Philly artists are opening their studios to the public for the first time since COVID

In this 2015 file photo, Carol Cole is comfortably settled into her spacious well-lit studio at 915 Art Building on Spring Garden Street. One of the original artists to occupy the space, she had been there since 1981, and was one of the many artist forced out of the buidling in 2015 due to the fire. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

In this 2015 file photo, Carol Cole is comfortably settled into her spacious well-lit studio at 915 Art Building on Spring Garden Street. One of the original artists to occupy the space, she had been there since 1981, and was one of the many artist forced out of the buidling in 2015 due to the fire. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia Open Studio Tours returns this weekend and next, with more than 200 participating artists throughout the city inviting the public into their creative spaces.

Philadelphia’s is one of the largest citywide open studios events in the country, and was canceled last fall because of the COVID-19 pandemic, then staged six months later as a virtual event.

The number of artists is lower this time than it had been pre-pandemic, when typically about 300 artists would participate — some years as many as 400.

“It’s definitely fewer, but it’s still significant,” said Genevieve Coutroubis, the executive artistic director of the Center for Emerging Visual Artists, which puts on POST.

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“Artists spent a lot of time during the pandemic creating a lot of work and spending a lot of time in their studios by themselves,” Coutroubis said. “I think they’re generally enthusiastic about sharing the work that they’ve created, understanding it will be a little bit of a slower year.”

This year also marks the return of one artist studio building that has been closed to the public for six years.

915 Spring Garden had always been one of the largest and most popular sites for POST since it started in 2000, with 100 artist studios in a converted, five-story former warehouse and railroad building. The artists in the building had begun organizing public events in 1981, predating POST.

“It was an unbelievable place because the entire building — that’s 100 studios — everybody was an artist,” said longtime tenant and painter William Kosman. “When we had open studios, we had more than 1,000 people.”

The building had also developed a vital and supportive community of artists.

“915 was a very, very important part historically in the event,” said Coutroubis. “We’re really excited to see them come back. And I think that they will continue to be a highlight and a focal point this year.”

That stopped in 2015, when a small electrical fire broke out in the building, triggering a city inspection that revealed 30 code violations. All of the artists were evacuated and lost their studios as extensive repair work was undertaken, including building a new fire-proof exit staircase.

When the building was sold to a developer, Arts and Crafts Holdings, many artists assumed the worst: that they would never get back into 915 Spring Garden. The community scattered as members found other studio spaces. Kosman found a studio near Kensington and Allegheny avenues, where he painted cityscapes.

“Before the fire, every time you turned around people were saying, ‘Oh, they’re going to turn this into condos,’” he said of 915 Spring Garden. “The neighborhood is changing. If you go by there, you will see all these condos around the building.”

But Arts and Crafts Holdings did not turn 915 Spring Garden into condos. Instead, it developed a mixed-use building with retail on the ground floor — the Triple Bottom brewery and pub — two floors of commercial space for tech start-ups, and two floors of artist studios.

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Arts and Craft Holdings started renting its 40 studios three years ago. They are now 100% occupied with a waitlist of over 100 artists.

Very few of the original artists have returned to 915 Spring Garden. Kosman came back, but has only seen one or two others he used to know there.

The first artist to sign a lease in the new building was painter Jenn Hallgren.

“It’s right by my house and it’s just a beautiful building,” she said. “I really admired some of the artists that were in the building previously, and I really admire some of the artists that we have in the building.”

Hallgren started rallying her new neighbors into an informal collective to make decisions once again as a community, albeit less than half of what it used to be. Their first act was to reopen to the public again during this year’s POST.

“All of the artists in the building are very active,” said Hallgren. “I think a lot of us agree that allowing the public into our studios and sharing our work with the public is a strong aspect of our practice.”

Since the heyday of 915 Spring Garden, the landscape of artists in Philadelphia has shifted. A major hub for artists and light industrial craft businesses has developed in South Philadelphia’s Bok Building, the site of a former vocational high school. Many post-industrial buildings in the Northwest have also become hives for artists.

In previous years, POST had attracted many artists who work out of their homes in neighborhoods all over Philadelphia. This year, as the threat of the pandemic has not fully abated, the POST listings feature fewer residential addresses, and more collective spaces in commercial buildings.

The Center for Emerging Visual Artists is marking the return of 915 Spring Garden to POST by using the building for its Open Studio launch party on Friday night. The building’s landlord, Arts and Craft Holdings, is supporting the effort.

“POST returning to 915 Spring Garden is a welcome homecoming,” said Craig Grossman, general partner of Arts and Crafts Holdings. “When Arts and Crafts restored the building, we always hoped that the 40 artists studios we built would help spearhead the creative class community we envisioned around makers, doers, and innovators.”

Not all of the artists in 915 are participating in POST. Hallgren said about half signed on to open to the public, with other artists, particularly those with full-time day jobs and families, valuing their creative time too highly to engage in public events.

Nevertheless, Hallgren would like to see the loosely organized community stage its own events, outside of the annual studio tours.

“We’re talking about having maybe festivals, or pushing out our area for the general public to be able to come and see what’s going on up here,” she said. “We’ve got a lot of different creative businesses, not just artists. We’ve got a lot going on up here.”

Kosman would like to see that, too. The camaraderie and friendly criticism from other artists he used to feel in 915 is vital to his artistic life; he said he senses that is coming back to the building.

“Honestly, it’s a good feeling. It’s a good feeling that’s developing there,” he said. “I hope we can attract even more artists and benefit from the comradeship and from the input from other artists. For the time being, I’m pretty happy there.”

Tours begin on Saturday, Oct. 16. For more information, visit philaopenstudios.org.

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