Judge: Painted Bride can sell its building after all

A panel of state judges overturned an earlier decision allowing the Philly arts presenter to sell its building, which will destroy a major Isaiah Zagar mural.

The exterior of the Painted Bride building

The Painted Bride building in Old City. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The contested sale of the Painted Bride building in Philadelphia’s Old City has been approved by a panel of judges.

The Commonwealth Court judges overturned a previous decision in Orphan’s Court, which last year had blocked the sale of the performance and art gallery space based on the assured destruction of a large mosaic mural by artist Isaiah Zagar on the building’s exterior.

The Painted Bride appealed that decision, on the basis that its charitable mission is not to acquire and maintain artwork, but rather use its resources toward the presentation of art. The building had become too costly to maintain, and the Bride is seeking to use sale revenue to restructure itself as a more nomadic organization, presenting art and performance in different spaces around the city.

“Nowhere in Painted Bride’s Articles of Incorporation does it state that Painted Bride has a duty to preserve a building or a particular piece of art,” wrote Judge J. Andrew Crompton, on behalf of the panel. “We cannot assume, without evidence, that there was a tacit responsibility for Painted Bride to ensure its building, even if used as a canvas by Zagar, would be preserved in perpetuity. It was certainly foreseeable that it would not.”

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Crompton added that the previous decision in Orphan’s Court did not determine if the Bride’s board, in deciding to sell the building, acted “unreasonably or in any sort of a self-aggrandizing way.”

“We feel pretty good,” said Painted Bride executive director Laurel Raczka. “A lot of things need to happen, but we’re steadfast on our vision to do things in the community and work outside the building.”

The decision is the latest in a long legal fight between the Painted Bride and some members of the arts community over the fate of the beloved building, a former elevator factory in the shadow of the Ben Franklin Bridge. Renovated as an auditorium, event space, and art gallery, its striking, 7,000-square-foot wrap-around mosaic has become iconic.

More than two years ago, the board of the Bride decided its building was too costly to maintain, making it difficult for the organization to perform its mission of presenting art. It found a buyer in Groom Investments, which had a plan to build 16 condos on the site.

Zagar, represented by a lawyer and supported by arts leaders, insisted he had standing to block the deal, saying a sale would assure the destruction of his artwork, which is anathema to the nonprofit mission of the Bride. He pointed to another possible buyer, the Lantern Theater, which offered significantly less money for the building but promised to maintain the mosaic.

Last year, Orphan’s Court agreed with Zagar. Now Commonwealth Court believes differently.

“Painted Bride’s charitable purpose is focused on arts programming, not on property acquisition,” Crompton wrote. “While striving to achieve its purpose may involve the acquisition of property, Painted Bride requires the flexibility and fluidity to dispose of such property.”

Zagar’s lawyer said the artist and his allies were considering their next steps.

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“We of course are disappointed,” said Zagar’s attorney James Moss. “We don’t believe the Court gave proper weight to the public interest that would be served in preserving the Mosaic, and we’ll be considering our options.”

Raczka said the buyer, Groom Investments, is still at the table and interested in acquiring the property. The Painted Bride has already begun to do the kind of nomadic arts programming it envisions as its future.

“The pandemic upended arts and culture, and real estate, but for the past nine months we’ve been doing virtual programming and supporting artists,” Raczka said. “We’re doing small social-distancing live performances. We’re doing performances at polling places this weekend.”

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