breathing here in this city – as an African American I’ve got more than most. I’m planning to help thousands of people and artists.
Bid on James Dupree’s work in advance on the auction site, or join us at Benefit v.15 on Saturday, February 7.
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