Despite safety risks, Philly artists gravitate to edgy venues

 Dani Solomon rehearses for her 2016 Fringe Arts production in a warehouse converted to artists studios and performance spaces. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Dani Solomon rehearses for her 2016 Fringe Arts production in a warehouse converted to artists studios and performance spaces. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia is full of old and abandoned manufacturing warehouses, and it’s just a fact of life that they will be used by artists in ways they were never intended — legally or otherwise.

“If you go into a location that hosts midnight dance raves and shut it down, the DJ and the audience just move,” said curator Eric Preisendanz, who has been involved in DIY artist spaces in Philadelphia. “They’re not going to take a long, hard think and decide not to do it anymore. They are going to move and continue to exercise their artistic goals.”

After the tragic Ghost Ship fire in Oakland, California, three weeks ago — when a fire during a dance party in a converted warehouse space killed 36 people — artists living and working in similar situations in Philadelphia got spooked.

No one wants another tragedy like Ghost Ship; at the same time, artists want to hang onto their spaces, even if they are not fully compliant with safety codes. They do not want to be evicted.

“It’s been very complicated for everybody, emotionally,” said Kelsey Halliday Johnson, a member of the artist collective Vox. “Many of us have had experiences with [the city department of] Licenses and Inspections, or with friends and peers nationally who have been affected by this tragedy, and want a community to be able to share with one another.”

Johnson is coordinating a meeting, hosted at the Vox space in North Chinatown, for artists in the city’s collectives to come together to share best practices to make their buildings safer. They have watched well-established collectives in other cities — Baltimore, Denver and Boston — get shut down in the wake of Ghost Ship.

Johnson hopes the meeting, planned for Thursday, will foster a self-supporting network of artists sharing skills, information, and resources. There is a worry that too much exposure will draw more scrutiny than their DIY spaces can bear. To encourage a free and open dialogue between artists, the meeting is closed to press.

Notes from the underground

But some would like to start an open conversation with city officials.

“We need to figure out how to protect rather than evict,” said Preisendanz, who believes evictions will drive artists deeper underground, into even more dangerous buildings.

“It’s not like we should be playing this cat-and-mouse approach. We should be figuring out how to keep these places open and existing,” he said.

The city is maintaining a safety-first stance, advising artists to seek spaces that are up to code and aboveboard. For example, 20 new live-work spaces will soon become available to low-income artists in West Philadelphia, built by the People’s Emergency Center.

In statement, the city’s Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy said it is working with the Mayor’s Culture Advisory Council to “not only solicit input from the artist community on how to make these valuable resources available for more of Philadelphia’s artists, but also other ideas for developing safe and affordable artist spaces.”

“The city has really learned the value of working with artists and making them a part of civic life,” said Lisa Brown, president of the Center for Emerging Visual Artists. “A lot of business owners have tried to find ways to include them and make them feel valued.”

The problem is City Hall and the cultural underground do not always see eye-to-eye. Many artists join collectives in order to reject and reinvent the creative economy as promoted by the city.

“I hope inherently there will always be that difference,” said Johnson. “Artists are trying to create a system and an economy that is inherently different from the norm we see around us.”

Fringe Festival led the way

City Hall has ventured into the fringes of Philadelphia culture before. Twenty years ago, when the Fringe Festival began using empty buildings in Old City to stage experimental theater events, founder Nick Stuccio discovered that artists and audiences both crave the adventure and risk of abandoned places.

“Big beautiful timbers, old brick walls, hardwood floors — there are nice spaces to be in,” said Stuccio. “Yeah — some were rickety and not necessarily code compliant. We learned early on — right after year one — that we have to play right with the city. The city never said no to us, but they wanted us to ‘fess up and work with them. And we did.”

The Fringe Festival and the City of Philadelphia came to a mutual understanding: the festival mandates that all participating artists secure insurance for their performance spaces — involving inspection and clearly marked fire escapes — and the city rewrote its licensing code to allow for a more lenient, temporary occupancy permit.

It paid off for both parties: the Fringe Festival has become mainstay of the city’s cultural life with a permanent home on the waterfront, and it helps make Center City economically vibrant.

“In these 20 years, every cool industrial space is now a condo,” said Stuccio, raising the issue lurking behind any discussion of urban artist spaces: gentrification. As formerly abandoned buildings become enlivened with artists, they become more valuable, eventually pricing out the artists who started the rejuvenation.

“Artists are forced into the margins. They don’t have resources, but are compelled to make work, thank God,” said Stuccio. “So you have these kinds of conditions that end up in tragedy, which shouldn’t happen.”

Some artist collectives form in order to remove its members from the economic cycle of gentrification and, instead, build an art practice and a community that steer clear of commerce altogether.

All for art’s sake

“I just have this desire to make stuff and share it with other people, and not have everything go into a piggy bank, and write down what it’s all for,” said Gwendolyn Rooker, a multidisciplinary theater artist and member of a collective that uses a former factory building in West Philadelphia.

During a visit in mid-December, the building had not had heat for two weeks due to a gas problem. On that sub-freezing day, the 5,000-square-foot space was warmed by a single, consumer space heater. Inside, it was 25 degrees.

The collective does not want to disclose its name, nor its location, to avoid tipping off the city to possible code violations.

Defenders of the underground argue that these spaces existing on the down-low might be physically risky, but are creatively safe. This is where experiments in art and self-identity can happen without judgment. If the collective had to be concerned about being socially acceptable and economically solvent, it wouldn’t work.

“Part of the pleasure I take in creating is the joy, the thrill I find in living,” said Rooker. “Having a place where I can show someone something unique or magical — not showing it in exchange for buying it or for admission, I’m showing it because we’re people, and we do these neat things.”

In the arts sector, money may trickle down from above, but culture tends to grow up from the below. The ability to build community among artists outside of social and financial pressures is often only possible with the affordability of former industrial buildings with inspection issues. The city has not indicated if it will engage in sweeps of artist spaces, or how strict or lenient future inspections will be.

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