With artists collective in disarray after fire, Vox building still unites them

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On the First Friday of the month, thousands of art lovers wander Philadelphia galleries that stay open late.

A cluster of art collectives at 319 N. 11th St. in the Chinatown North neighborhood has attracted hundreds of people every month. Bounding up the impossibly narrow, time-worn steps of the former factory building, visitors would see emerging work, socialize, and drink $1 cans of Pabst.

It had been one of the liveliest places in the city for artists to connect with each other.

The 60 or so building tenants — including artists, art collectives, galleries, and small businesses — were kicked out last month after a fire destroyed a rear, wooden staircase. They have had to either go dark or find alternate places to work and exhibit during repairs that could take months.

The owner of 319 N. 11th — Bob Weinstein — said he is waiting on city permits to begin repairs and  intends to invite all the artists back into the building when work is finished.

One of the galleries, Tiger Strikes Asteroid, won’t be waiting. It is leaving 319 altogether, permanently relocating to the Crane Arts Building in the Kensington neighborhood.

A scrappy collective on the rise, TSA recently achieved nonprofit status and has networked with other artist collectives in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. Compared with its old space on 11th Street, the new space at 1400 North American St. is larger by half, with higher ceilings and easily accessible by wheelchair.

It’s what the collective needs in order to attract more collaborating artists. Nevertheless, the move away from 319 N. 11th St. — called the Rollins Building, but often referred to as the Vox building after its anchor gallery, Vox Populi — is bittersweet.

“That was where we started,” said member Mary Henderson. “We grew up with a group of galleries. They are our friends. Our programs have been intimately connected, we’ve done swaps. It’s a little sad to not have those close friends as our neighbors anymore.”

Waiting for the doors to reopen

Most of those other art galleries at 319 N. 11th St. are sticking together, while effectively homeless. Vox Populi, Napoleon, Marginal Utility, Practice, and Automat moved en masse to a temporary ground-floor space around the corner at 990 Spring Garden. The owner, Arts and Craft Holdings, invited them to use the space for free while it prepares for a permanent tenant in the fall.

Automat, a relatively new collective of eight members, came to 319 N. 11th in 2015, specifically for its concentration of emerging artists.

“We were really eager to join the community that was already existing there, and participate in First Fridays,” said founding member Morgan Hobbs. “I really think the Vox building has some of the best turnout for First Fridays in Philly.”

The Vox Populi collective, with its 25 members and spacious gallery with video room and black box performance space, has been in 319 N. 11th St. for almost a decade. For several months, it had been planning its summer show, “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” an exhibition of 15 artists assembled by guest curators Aria Dean and David Hartt. The juried show, now in its 13th year, is one of the most important shows of its season.

Director James Merle Thomas was not about to forgo it because of a fire.

“We cast the net as widely as possible, to think about different artists, different practices, different media that we might not otherwise be thinking about or represent during our member-based exhibitions,” said Thomas.

He also said it was important to maintain a physical space during a crucial time. Vox knows what it’s like to be displaced: in 2007 it was forced to leave the Cherry Street corridor in Chinatown when Pennsylvania razed that neighborhood to make way for the convention center expansion.

And the bigger questions

Now, Vox fears displacement again in the quickly developing North Chinatown neighborhood. Thomas wants to use the temporary digs at 990 Spring Garden to start conversations about the importance of artist spaces to the future of the city.

“What role will artists play as something like the Rail Park is developed and as this portion of the city is developed into apartments and retail?” he said. “There are new buildings going up almost on a monthly basis. How does the arts fit into this equation?”

The answer could be inside the organizational model of Vox and the swarm of galleries surrounding it: staying small, being nimble, and working collectively. “That means a lot of legwork, a lot of meetings, and a lot of unorthodox situations that occur in the planning and realization of any project we do,” said Thomas.

Another artist collective gallery in the 319 N. 11th St. universe, Grizzly Grizzly, decided not to join the encampment at 990 Spring Garden. It will spend August preparing for a member exhibition at the Esther Klein Gallery and drumming up buyers for its annual Community Supported Artist program (buyers purchase a “box” of art, sight unseen, to be delivered when the selected artists finish the works).

Grizzly Grizzly wants to be back in the fold at 319 as soon as the doors reopen.

“The fire has confirmed how supportive the community is,” said member Cindy Stockton-Moore. “Whether in the same building or dispersed around the city, I am looking forward to the new iteration of 319.”

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