Chris Callahan comes to town and things always get exciting; it just what he brings. Success with Chris validates our proven formula: Offer each collector, each designer, business or homeowner only world class art - priced realistically and an accessible committed painter. We’ve sold 13 Callahans. Above and beyond gallery sales, I own 9 in my personal art collection. I’ll only exhibit paintings that I’m willing to buy. Just by the numbers, Callahan is my number one painter. Facts are facts; truth.
My standard definition of truth is that which can’t be denied. The absolute nature of truth demands a volitional response. Usually on a grand stage, observance of truth causes change. The value of truth, as a commodity, however is difficult to assess. Our Investments, whether be it our time or other resources, acknowledge our priorities. Acquisitions of our treasures reveal the true nature of our hearts. Whether we are poor or “blessed” with means, this account reconciling holds true; more truth.
Present truth - collector and buyer activity in Philadelphia’s Fine Art Community, at the local gallery level, is near non- existent; near extinction. Galleries are closing as we speak. Confirmed closing of Philadelphia’s “long-term” institution, the Sande Webster Gallery, is endemic of our current plight. And as the existence of our galleries wane, the “Co-op” gallery remains seemingly the last avenue for artists to “buy” exhibition space. On the average, the co-op artist here in Philadelphia is spending $1,200.00 yearly to exhibit their art for a month, once a year. In Philadelphia, there exists a unique division of perspective regarding our Fine Art Community.
I’m not the only one believing there is a disparate and significant gap between what is viewed as Philadelphia’s thriving Art community and the reality at street level. The Art community at the other end of town vastly differs than the face of our art community here in Old City. The tourist visiting the Art Museum and soon to be Barnes Foundation sees and views these as the wealthy components of a sound infrastructure; Philadelphia’s visual arts scene with theater and Live Entertainment is not a catch-all including Fine Arts. Our healthy list of Art Schools would lend one to believe we as an art community harvest a fair percentage of these graduating students.
The misnomer – “there are many young artists here in Philadelphia” - is born of undeniable truth. Scratching below the surface reveals greater truths. Despite increased enrollment at Moore, Tyler, PAFA and others, Philadelphia relinquishes that youthful population to attrition. Sales-Dollars expended in yearly graduate shows from these schools are in-house and alumni specific, students take their share of the proceeds as they leave across the state line, the schools portion remains within the institutions, seemingly islands unto themselves. Consequently, this money never reaches the street-level Philadelphia Fine Art Community. In a piece I wrote early in 2009 called “Support our Troops” I noted the efforts of Ryan Buffington, MFA student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in his attempt at making some in-roads here in Philadelphia. Ryan recently graduated taking his near twenty thousand dollars in sales from the “annual” graduation exhibition back home with him to Utah. Before hitting the highway, he came by to share his good fortune and to verify the veracity of the many conversations we had shared over the past two years. “There is nothing to keep me here. There are no income or career generating opportunities that can entice me to stay.”
Consensus among Philadelphia’s gallery directors and owners attributes decline of our gallery presence with limited career building and income generating opportunities for the young artist here in Philadelphia. The subsequent and resulting weakened Philadelphia Fine-art infrastructure negates contiguous sales of Philadelphia-made artwork. Philadelphia’s remnant professional painters suffer from limited exhibition spaces. Buyer and collector confidence at a minimum, in part because of it close proximity to New York, weighs in the balance as root issue in our re-birth. New York, by virtue of its long running history as the heart of the World’s art market with seemingly unlimited exhibition opportunities, despite the universal effects of a downturned economy gets the Lion share of “Collector Confidence.“ Consequently, selling the $10,000.00 painting is the exception rather than the norm. Re-gaining confidence in “Philadelphia-Made” art is JOB One.
Roger Lapelle of the Lapelle Galleries and I talk a bit. We agree times are tough. We also agree our collective efforts in holding off the demise of Philadelphia street level Gallery are not in vain. Lacking exhibition spaces Philadelphia artists are left with slim and alternative means of showing their work. An exhibiting here at Knapp took to me to a fitness club downtown that showed art by many Philadelphia painters. Bottom line, high end art here in Philly is channeled through non- conventional means. Lobbying local businesses to exhibit Philadelphia-made art is foremost on the agenda of all Philadelphia artists. Window dressing at Daffy’s the same.
Personally, my treasures lie in my art collection, including 10 paintings by Ashley Flynn, 9 mono-prints and two paintings by Alfred Ortega, the aforementioned 9 Callahans, 10 awesome collages (a complete single body of work) by Linda Garfield; ones, twos and threes by Matt Baumgardner, Petros Pappalas, Marjorie Grigonis, Nancy E. F. Halbert, Liam Dean. A small collection by many standards, these paintings reflect my personal commitment to art, and on a micro level, my commitment to Philadelphia-Made Art.
I am not alone. Local collectors JR and Traci Wolbert demonstrate similar commitment. On a larger scale, actually more like the type of commitment we’ve seen down through history; seemingly, average everyday folk, yet with some silent hidden agenda. There are always stories behind art acquisitions, beyond the typical gallery sale. We have all heard and know the big art acquisition stories. Hey, we are Philadelphia; the infamous Barnes acquisition is history. The Dr. Barnes - Violette de Mazia story is history. These are facts; more truth. The bible says that a storm first announces itself in a distant rain cloud. Today, Traci and JR are that rain cloud; even a rain cloud of hope. If the best ingredients make the best cake, these two neo-philanthropists are Philadelphia’s best ingredients for change, for rebirth, for renewal. They do things differently, methodical with intent. Regularly, you will see Traci carrying bags of lettuce for Benjamin, her black rabbit, but trust me she is on a mission infinitely more significant. JR, seemingly nonexistent, like a vampire, shows up only after dark. They are a different breed. In fulfilling their vision, they search for truth. Someday, a by-line in Philadelphia history will recount their efforts as the nudge that breathed life back into Philadelphia Fine Art.
An Old Testament theme, “And their word is their bond,” seems an appropriate foundation for their house of reform: One’s word as their bond - one’s “word” as binding, like that of a contract. A concept and notion quite remote from our current waffling of values, JR and Traci are big on integrity. Albeit often misunderstood these two altruists are about fulfilling a vision they have for Philadelphia. Their commitment to deliver us a “new” Art Community, though seemingly a soft peddle is firm and in your face. They evidence this commitment in both word and action. Like strong current that runs deep, their quiet influence already apparent in their ability to rally believers to the beat of their drum. Power and influence is often demonstrated in non-traditional methods in bringing people together.
Likewise, JR and Traci employ such non-traditional measures, recently promoting an impromptu MS benefit event at the Swanky Bubbles and the Dalet Gallery; the dynamic duo shelled out $25,000 to resident Russian painter Valera Ishikov $25,000 and of the Dalet Gallery and $6,600 to Oliver Wright. Not a lot of bells and whistles or press just a grass roots approach to bringing people together; just results. The “Dynamic-Duo” is results-oriented. Demonstrative of a monster sized commitment to the Philadelphia art scene, it is impossible for me to stand aside impassively and not comment on what is happening in my backyard. After all, what occurs over on 2nd street has a dramatic impact on my economy here on 3rd street. Seemingly single-handedly, the Duo is supplanting status quo expectations with redefined tenets of acceptability. What is acceptable?
Acceptable is the notion that Philadelphia “Arts and Culture” would take on a sense of inclusivity. Acceptable is an open dialogue with Philadelphia’s decision makers towards healing our ailing Old City Art District. Community action organizations notwithstanding, Old City Arts needs help from downtown; in fighting and squabbling over street vendor presence as a deterrent to tourism here in Old City is endemic of our fractured and myopic perspective. The significant disconnect between the money makers and the decision makers are apparent in our limited, discounted and impotent voice. On numerous occasions I’ve contacted Mayor Nutter’s office with proposals of change; no response. Not deterred easily, I have personally walked through the doors of the “Arts and Culture” office, Headed by Chief Cultural Officer Gary Steuer. Never available to receive me, I sent my proposals by hand with new “golden” boy Elijah Dornstreich of the Fourth Wall Art Salon. Steuer’s reply required the document be condensed into bullet form. Complying, I’ve still not received a response.
The document presented developed an industry utilizing exclusively the graduates of Philadelphia’s Art Institutions:
The New Philadelphia Fine-Art Registry
White paper – Draft
Long Term Proposal: Accommodating MFA post graduation attrition
Philadelphia’s significant concentration of Fine-Art Schools lacks sufficient back up in career building opportunities for its MFA graduates. Consequential loss of potential “professional” artists has stymied growth and tainted the reputation of Philadelphia’s “Fine-Art” Community. At street level this translates into limited art buyer/collector confidence.
• Establish and promote the “Philadelphia Fine-Arts Registry.”
• Establish and publicize an annual Economic Development Grant funding source-based on a “Training” initiative.
• Create 5 municipally owned or business cooperative “Exhibition” spaces for Registry members called registrants.
• Create a self-contained registrant managed and marketed City-Wide industry with “Genuine- Philadelphia – Made” branding.
Philadelphia Fine-Art Registry is an internet searchable repository of MFA graduates and houses the components of a new municipal self-contained and self-sustained industry. Operating funds from exhibition admissions, membership dues, painting sales and printing sales maintain employment generating opportunities for registrants. The registry increases undergraduate and post graduate art school enrollment.
As an Economic Development Tool, Philadelphia Fine-Art Registry qualifies for federal and or state training funds/grants. Training funds entice relocating firms, offset costs of workforce training, provides registrant employment opportunities and generates municipal publicity.
Registry Galleries guarantee registrants’ exhibition space, employment opportunities, additional municipal revenue, increased First Friday traffic, a wider commerce perimeter and increased tourism opportunities. Alternative Registry exhibition spaces are developed through participating businesses.
Introducing “Genuine- Philadelphia – Made” branding /marketing establishes significant registrant employment /revenue generating opportunities, promotes the MFA initiative, increases municipal publicity and promotes tourism.
Chris Callahan and many other “Outsider” Journeymen painters here in Philadelphia are not products of our Art Schools. However, they make up the bulk of our professional representation. JR will tell you Callahan and Valera are his two heavyweights, owning a few by each painter. JR’s support of Callahan and Valera’s artwork evidences commitment at the local level. In His way of thinking, like a boxing match, JR would like to see a public face off between the two. In his truth, he believes these two painters are two contenders for the history books.
It is impossible to not take notice of a Chris Callahan. Truth - Callahan paints like a maniac. He paints like there is no recession, as if he were a $300,000.00 dollar a year painter. He paints large, uses lots of paint and paints non-stop. In his exhaustive studies of a subject, theme or geometry I have seen Chris paint 7, 8 and nine paintings of what some would seem to think are the same painting; trust me, they are not. Dogmatic in his doctrine, Chris, like a preacher, drives home with assertiveness his contribution and commitment to the craft.
I am told there is no truth in art. Illusive in its value, we struggle to reconcile the intangibility fine art sales and notion of the Art Industry as a sustainable economic contributor. The numbers don’t lie. From the art materials industry, the art school industry through to the innumerable art professions there is an undeniable percentage of contribution to world, national and state economies; albeit and considered subsets of primary categories like Health, Finance, Entertainment. Despite History’s assertion - above certain income levels, art acquisitions make-up 15 to 35% of personal household budgets, there is a disproportionate perspective here in Philadelphia.
Choosing for art above other commodities, to a degree, a commitment borne of higher consciousness acknowledges the value of the lives of those creating the art. Despite our history which includes a genre appropriately named “The Philadelphia Impressionists,” we have waned in our regard and support of our roots. Our continuance and survival is contingent upon rebuilding our failing infrastructure. We need the JRs and Traci Wolberts now more than ever. It is impossible to escape the results of success. Success by nature is an attractant; folk gravitate to the successful, at least those that appear successful. While appearances can be deceiving, numbers don’t lie. Selling and buying paintings engenders confidence.