Every month, we’ll be highlighting one artist space on the InLiquid Blog. Get to know the story and the faces behind The Philadelphia Art Alliance, the Rittenhouse-based center for contemporary craft and design, with an interview with Executive Director Lesly Attarian.
Can you start out by telling me the history of the Art Alliance?
Originally the Art Alliance was a private home and it was owned and built by Mr. Wetherill, who got his money from Pittsburgh Paint, so he was a very wealthy man. He built the building for his daughter Christine Wetherill, who was always very interested in the arts. It was built in 1906. She lived here until she donated it in 1926 to the Art Alliance. The Art Alliance was a club for artists to meet, discuss literature, read poetry, it was an interdisciplinary arts organization. Christine moved away to California to pursue an acting career. It’s not a national historic landmark, but it’s part of the Rittenhouse National Register of Historic Places. Through the years we’ve welcomed a variety of different artists to the Alliance.
Our focus is now centered around craft and design. What our goals are in relation to that and what we try to aspire to as far as our exhibitions and programming is to see and experience craft and design in a new way. Being in a home enables us to do that and to show people that craft and design is all around them. As opposed to having an object on a pedestal, we want them to experience it as an everyday object. We also want to introduce audiences to the process. Through our programs we are able to do that, whether it be working with kids in getting them to see an object and helping them recreate it by drawing a picture of it, or using materials that were used to create it, or having artists come in and talk about their creative process and the tools that they use. So we’re looking at a holistic approach to an exhibition. We’re hoping to get people to think more creatively about everyday objects and about how design plays a role in all of our lives every day.
How would you say the PAA’s mission has evolved?
I’ve only been here for about six months. We are doing more with non traditional crafts. More traditional crafts would be a vase or a ceramic piece on a pedestal. What we’re doing more of is creating opportunities for people to take it a step further. Over the summer we had an exhibition on film quilts. We’re taking more traditional objects, quilts, and showing how they can be created in a very different way. Through the years we’ve been trying to bring in more opportunities for emerging artists, but also to continue to provide the opportunity to be a craftsman in a more traditional way.
Do you find that craft is still underrepresented in the current arts scene in Philadelphia?
I think it is and I think more traditional craft is presented appropriately through various shows. The Philadelphia Museum of Art does it well. It’s a very small segment of what they present in their very big institution. But there are few of us who do it the way we do it by providing the visitor the opportunity to understand it more in depth. There are places like The Clay Studio, who does it very well, they hold classes in it. I think we all do it well. I think the general public, and not those interested in craft, don’t quite understand it as well as they could. It’s our job to get them to understand it better.
You’re located near Rittenhouse Square. Do you like your location, being situated so close to the park?
I think our location is phenomenal, being right off the square, because we do have a lot of foot traffic, and there’s a lot of great restaurants in the area. We’re about to reopen a restaurant here. The only downside is that coming outside of the area, parking is difficult, but that’s anywhere in center city.
Tell me about the restaurant.
It’s called Le Chéri, which is opening here in November. It’s the owners of Bibou, in South Philadelphia. They’re expanding, but they’re still keeping their old restaurant. They’re excited because we’ll be working with them on some exhibition installations as well. In a few weeks it’ll be open. Charlotte and Pierre Calmels are amazing, so we’re very excited to be working with them, and they’re excited to be working with us and our artists.
How do you select artists for the shop?
The shop is closing at the end of the month. It will be closing permanently. It was run by volunteers. I have a very small staff, so it’s been challenging for us to be able to keep it operational, so we’re looking at other uses for that particular space.
What are some of the most popular events you’ve held in the space?
We’ve just started Wednesday Workshops for families, for the little ones who aren’t quite in school yet. It’s an opportunity to introduce, though on a very lower level, art and design to the youngsters. In addition we host Thursday tours. Our curator will provide a guided tour through the exhibition, which is a great way to get more in depth and get more of a background not only to the exhibit but to the artists.
We also produce and present a CaveCast, which is more on the side of sound and DJing. It’s an after hours opportunity to see the Alliance. The galleries are open. It’s more an in-depth look at the craft of DJing, and they’re podcasted which is an opportunity for us to reach an even further audience beyond our walls.
By hosting music events and other forms of craft, do you feel that the PAA has come full circle with its history as a multidisciplinary arts club?
It is in a way. It’s looking at craft in a very different way. Craft isn’t just making an object, it’s the craft of sound, the craft of music, the craft of food. Chefs are artists themselves. It’s providing us an opportunity to expand our audience beyond the traditional museum visitor or gallery visitor. It’s also an opportunity to expand our demographics as far as age range goes. There’s more for families and the college age students. For us, and for any arts organization within the city, it’s an opportunity for growth, but I think a lot of us are having challenges because there’s so much going on in a vibrant city like ours. We’re all competing for the same folks, so any time we can provide programs like that in a comfortable circle I think it’s great for the community and for us.
Tell me about your current exhibition.
Our current exhibition is The Way of Chopsticks. It’s probably one of the most ambitious exhibitions we’ve ever done. It takes up all three floors of the Alliance, it’s by two of China’s most popular contemporary artists, Song Dong and Yin Xiuzhen. Their daughter also got involved, she’s only 11. They came in 2012 to look at the mansion as a home, so they’ve created an exhibition that is built specifically for this space. On the ground floor you’ll see furniture from post-revolutionary China, and it’s their interpretation on it. And then as you get up to the second floor, they have created a male and a female restroom that provides entrance into the galleries with their chopstick sculptures. The unique thing about this husband and wife team is they work independently. They come up with a concept. She creates hers, he creates his. They don’t talk to each other during the creation of the object or of the installations, so it’s a surprise to both of them when they unveil it. The whole exhibition is based on cooperation, so the chopsticks are a metaphor for that. You can’t just use one chopstick, you have to use two. It’s like a family unit. Its not just one person that makes a family, it’s the unit.
What are some shows you have planned in the near future?
After this exhibition, we have a Bill Daley exhibit. He’s a ceramicist, he’s very will known in Philadelphia. He taught at the University of the Arts for years. We will have his pieces here. That will be this winter. Each year we have as a major fundraiser a craft design sale. That will be in February, just before Valentine’s Day. In March, we have Caroline Lathan-Stiefel coming, she’ll be doing an installation called Greenhouse Mix. Not only will she be doing an installation, but she’ll be doing a residency here, so she’ll have the chance to work with our guests on an install. Her piece is inspired by John Bartram.
One other cool installation we’re doing is by Greg Moore, who is also a local artist. He creates ceramic pieces. In our large gallery on the first floor, he is going to set a table with his pieces, and we are going to be working with the restaurant in serving dinner in that space using his pieces. What he likes to say is that those dining will become part of the installation.
How did you get involved with the Art Alliance?
I’ve been in the Philadelphia area working in arts and culture for over 20 years, and I’ve worked my way up in the ranks from marketing and development. I hit the ceiling on my current position that I was in. This position became available so I applied. To be able to expand the mission and reach new audiences was very appealing to me.
Just out of curiosity – you mentioned that Christine Wetherill left Philadelphia to pursue a career in acting. How did that go for her?
It went very well. She eventually did come back to Philadelphia. She passed away at a very young age at her sister’s home in Media. She’s actually buried at Laurel Hill Cemetery with her parents. She’s a very interesting individual. The Hollywood Pilgrimage Memorial Monument in LA is dedicated to her. Its this giant cross on a hill.
And some of us think she’s still here. Weird things happen at the Alliance and we blame Christine.
All images courtesy of Matt Suib, Greenhouse Media