Black art returns to Philly’s historic Pyramid Club

The historic Philadelphia Pyramid Club in North Philly. (Vicarious Love)

The historic Philadelphia Pyramid Club in North Philly. (Vicarious Love)

This weekend, about a dozen Black artists will gather for a pop-up market at the historic Pyramid Club townhouse on Girard Avenue in North Philadelphia, once the city’s premiere Black social club in the 1940s and 50s.

The nomadic pop-up, called Vicarious Love, was originally supposed to be a Juneteenth event on June 19th at the new Pyramid Club, a private membership club on the 52nd floor of a Center City skyscraper.

The organizer said the new Pyramid Club abruptly canceled on June 17, two days before the Juneteenth event without offering an explanation.

“Doing art in Philly for ten years, this is definitely one of the biggest injustices to Black artists that I’ve seen,” said Vicarious Love co-founder Kwan Howard.

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For the last few years, Howard has curated a handful of Vicarious Love pop-up markets in various places around Philadelphia. The last one in April featured about 60 artists and attracted more than 1,000 people.

Howard said the Pyramid Club approached him in April to organize a Juneteenth pop-up for the penthouse of the BNY Building, which is topped with a pyramid (hence the name). It was to be called A Night of Black Excellence.

He jumped at the opportunity. Howard felt he was channeling the original Pyramid Club, featuring groundbreaking art exhibitions curated by artist Humbert Howard (no relation to Kwan Howard).

“I have this image of representation: a 7-year-old kid in Philly seeing some of the best Black artists on the 52nd floor of the BNY building,” Howard said. “That to me is this beautiful, beautiful narrative.”

The current Pyramid Club, owned by the national country club company ClubCorp (recently rebranded as Invited), has no association with the original Pyramid Club, which closed in 1963.

Howard pulled together 20 artist-vendors and began marketing the event on Instagram. In an Instagram video post, the Pyramid Club said the ticketed event would be open to non-members, and a portion of the proceeds would be donated to the Azzim Dukes Initiative, a youth anti-gun violence program at the Maleek Jackson Fitness Boxing Gym in Philadelphia.

Painter Patricia Renee’ Thomas does not normally show and sell her work in pop-up markets. She has gallery representation in New York and currently has work on exhibit at the Delaware Contemporary museum.

But Thomas made an exception to be part of the Vicarious Love pop-up.

“Vicarious Love is really well known in the Philadelphia area as a wonderful curator of these types of markets, where a lot of Black and brown people are able to congregate and converse about their art, and trade and collect art,” she said.

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But as the date approached, Howard started to sense things were going awry.

First, he had questions about finalizing the contract.

“We agreed on a certain percentage verbally, but when they sent me the contract on Friday that percentage was way less than what we agreed upon,” said Howard.

He also had misgivings about how he and the artists were being treated. Howard described going to the Pyramid Club a few days before the event with one of the participating artists to look at the layout of the space and figure out how to hang the artwork and arrange the vendors.

But they were not allowed inside.

“I guess they were busy and there was a problem with the dress code,” said Howard. “The artist did not fit their dress code, so we couldn’t get in to do the walk-through.”

Howard said he was also asked not to mention the original Pyramid Club – the one located on Girard Avenue 70 years ago – in the promotional material.

“I look back to the story of the original Pyramid Club as a really big inspiration for what I do,” he said. “The fact that I couldn’t talk about that, I feel it was culturally not aware of what the holiday was about.”

When Howard sent an email to the Pyramid Club on Friday, June 17, expressing his concerns, the Pyramid Club responded by canceling the event in a one-sentence email.

“After careful consideration of Vicarious Love’s concerns and Kwan’s shared discontent with our partnership, we have decided it is best to cancel A Night of Black Excellence,” read the email.

A spokesperson for the Pyramid Club said in a statement the event was canceled because the costs had expanded beyond what it had originally agreed to, and talks with Howard became contentious.

Thomas was told of the cancellation the day she was supposed to begin installing her work. She was not only disappointed to have the “rug pulled out from under us,” but also had to deal with the financial loss.

“We take on a financial hit preparing for markets like these, paying for prints ahead of time. I paid for framing,” she said. “I had spent hours in the studio preparing works specifically for this event.”

On Instagram, Howard posted that he was “disgusted” by the Pyramid Club’s “repulsive” response.

“The action that the new Pyramid Club did is so detrimental and so unjust to the art scene in Philly that I think something positive needs to come out of it,” Howard said.

By chance, while arranging A Night of Black Excellence, Howard made the acquaintance of a filmmaker named Intisar Hamilton, who currently lives in the original Pyramid Club building with her husband Joaquim Hamilton.

The historically designated building is now apartments. It is not normally open to the public.

With an inside connection, Howard was able to bring his Vicarious Love Juneteenth market – three weeks late and reduced by about half – to the site of its original inspiration. This weekend’s pop-up will take place outside in the courtyard adjacent to the Pyramid Club building, inside its entryway, and in the Hamilton apartment.

“The entryway is really epic and beautiful. We’re looking to exhibit some work in the entryway, as well as in an apartment inside the building where we will be showing some video work,” said Howard. “The interesting thing about the apartment is that it’s alleged to be one of Dox Thrash’s offices.”

Dox Thrash was an important Black Philadelphia artist and printmaker during the era of the original Pyramid Club, whose own house in the Brewerytown neighborhood is currently the focus of a historic preservation effort.

“Even to be able to have my art in that space at all is really kind of beautiful, an incredible thing that I don’t take lightly,” said Doriana Diaz, who will be participating in the market this weekend. “It would have been cool to be on the 52nd floor of some sky-high building that didn’t exist when the old Pyramid Club did, but this feels more aligned. I’m just really excited about that.”

The market will be at 1517 Girard Avenue, from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m., on Sunday, July 10, featuring 10 artist vendors and music by DJ Muddy Taylor. The online promotional material says it honors the “energy and mission of one of Philadelphia’s greatest sanctums for Black artists.”

“Do us wrong, we get strong,” it proclaims.

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