Has anyone ever asked you what it means to live in a commonwealth? Does being a commonwealth resident make you feel any differently? Do commonwealths serve the mission that their name implies?
For two years, curators at three arts groups — Philadelphia Contemporary, the Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University, and Beta-Local in San Juan, Puerto Rico — have been contemplating questions like these, seeing how the meaning could be different for artists depending on where they live.
“At the core, all three commonwealths have deep discrepancies in their histories in terms of how wealth is held and shared and who profits and who doesn’t,” said Kerry Bickford, director of programs at Philadelphia Contemporary, one of the project’s curators.
“Commonwealth is a project to very broadly ask the question of what we hold in common and what we don’t,” Bickford explained. “And also how to think through what it would mean to have a world where we hold more in common, while also acknowledging the differences between us that causes us to have very different perspectives.”
In Philadelphia, the project currently encompasses two artists’ work, both installed outdoors along Lancaster Avenue in West Philadelphia. Outside of the Community Education Center, at 35th and Lancaster, there’s a billboard by New York-based artist Firelei Baez. For Commonwealth, Baez created a painting based on historic atlases showing West Philly.
From 35th on up to 40th, the work of Pittsburgh-based artist Noa Denmon hangs from the light posts. The Commonwealth Community Council, working with cocurator and Philadelphia Contemporary program coordinator Nicole Pollard, commissioned these 28 light post banners, and selected as subjects the old University City High School and a lineup of West Philly leaders and heroes, like community activist Lorraine Gomez and the revered basketball mentor Miles Mack. These installations landed in the neighborhood late last week, and will be on view until mid-January.
The term commonwealth is from, in an archaic sense, the common weal. Weal means good, but also well-being. There are four states that are commonwealths; along with Pennsylvania and Virginia are Kentucky and Massachusetts. The Northern Mariana Islands, like Puerto Rico, is a U.S. commonwealth without statehood.
There’s difference in meaning, Bickford pointed out, automatically through translation of the word. In Spanish, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is the Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico.
“If you take Estado Libre Asociado, it’s something that doesn’t make sense either,” said Michael Linares Vázquez, co-director of Beta-Local. “For example, it’s a state, but it’s free, but it’s associated to something. It’s kind of like a word puzzle.”
Linares Vázquez senses, in this time of reckoning, that many conversations on U.S. history have been revelatory for many Americans, but that doesn’t exactly give him optimism. What he sees, rather, is a “common debt.”
“The fact you are aware now that it’s been happening for centuries, it doesn’t make it any lighter,” he said. “It is heavy, and it’s going to get heavier.”
The events of 2020 couldn’t help but impact Commonwealth, the art project. Before the pandemic, Philadelphia Contemporary planned to exhibit more art in storefronts along this Lancaster Avenue corridor. Pandemic restrictions modified their installation plans.
More art from Commonwealth will be included in a digital publication, which will release their first issue on Nov. 2. It will include a two-channel video piece from Philadelphia-based artist Sharon Hayes along with contributions from Philly writers Joel Cintrón Arbasetti, Kalela Williams, and Sojourner Ahebee.
The iterations of projects in Richmond, Philly, and San Juan are different, Bickford explained, because community conversations unfolded differently in each city. The ICA at Virginia Commonwealth University opened its Commonwealth exhibit in September with a resiliency garden, among other components. Beta-Local has been focusing on Commonwealth’s digital publication.
In the spirit of “common wealth,” Philadelphia Contemporary decided to regrant $45,000 from the William Penn Foundation to various West Philadelphia groups. The community council picked the winners: Neighborhood Bike Works, Tiberino Museum, Scribe Video Center, Al Bustan Seeds of Culture, Spiral Q, and Tiny WPA.
Denmon, who designed the light post banners featuring community heroes, described the project as an honor.
“I wanted [the banners] to have background elements that were second, you know, the second thing you would see,” Denmon said. “I want you to see their faces first, their humanity first.”