PhilaMOCA, the arts and events space on the border of Chinatown, has won its share of accolades, including the 2020 “American Art Award” for best art gallery in Pennsylvania.
Ironically, PhilaMOCA, on 12th Street near Spring Garden, has been closed for all of 2020.
A benefit concert Friday will support efforts to change that. Since PhilaMOCA was shut down in September, management has worked to become compliant with city building codes for a nightclub, which applies when venues host live shows. PhilaMOCA has crowdfunded roughly $38,000 of a $50,000 goal through GoFundMe to support the upgrades for electrical and fire safety issues. Friday’s benefit will help finance the remaining steps in the renovation process and help pay the rent.
West Philly-based musician Kyle Pulley, one of the benefit’s organizers, said he was inspired to do something after seeing that the local venue Everybody Hits, the batting cages that hosted DIY live music, was closing permanently in January. PhilaMOCA, which was a mausoleum showroom in a former life, is another one of those reimagined venues in “overlooked spaces,” Pulley explained.
“I think in these little cracks of shadow, or whatever, people have been able to make great spaces for music,” said Pulley, who is also a bassist in the benefit’s opening band, Thin Lips. “[As] people keep looking at these old warehouses and weird spaces to turn them into condos, people who care about [music] are going to have to band together or these spaces will be gone.”
PhilaMOCA, short for the Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art, will be celebrating its 10th anniversary later this year. Not solely a space for live performances, it’s been a locus for art house films and local movie aficionados, among other arts-related programming. Before PhilaMOCA, the famed producer and DJ Diplo made the space the home base for his record label Mad Decent and his popular block party. Diplo still owns the building, which Mad Decent purchased in 2007, something that has made fans wonder why he won’t cover the costs.
Eric Bresler, PhilaMOCA’s director, feels differently.
“I think the only reason that topic ever comes up is because we do music and he is music-related, but there is by no means any responsibility on his part to support his tenants,” Bresler said. “I think that’s a crazy thought.”
Diplo was not immediately available for comment.
The city Department of Licenses and Inspections busted PhilaMOCA during a heavy metal show in September after receiving a complaint from the public about events held at the site. When PhilaMOCA closed, there were three-and-a-half months worth of events on the venue’s calendar, which Bresler scrambled to reschedule at multiple locations.
“I found a home for everything, but it required an exhausting amount of transporting projection screens and projectors and back lines, PA systems,” he said. “For those three months, I was just constantly on the go to different venues throughout the city, bringing what was needed to make these things happen.”
The majority of the work required for compliance has been completed. Bresler is hoping it will be able to reopen in mid-April.
That would mean a roughly seven-month process overall, a long time for a venue that hosts hundreds of shows annually, but a remarkable turnaround for a previously unsanctioned live music space. Live entertainment venues must meet fire safety regulations and have, at least, a commercial activity license, special occupancy license, and proper zoning. PhilaMOCA is on track to become fully authorized because, as a working gallery, it was better poised than more informal locations to make the transition.
Early in the process, zoning attorney Jennifer Bazydlo offered her services pro bono. She helped the venue make its case for a special exception to the city Zoning Board. Bazydlo, who’s been to shows at PhilaMOCA, said she donated her time because it’s “an important part of the Philadelphia arts scene, and it would have been a shame if it no longer existed.”
Bresler said he has spent roughly $15,000 out of his own pocket on the project. PhilaMOCA still needs a special occupancy license and a safety inspection.
The show Friday at the First Unitarian Church features an all-local lineup with three indie rock acts, Thin Lips, Kississippi, and Yowler. Admission is $15. There will be a raffle with rare records and merchandise.
“It’s always been a really consistent space for young bands to play,” said Pulley. Spaces like PhilaMOCA, he explained, is a stepping-stone for bands between house shows and Union Transfer, echoing arguments that spaces like PhilaMOCA help artists move up the ladder.