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Old City artists concerned about silence surrounding Painted Bride sales plan

Bride mosaic-covered landmark building is protected for now while the Philadelphia Historical Commission considers possible designation.

Executive Director of the Painted Bride Arts Center, Laurel Raczka, stands outside the current location of the Painted Bride in Old City.
Executive Director of the Painted Bride Arts Center, Laurel Raczka, stands outside the current location of the Painted Bride in Old City.Read moreGENEVA HEFFERNAN / Staff Photographer

Artists, audience members, and some Old City residents are becoming increasingly frustrated by what they perceive as a lack of communication from the Painted Bride Art Center, the city's oldest alternative-arts organization and an Old City landmark, which announced late last year that it would sell its building and move.

A group of devotees has pleaded for the Bride to suspend its sale plans while other possible futures are explored. But the Bride replied tersely last week that it would pursue "a sustainable business model."

Philadelphia's chief cultural officer has offered to participate in, and perhaps help facilitate, a community-wide discussion about the organization's future – if asked by the Painted Bride. The Bride has not asked.

The Painted Bride, an Old City mainstay for over 30 years, appears totally focused on selling its building at 230 Vine St. and launching, gypsy-like, into the future as a "project-based organization" with no performance home.

A three-page public letter, penned by arts leaders and sent on April 16 to Bride executive director Laurel Raczka and members of the board of directors, reads like a art-world cri de coeur, a plea for a collective decision that would ultimately serve the Bride and its history, the artistic community, the neighborhood, and audiences.

The letter calls for a pause in sale efforts and a broad public collective rethinking of alternatives.

"We would like the Bride to find a way to thrive in the present, and are willing to help, not simply giving voice to our dismay," reads the letter, co-authored by Rick Snyderman, former Old City gallery owner; Terry Fox, director of Philadelphia Dance Projects and former Bride dance curator; and Jonathan Stein, lawyer and a founding board member of the Philadelphia Cultural Fund.

Big arts names ‘alarmed’

The letter is co-signed by over 30 of the city's most prominent and innovative artists, performers, and arts officials, including Joan Myers Brown, founder and executive artistic director of Philadanco; hip-hop dance sensation Rennie Harris;  BalletX co-founder and director Christine Cox; architect Cecil Baker; and Wilma Theater co-founder and director Blanka Zizka.

"We wish to foster a dialogue with you," the letter continues, "on behalf of the many voices you have not heard from, who are alarmed by your decision to close down the current Painted Bride and sell the building and land, going forward with unsettled plans for a future."

The letter calls for "a reexamination" of the Bride's situation with an eye toward the possibility of partnering with a developer or another arts organization or two, and maintaining Vine Street as an active arts space. Maybe development rights could be sold. Perhaps a mix of arts space and residential units could be developed. Maybe a touch of commercial space could be added to the mix.

"Our impression from talking to people in the arts and development communities is that there is an as-yet unarticulated vision for a revitalized Bride or performance center on the Vine Street site, created in collaboration with other entities," it reads. "We ask the Bride board to consider this with us. A sale of building and land may appear as an expedient solution, but it deprives us of a vital platform for the arts and completely erases an important arts legacy in Philadelphia."

Raczka and board members Joan Sloan and Harriet Rubenstein replied April 30: "The Painted Bride board has received and considered your letter. We continue to pursue those options that support a sustainable business model and allow the Bride to fulfill its mission into the future."

In response to inquiries from the Inquirer and Daily News, Raczka declined discussion of the plans, saying, "We will be releasing further information about our future in the next month." Sloan, the board chair, did not respond to requests for comment.

Kelly Lee, the city's chief cultural officer, who lives in Old City, called the Painted Bride building "an exciting and unique part of Old City."

"If the Painted Bride wants the city to participate in any discussion about the future of the Painted Bride, we'd be happy to participate," she said, adding that it's not "the city's role to second-guess" decisions made by the bride directors.

Many in the arts and the local community are concerned about the possible post-sale demolition of the Bride building, which is entirely encrusted with striking mirrored mosaic murals by artist Isaiah Zagar.

The building is now under consideration for historic designation by the Philadelphia Historical Commission and will be taken up by a commission panel in June. During the period a building is being considered, it falls under the historical commission's jurisdiction and no alteration of the façade can be made without city approval.

Kathleen A. Foster, senior curator of American art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, in a letter supporting historic certification of the Bride, called the mosaics transformative.

"The ambition, imaginativeness, vitality, and sheer visual splendor of these murals have been a delight for those attending performances and exhibitions, and a gift to those simply passing by on the sidewalk," Foster wrote. Zagar's "artwork transforms a utilitarian vernacular building, making it into an architectural landmark that bears witness to his creativity as well as the metamorphosis of this neighborhood in the 1990s in the hands of the city's artists."

Old City’s new direction?

But while gallery owners and artists are concerned about the Bride's possible departure  as well as the announced departure of another Old City stalwart, the Clay Studio, there is a firm conviction that the creative nature of Old City will not be diminished. It is evolving.

Christine Pfister, who has operated Pentimenti Gallery in the neighborhood for 25 years, says the departure of fine-arts galleries and arts organizations is lamentable, but part of a changing urban environment. Several galleries have closed in recent years, the latest being Rodger LaPelle Gallery, a neighborhood fixture since the 1980s.

"We love the Clay Studio," Pfister said, sitting in her North Second Street gallery. "We love the Painted Bride. As an old-timer, these are part of my landscape. I'm going to miss the vibe. But Old City is migrating to another area now. There is a new balance in the ecosystem – art galleries and [design] showrooms. We have now branded Old City as the Design District of Philadelphia."

Pentimenti and Wexler Gallery have joined with eight neighborhood design showrooms to form the nonprofit association, the Philadelphia Design District. PDD launched officially in April and will host talks, lunches, joint exhibitions, and other events.

Katherine Stanek, who co-founded Stanek Gallery on North Third Street in 2015, can see the mosaic-covered Painted Bride building out of her front window.

She does not want to watch that building disappear into a pile of rubble. Nevertheless, she believes change is an urban constant and any business – or art center – must be willing to adapt or face difficult decisions.

"It's changed in the three years we've been here," she said. "There are galleries closing, new businesses coming in, all mom and pop shops. I don't see it changing dramatically. I'm watching who is moving in, and that will determine what the future will be."

The Painted Bride, founded in 1969 on South Street, acquired its current building, a one-story affair that once housed an elevator manufacturer, in 1982. The Zagar mosaic murals were created and installed by the artist over several years beginning in 1991.

Longtime fans of the Bride argue that the murals make the building unique and reflect the innovative spirit of the organization.

Lee, the city's cultural officer, said she loves the fanciful façade.

"I'm glad it's something the Historical Commission is going to take up," she said. "Whatever the future of the [Bride], it would definitely be sad to lose. It's beautiful."