Calling all artists … or maybe not

When the Free Library put out a call for Philadelphia artists who are "seeking a wider audience for their work and would like to get paid for it," I was hopeful.

 The Free Library of Philadelphia. (Paige Pfleger/WHYY)

The Free Library of Philadelphia. (Paige Pfleger/WHYY)

When the Free Library put out a call for Philadelphia artists who are “seeking a wider audience for their work and would like to get paid for it,” I was hopeful. During these days of government belt-tightening, I thought the public sector is going to make sure the arts continue to thrive in the shadow of Billy Penn. Plus, I had just started painting again, after years of doing everything but, and was intrigued by the prospect of somehow promoting my work via the Library.

Their online invitation was tantalizing. “Join us for a free happy hour info-session!” Hundreds of creative types filled the hall, chowing down on trays laden with cold cuts, cheese, crackers, and non-alcoholic beverages. (Libraries don’t get that happy.)

We were there to learn about Cultureshare, described as “a free, subscription-based program that curates and distributes locally produced art, music, writing, and performance, etc. in conversation with existing holdings of the Free Library.”

Wow! Artists of all stripes, ages and incomes, from South Philly to Chestnut Hill, will have an Internet showcase hosted by the Library. How cool is that?

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I snatched up the last of the grapes as a Library spokesperson grabbed a microphone. “We are looking for five Philadelphia artists to participate in the Library’s digital share,” he said. “That includes visual artists, writers, performers ….”

Wait a sec. Did he say five? I drove in rush hour traffic, through the Matterhorn of Parkway closures, just to be told that this program will benefit fewer artists than it takes to fill the bar stools at Dirty Franks on any given night?

It got worse. The speaker explained that the artists selected by a jury will receive cash awards of $500 to $1,000. So this is about money? Not a cultural pipeline that connects local artists with the Library’s online users? This makes no sense. Our neighborhood libraries struggle to keep their doors open. How does siphoning off thousands of dollars to recognize the talents of the few benefit the many undiscovered painters, composers, musicians, writers, sculptors, and dancers in our city?

I looked around to see if anyone else was as baffled as I was by this bait-and-switch. Most of the attendees were over 40. Many were women. I’m pretty sure they were coming to the same conclusion I was. This isn’t about me. This is about them: so-called “emerging artists” whose work has a decidedly political message.

Having served on a jury for one of the city’s most prestigious writing fellowships, I know how this works. The twenty-something graffiti artist who spray paints his tag on abandoned factories in North Philly will be recognized. The fifty-two year-old PAFA grad whose oil paintings elevate ordinary household objects to the grandeur of a Renaissance masterpiece will be ignored.

I have no doubt that the winners of the Cultureshare competition will be cutting edge, provocative and transformative. They will reflect our city’s raw potential like a Band-Aid ripped off a fresh wound. That’s what juries do. They look for fresh blood. Ageism may be illegal in some workplaces, but in the art world it gets a pass.

The speaker attempted to conclude. “Library staff members wearing name tags will be available to answer your questions.” I wasn’t about to let him off so easy. My hand shot up. “Um, yes?” he said.

“If this is a juried competition to select just five artists, why did you send out an email blast implying that Cultureshare would provide digital access and an opportunity to make money for all Philadelphia artists?”

“Well, we wanted to build excitement ….”

That wasn’t the word I would use to describe the confusion and disappointment on attendees’ faces. They, like I, thought they were coming to hear about a new way to gain greater exposure for their art (and make money). Not a “contest.”As I swept out the door, feeling I had been scammed, I stopped to chat with a staff person at the registration table.

“This is just the beginning,” he said by way of apology. “Someday, we hope to expand and serve the larger community of artists.”

I guess that means that “someday” the Library will grasp that providing digital access for 5,000 Philadelphia artists costs no more than providing access for just five. Sad.

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