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Six innovative Philly museums are forging a future through COVID-19 pact

It's tough to collaborate, but six arts organizations are using the crisis of the pandemic, the downtime of closure, and the urgencies of 2020 to talk about everything they might do together.

The Fabric Workshop and Museum, which brings prominent contemporary artists like Ursula von Rydingsvard (above) to town for residencies, initiated the new collaboration among six peer institutions in Philadelphia.
The Fabric Workshop and Museum, which brings prominent contemporary artists like Ursula von Rydingsvard (above) to town for residencies, initiated the new collaboration among six peer institutions in Philadelphia.Read moreCarlos Avendaño

Back in March, back when the severity of the pandemic was first becoming clear and the city and nation shut down, leaders of arts organizations quickly grew alarmed at how easily their organizations could be financially decimated and swept from the playing field.

Christina Vassallo, head of the Fabric Workshop and Museum on Arch Street, began talking with her counterparts in other smaller arts organizations. They all needed COVID-19 relief funds, and beyond that, they needed to figure out how to reduce costs. Who knew how long the shutdown and disease might persist. Organizations might survive, but was that it? What about the next time?

Vassallo contacted leaders of Taller Puertorriqueño, Philadelphia Contemporary, Woodmere Art Museum, the African American Museum in Philadelphia, and the Asian Arts Initiative.

Hey, she said, let’s talk.

That’s how it began.

“It was initially meant to develop a mechanism for raising money in this urgent time of need,” Vassallo said. “I specifically wanted to work with my counterparts running mid-sized organizations that were specifically devoted to contemporary art. We are the boots on the ground that are serving separate broad swaths of the public here in Philadelphia in a very direct way that many larger institutions simply cannot and do not do.”

The question they’re now asking is tantalizing: Could it be more?

The pandemic has forced layoffs, furloughs, institutional closures, postponements, and cancellations at arts institutions here and worldwide. But it has also compelled them to look at different ways to find visitors and to deploy resources.

Beyond that, many are examining themselves seeking to root out racial and gender disparities. They have sharpened their focus on becoming more accessible to more people. They are beginning to see the virtual world not as a crutch to limp through the pandemic but as a potentially transformative tool that can help eradicate the COVID-19 dystopia and reach new audiences.

Facing common issues together, could a group of peers be more than the sum of its parts?

Monday mornings with Zoom

The leaders of the six Philadelphia museums found they had a lot in common, despite their different institutional focuses and the differences in the audiences they serve.

What began as practical fund-raising talk in the midst of unprecedented disruption has now become a full-blown exploration of the possibilities to cooperate and even collaborate on everything from programming to technology to health insurance.

And so half a dozen Philadelphia arts leaders are now drawn to their computer and cell screens every Monday for Zoom meetings to talk about the future and how to navigate it.

Anne Ishii, executive director of the Asian Arts Initiative on Vine Street, said the Monday morning conversations have evolved.

“After talking for months, we realized, ‘Oh my God, like, look at what we’ve accomplished,’ ” Ishii said. “Every week, talking every Monday morning, we’re learning so much about each other and along the way started to develop programming, and identified some really key operating issues we had that we could help each other solve. And it kind of just turned into a hybrid of group therapy and, like, incubation in strategy.”

‘Changing the model’

From the dire problem of COVID-19 relief funding, the group moved on to longer-term issues. Could they find a way, for instance, to cut costs by collectively providing health insurance for their employees? How can they reach broader audiences? How do they help overcome lack of digital resources in poorer communities?

None of their propositions have become reality, yet. But the mere fact of talking and sharing real information is a breakthrough, participants said.

“I think partnerships are going to come out of this as more important than ever before,” said William Valerio, head of Woodmere Art Museum in Chestnut Hill, adding that “changing the model” for operations is already emerging as a major subject.

“One of the big things we’re looking at across the consortium is audience sharing,” he said.

This is no easy task. Three of the organizations have distinct cultural identities within strong communities of color. The other three, less obviously tied to demographics, draw on what would seem to be completely different affinity groups. The physical distance from Chestnut Hill’s Woodmere to the others is about 14 miles.

“We’re sharing experiences and different sets of wisdom, which has been fantastic,” said Harry Philbrick, head of Philadelphia Contemporary. “The long-term goal of getting those institutions’ audiences to get to know each other really speaks to how can culture, how can art, bring people together.

“So to the extent that once we’re back up and running, if we can get Woodmere’s audience to go to Taller and get Taller’s audience to go to AAMP, that would be thrilling,” he said.

“I mean that’s a really fundamentally exciting goal for us. So not to lose our individual identities, but to use those identities to make it more like a kaleidoscope where people can see other groups and other organizations that they might not otherwise.”

‘Barriers of invisibility’

At Taller Puertorriqueño, located on North Fifth Street, collaborations offer many possibilities, and over the past few years, executive director Carmen Febo San Miguel has worked with several institutions around the city, including Woodmere. She does so, she said, because the city’s Latinx population and culture is often overlooked, if not deliberately ignored.

“We live in a community that nobody penetrates,” she said. “The people who come to Taller are the few. But for the large, large number of the population, you know, we’re completely invisible. One of the things that I think Taller needs to do is break those barriers of invisibility.”

She said she hopes the collaboration can “penetrate some of those barriers” and lead to “some intermingling of audiences.”

“There’s never going to be a change unless we learn to see each other,” she said. “It’s one of the things that we’ve talked about in our in our meetings and that we’ve spoken to funders about when they ask why did we come together.”

‘A greater promise’

Ivan Henderson, the vice president for programming at AAMP, wondered if the consortium of museums and organizations offers “a greater promise” beyond uniting back-office operations.

Henderson and Leonie Alexandre, the museum’s executive vice president for finance and administration, joined the group discussions after Patricia Aden, AAMP’s former president and CEO, left Philadelphia in September to run the Blues Foundation in Memphis.

It’s great, Henderson thinks, to find ways to collectively cut costs. It’s great to seek out new sources of funding. But will these things, even if achieved, make a difference in the life of the city and its residents?

“Is there something that will come of that that makes the world a better place?” he asks.

“Will we actually have folks from Taller intersect with audiences from AAMP around some idea? All six places — do we offer them a real meeting ground, virtual or physical and ideological, in upcoming years, and is that the strength of the consortium?”

Henderson says the groundwork for connections between the organizations is already in place, and as each leader becomes more and more comfortable, those connections should produce programming and audience energy.

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“I could see two-, three-, four-, maybe six-way partnerships, " he said. “I’m convinced that we could find plenty of times to connect thematically and around our work in exhibition and programming with Asian Arts Initiative, Taller. We’ve already got strong partnerships with Fabric Workshop. Woodmere, as well. Philadelphia Contemporary. In each case, I see exactly how we can connect.”