Painted Bride goes to court to sell its distinctive building

The Painted Bride Art Center is draped in black mesh since it was discovered that the Isaiah Zagar mural that covers it is separating from its walls. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The Painted Bride Art Center is draped in black mesh since it was discovered that the Isaiah Zagar mural that covers it is separating from its walls. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The sale of the Painted Bride building on Vine Street in Old City went before a judge Tuesday. A pending agreement to sell the 14,000-square-foot performance and exhibition space to a developer who plans to build 16 condos must be approved by Orphans’ Court.

Judge Matthew Carrafiello heard arguments from the Painted Bride’s attorneys, who made the claim that maintaining the building exceeds the arts nonprofit’s financial resources and is not central to its mission of collaborating with artists and presenting their work publicly.

Those arguments were countered by a lawyer representing artist Isaiah Zagar, whose 7,000-square-foot mosaic on the exterior of the building has made it iconic and thus, the attorney said, deserving of preservation.

Carrafiello is expected to make a decision next week.

First to take the stand was the Bride’s executive director of 20 years, Laurel Raczka, who described a roster of problems with the building: The roof, electrical, plumbing, and heating/ventilation/air conditioning systems all need replacing. Also, Zagar’s exterior mosaic is separating itself from the wall: It’s about 50% de-laminated.

Laurel Raczka, executive director of the Painted Bride Art Center, and John Barber, chairman of the board of the nonprofit, are petitioning the court for permission to sell their building. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The Painted Bride drove home the point that the organization is not the building that houses it. In fact, Raczka argued, the building may be holding it back.

The organization sees its future as more nomadic, collaborating and presenting artists’ work in different spaces all over the city. A building forces it to work downtown, whereas the mission urges it to spread wide.

On the stand, Raczka said 87% of cultural offerings in Philadelphia are located downtown, leaving residents in outlying neighborhoods precious little in terms of arts.

Also, the neighborhood has changed since the Bride bought its building in 1982. What had once been an overlooked part of Old City has since gentrified. The Bride is now surrounded by condos.

“For some people, it’s not easy to come to Old City,”  Raczka said after the hearing. “By taking art to where people live, it makes it more accessible to them.”

The $4.85 million revenue from the sale of the building will become an endowment for the Painted Bride. Income from investment return plus fundraising will allow the organization to produce robust programs around the city.

Zagar’s attorney, Jim Moss, tried to pick apart the Bride’s claim that it doesn’t have the resources to maintain the building. He pushed Raczka to itemize the repair list into those elements of the buildings that were absolutely necessary and those that were merely desired.

Attorney Jim Moss is representing artist Isaiah Zagar in the hearing to determine the fate of the Painted Bride. Zagar’s mosaic is wrapped around the building. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Moss created an alternative narrative for the Bride, in which the cost of maintaining the mosaic mural would not fall onto the nonprofit. Emily Smith, executive director of Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens (another Zagar creation), said her organization is prepared to repair and maintain the mural, free of charge, in perpetuity.

Moss referred several times to a bid by the Lantern Theater Company to buy the building for $2.65 million, which would keep it an arts venue and keep the mosaic mural intact. The Bride’s board had stated in its minutes that the Lantern’s bid was “not competitive,” instead accepting a bid of nearly $5 million from a developer, Groom Investments.

There is no agreement in the pending sale that would restrict Groom Investments from razing the building and its mural.

“You’re relying on the judgment of the board, which is willing to destroy that work of art in order to raise more money for their mission,” said Moss. “That’s what we object to.”

Isaiah Zagar was not present due to an illness. His wife, Julia Zagar, attended the hearing but did not speak.

Isaiah Zagar’s wife Julia attends the hearing on the sale of the Painted Bride. The artist whose mosaic wraps around the building was too sick to attend. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Moss was also arguing in the interests of an ad hoc opposition group of individuals from the city’s cultural landscape and past board presidents of the Bride. Before the hearing, the group filed a proposal with the judge, asking Carrafiello to dissolve the current Bride board on the basis of incompetence and replace it with one chosen by the opposition group.

The current board chair, John Barber III, called the proposal “spiteful.” “Change brings fear,” he said on the stand. “And fear brings out the ugly in people.”

Moss called to the stand Rick Snyderman, one of the leaders of the opposition group. The owner of the now defunct Snyder-Works gallery on Cherry Street in Old City – two blocks from the Bride – argued that that Bride is, in fact, a physical building and not just a mission.

Snyderman called it an “energy center.” “Without places, you don’t have performances,” he said.

The opposition pulled in some heavy-hitters of the Philadelphia arts scene, including Joan Myers Brown (founder of Philadanco), and Kathleen Foster, curator of American Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art who described Zagar as a unique Philadelphia treasure, blending Latin folk art traditions with a contemporary sensibility.

“It’s a landmark piece, important to that site,” said Foster. “Destroying artwork is astonishing to me.”

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