Print is dead, or so drone digital media's arrivistes. This may come as a shock to Philadelphia's Print Center as it celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, making it one of the oldest organizations dedicated to graphic arts in the United States.
Printmakers have long called Philadelphia home, from Bass Otis to the colorful Peter Duval. Among painters and sculptors, however, engravers and printmakers were often considered more artisan than artist. Marginalized in prestige if not in output, printmaking struggled to be seen as a means to create rather than simply reproduce works of fine art.
Printmaking as artistry inked support from a group of well-heeled Philadelphia aesthetes. Established in 1915 and originally styled the Print Club, the center dedicated itself to "the dissemination, study, production, and collection of works by printmakers, American and foreign," as reported by Inquirer columnist Dorothy Grafly in her 1929 history of the organization.
Despite cramped quarters at 219 S. 17th St., early meetings evoke an enlightened 18th-century salon. Members, collectors, and artists discussed printmaking over white-gloved matinee tea, while a move to 1614 Latimer St. allowed the center to mount exhibitions ranging from Albrecht Durer to Mary Cassatt. The works of Picasso, Jasper Johns, Ansel Adams, and Dox Thrash were also featured on the walls of the former carriage house in the Rittenhouse neighborhood.
The center's silver service obscures its plainer purpose. From its inception, the center sought to shorten "the distance between the man who longs to create and the man who, in some way . . . desires to participate." Women and African Americans were warmly welcomed as members. Presses on the premises were made available for aspiring printmakers, following through on the founders' promise that "whether a printmaker be old or young, known or unknown, he finds a friend" at the center. Later years saw the emergence of a mobile press, which set up shop in schools and communities throughout the city.
Supporting artists at the outset of their careers, the center sold on consignment the works of its artist members, hosted juried exhibitions, and awarded prizes for block prints and lithography. Its first Annual Exhibition of American Etchers in 1924 continues today as the Annual International Competition.
As the center celebrates its centenary, the appreciation and encouragement of the printed image in all forms have become a part of its mission, from aquatints to photography. As Grafly wrote, "The story of the Print Center is thus . . . bounded only by the vision of those who may assume control."
HSP's newest document display, exploring 100 years of the Print Center, opens Tuesday.