The tragic fire in an Oakland warehouse and artist’s enclave that killed at least 36 people last week hit home with artists in Philadelphia.
Like Oakland, sections of Philadelphia have blocks filled with former industrial warehouses, now frequently re-purposed as low-rent studios and living spaces for artists. But along with the affordability comes the risks of living and working in decaying, aged buildings.
“Artists like to gravitate towards spaces that are raw and have potential,” said Jennifer McTague, co-founding executive director of Second State Press, a print shop located in the Crane Arts Center in Kensington, a massive former warehouse. “There’s the inspiration of it, the grit, the rawness of it, but there’s hidden dangers in there as well.”
While McTague noted that the Crane building has strong safety standards, she said that's the exception, not the norm. Many other studios around Philadelphia are in buildings with issues like a lack of clear fire exits, debris in stairwells and fire escapes blocked by things like potted plants, she said.
“Artists are looking for very affordable spaces, so that all of their time and money is invested into making work," McTague said. "They aren’t thinking of things like, ‘Are there sprinklers?’ or ‘Is there a working smoke detector in the building?’"
The Oakland fire occurred Dec. 2, while a crowd of about 70 to 100 attended a music concert in a 10,000-square-foot warehouse known as the “Ghost Ship.”
The building had only one exit, and many of the victims were trapped on the second floor after a staircase made of wooden pallets collapsed. The fire is being called the deadliest structure fire in California in a century. Prosecutors may even charge the building’s owner with murder.
Philly Licenses and Inspections (L&I) commissioner David Perri issued a call to the public on Monday in response to the Oakland fire to report any fire hazards in Philly studios or unlicensed clubs, saying his department "can’t do it alone."
Some heads of studios in Philly say they have invested significant time in addressing safety concerns.
"Our landlord and our building work closely with L&I and we have sprinklers in our galleries and throughout the other rental spaces in our building," wrote John McInerney, interim executive director of the Vox Populi gallery, which is located at 319 N. 11th St., via email. The building contains several other art galleries across its floors, as well as studio spaces.
"My understanding is most of the larger studio spaces in the cityare all up to code," McInerney wrote. "It is very discouraging to see artists forced from the Bay Area,However, cheap rent by ignoring fire safety codes is not acceptable. ... This tragedy trumps all other issue, but it does speak to the tremendouschallenges of working artists to secure affordable studio space, tobe able to earn a living wage."
In 2015, 915 Arts on Spring Garden, an art space inside a former Reading Railroad building, was shut down by the city for code violations after a small fire. It never reopened, and roughly 100 artists lost their studios.
In 2013, the Viking Mills studio building in Kensington was shut down for code violations after a small fire. It later reopened.
"People had a loss of income, but all things considered, I’m glad we did it," said Albert Fung, a painter who briefly lost his studio at Viking Mills and works there still. “Nobody wants to lose a life.”
But he cautioned that artists who struggle to find affordable studios may be reluctant to call a fire inspector for fear of losing their workspace.
“Artists are desperate. They’re willing to ignore a lot and look the other way,” Fung said. “This is how serious people are about being artists -- in the back of their mind, they know they’re taking chances with their personal safety. … It's a very unfortunate Russian roulette you play.”
Despite these risks, arts are still an important part of their communities, McInerney noted.
"I personally hope we can continue to advocate for affordable space, employment opportunities for emerging and experimental artists,rent control, investing in the arts and have communities and city leadersrecognize their ability to stabilize and connect communities," he wrote.
McTague, who also teaches professional development at Tyler School of Art, said she goes over the basics of “studio preparedness” and safety with her students, urging them to evaluate workspaces as if they were a building inspector. She urged artists to visit the Craft Emergency Relief Fund online for tips, as well as the emergency safety guide at StudioProtector.org.
“I worry sometimes when there’s these really big art openings in these spaces and they look like tinderboxes, piled to the ceiling with heaps of paper, wood, fabric,” she said. "A lot of people just don’t consider the worst case scenario."