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Painted Bride's building sale: A bold new idea or a perilous decision?

Selling the Painted Bride Art Center is a dynamic move in sync with today's Philadelphia art scene, says executive director Laurel Raczka. Philly's artists, young and old, are not so sure.

The setting sun reflects off Isaiah Zagar’s mosaics on the Painted Bride Wednesday. Executive Director Laurel Raczka says the sale of the building on Vine Street in Old City will help position the arts group for a vital future.
The setting sun reflects off Isaiah Zagar’s mosaics on the Painted Bride Wednesday. Executive Director Laurel Raczka says the sale of the building on Vine Street in Old City will help position the arts group for a vital future.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

When the Painted Bride Art Center announced at the end of November that it would sell its mosaic-sheathed building at 230 Vine St. in Old City and use the proceeds to become a "project-based" organization, the Philadelphia cultural world responded with a mixture of sadness — and not a little anxiety.

"This decision says a lot about arts funding in the city," said performer Nell Bang-Jensen, 29. "It scares me as a younger artist."

Yet executive director Laurel Raczka, 57, says the Bride's funding is relatively stable at the moment. There is no operating deficit and the only long-term debt is the building mortgage, which will be paid off in 2019.

Nevertheless, "we've been struggling each year to sustain our budget needs and funding," Raczka said.  "There's more competition – so many events happening [in the city], so many venues. And to sustain this building, we have to fix it up."

The Painted Bride, the city's oldest alternative arts organization, would seem to be a fading flower competing for sunlight on an increasingly indifferent and crowded landscape.

But not everyone who has an interest in the Bride – particularly the many artists it has touched – believes shedding the building is the answer to its difficulties, and might, indeed, compound them perilously.

"The space and the incredible role the Bride has played is not something you throw away," said performance artist Tim Miller, a founder of P.S. 122 in New York City and Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica, Calif. "The Bride is a pretty fancy place. Not a palace of culture, but it's a good-looking place. Once it's gone, it will never be replaced. To discard it, to me, it feels reckless, unless it's the only way to survive."

That, then, is the question. Is selling the building and going virtual the way to ensure survival? The decision to sell has already been made, and the real estate agent handling the building says there is much interest in the site. Speculation is that, should the building be sold, it will be demolished, raising the question of what will happen to Isaiah Zagar's mosaics, which cover every outside wall.

"It's now at a crucial juncture," said Zagar, 78. "Not just the Painted Bride, but all arts organizations that create the big idea and seek to make it last more than one generation."

Bride cofounder Gerry Givnish, 80, said there is a fragmentation of culture now, a proliferation of styles and artists that makes it difficult to determine "what is valuable in art, what will endure — or not." The Bride has struggled in this environment, he said.

"There's a risk of putting the fire out by selling the building," he said. "There's definitely a risk."

Raczka came to the Bride as program director in 1992 – the heyday of the organization, which was founded in a storefront on South Street in 1969, moved briefly to a space on Bread Street in 1981, and the next year bought the Vine Street building, an old elevator factory.

It was in the 1980s that the Bride became a nationally known venue, with curators who scoured the country and the region for the best in new performance, theater, music, dance, and the visual arts. But one by one, the curators fell away and were not replaced.

Without their special expertise, the Bride became less of a go-to place for audiences and for artists.

"We were everything for everybody when we started," said Raczka. "At the time, that made perfect sense, because there wasn't anybody else. But things started popping up in a more focused way, and the Bride wasn't as necessary in that arena.

"It worked at the time with all the specialty curators," Raczka said. "But curating today is more than picking a show. … There's no lack of great art. Who is the audience for the work? What does the work mean for the organization and the organizational history? What are the funding sources for the work?"

It is difficult to imagine a time when such questions were not part of the programming equation. But there's no doubt that the times, they are a-changing. And the combination of funding and programming and even demographic shifts has created an existential moment for the Bride.

"One of the things about being in Old City, it has changed so dramatically over the past 20 years," said Raczka. "We don't feel like we belong here anymore. Our street is so residential and small. What used to be galleries up and down Second and Third Streets are now high-end boutiques. We felt this wasn't necessarily the place the Bride should be."

Add to that Raczka's sense that "audience behavior is changing and the way artists are creating is changing," and the disaffection is close to complete.

There is no question that the art of the 1990s is not the innovative art of the 21st century. But the Bride has always been a place that presented new art and served the Philadelphia artistic community. In fact, Raczka says  serving Philadelphia artists is one of the motivations behind radically rethinking Bride operations.

Adrienne Mackey, 35, founder of Swim Pony, an innovative performing arts group that is rarely focused on creating work in a building, is ambivalent about the Bride's plans.

"The Bride is more of a producer and presenter than it is a generator, so it makes more sense for that kind of an organization to have a building because then they become a curatorial voice in the city," Mackey said. "It's a loss for artists to lose out on such a high-caliber presenting venue."

Terry Fox, 71, who curated the Bride's dance programs in the early '80s and then again through most of the 1990s, believes flaccid overall programming is at the heart of the Bride's difficulties — not the building.

"The programming got less and less inclusive" over the last 15 years, Fox said. "They really had an agenda, a social agenda. I felt it wasn't open to broader expression. It had been the one place you could present dance. But it fell apart."

Despite hand-wringing over audiences, the Bride has shown it can still fulfill its long-term mission of assisting Philadelphia artists. A couple of years ago, the Bride came up with a performance series, "The Secret Show." Younger curators solicited proposals from artists, and those selected were given the run of the Bride for an evening. The project proved highly successful.

"It was a really wonderful experience," said Doug Greene, 39, who mounted a vision of his own funeral in February, an experience he described as immersive.

Greene said each performance in "The Secret Show" series, which ran for two years, drew completely different audiences that grew and built from month to month. "Each performance had more audience than the month before," he said.

"There isn't another space [beyond the Bride] that has a performance space and a gallery and a cafe in the city," Greene said. "There isn't another …  I think of emerging theater groups – we all need space."

Performer Bang-Jensen was also selected for "The Secret Show" series and mounted her Practice Wedding, a take on another life ritual, in April.

"The Painted Bride 'Secret Show' series was maybe the only one in the city where they made the effort to fund local artists and gave them creative control," Bang-Jensen said. "That's such a gift."

Her audience, she said, was made up of people who had been "coming to the Bride for years and years but didn't know me." At the same time, "I brought a lot of my friends – and they didn't know the Bride."

Larger cultural institutions may be willing to mount an unusual show now and then, she said, but it's harder for younger artists to break in to what is often a virtually closed circle at such big venues. The Bride demonstrated with the "Secret Show" that it was still an open, risk-taking presenter, Bang-Jensen said.

Raczka, who said the "Secret Show" performances were very complex, maintains that the Bride exists for the city's artists and that despite all the qualms, selling the building is the best way to serve that cultural community.

"Things are always in flux," she said. "If larger organizations are picking up things that the Bride was doing, there's no need for the Bride to continue doing them. The Bride has to be the one taking the risk and trying different things. … What we've been doing we've been doing for 50 years, and it doesn't make sense to keep doing the same thing."

Over the next three months, through conversations with its community of artists and other interested parties, the Bride will seek to define its post-Vine Street future.

"What helps artists is production of work," said Givnish, who is no longer involved with Bride operations. "But if the audience is not there, you've not served the purpose."