What's next for Old City's art scene? | A. Ricketts for Visit Philadelphia

“All art is transitional, all art is permanent, that’s been its nature since the start of time,” says Rick Snyderman, the godfather of Philadelphia’s art gallery scene who, with wife, Ruth, famously created resurgence in the crafts movement in the late 80s, and helped turn Old City into a destination in the 1990s.

 

Now, 52-years after their start in running self-named galleries, the couple announced that they sold the building housing Snyderman-Works Galleries and will depart in September (they head to Maine for the summer). As sad as Snyderman’s closing was, another announcement rocked Philly’s art world when the nearly 30-year-old Vox Populi gallery collective on N. 11th Street had a fire in a public access stairwell. The Vox building is now closed, displacing its artists for an undetermined amount of time and forcing tenants to find new studios.

 

For those who chicken-little Philadelphia’s arts scene, the immediate outlook was grim, especially in Old City where grumbles of lost revenue and attentions given to new galleries in Kensington and Fishtown are as prevalent during First Friday as cheddar and wine.

 

“Ruth and Rick remade the crafts scene and stayed influential,” says local sculptor/realtor Tom Mills. “But it’s no shock to hear they’re closing — just surprising they actually did it now. Running galleries is a tough business.”

 

Muralist and comic artist Raphael Tiberino, one of the operators of Tiberino Museum and Gardens in Powelton Village notes, “It’s always sad when galleries close, especially as it’s hard for artists to show in the city as it is.”

Yet, to everyone concerned — the Snydermans, Vox Populi Executive Director James Merle Thomas — all is well, and simply part of the circle of life, love, motion and aesthetic dissonance that is the history of local art.

“In the 70s and 80s, the big gallery owners — Maryann Locks, Helen Drutt, John Ollman — were uptown on Walnut,” notes Mills. “Then the Beckers and such opened in Old City and that boomed in the 90s with First Friday making the scene. Now Washington Square, Fishtown — they’re happening. Things change. People move, and that’s not a bad thing.”

Now, Mills the realtor is talking as well as Mills the artist. “It’s good to shake things up. Every artist — everybody — should move every 10 years just for fresh perspective. We have a great new population of artists and buyers who have come from New York City. Now they can afford to live and buy since NYC was so expensive. If they can’t buy from Snyderman or Vox Populi, they’ll go elsewhere.”

Vox Populi’s Executive Director made it clear that neither he nor the collective he oversees owns the property whose compliance and communication with L&I and their landlord is positive and clear.

“Safety for our artists and our audiences is a foremost concern and we anticipate holding our juried July show with little disruption to our originally planned calendar,” says Thomas pointing to July 14 through August 20’s temporary location — 990 Spring Garden Street.

“Vox Populi is committed to maintaining its programming, and is reviewing a number of spaces in the city in the short and midterm range,” says Thomas. So, yes, Vox Populi expects to be back on N. 11th Street. Yet, if it doesn’t, this valued avant-garde space, a rotating collective, has been open elsewhere.

“One thing we’ve been is a continuous space where under-represented and innovative artists have a place in this city. Our mission doesn’t change, nor does the scope of services. We are always new, but the one thing to stress is our long-term durational quality.”

Rick Snyderman put it all in calm and humorous perspective when he says, “Everybody goes out of business once-in-a-while. How many times has Donald Trump done it?”

The Snydermans aren’t ceasing operations as a gallery due to any economic head-or-heartache (they’re currently doing major consulting work for Two Liberty Place and Bridge on Race), or the Amazon-ing of gallery culture (“you can’t buy art online, at least, I wouldn’t want to own any of it”), but decided to move into other directions by choice. “At the age of 80, we felt we should use our knowledge, smarts and resources in other ways. It’s physical being on your feet, schlepping boxes, whether it’s in the gallery or fairs such as Art Basel in Miami.”

Now, the Snydermans will become a small, intelligent mobile resource rather than a physical gallery (“or have the daily strain”) consulting additional clients based on the pair’s singular vision of feng shui, as well as putting the interesting stories of their shared lives into a book.

“We need time without the phone ringing and want to make efficient use of whatever time we have left, without sounding morbid.” Plus, they will stay dealing with the artists they love and clients that they get straight from the heart of Old City. “We bought a condo a block away from our gallery, and will surely hold intimate events there,” says Rick Snyderman. “This isn’t an end. It’s the start of a new adventure.”