The arts group vs. the artist: Court arguments heard in Painted Bride appeal

A Philadelphia judge blocked the sale of Painted Bride’s building, citing protection of an ‘irreplaceable’ mosaic. The case is in Commonwealth Court now.

The exterior of the Painted Bride building

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

The fate of the Painted Bride’s distinctive Vine Street building went before a three-judge Commonwealth Court panel Thursday, with an attorney for the arts organization arguing that a lower court decision blocking the building’s sale because of its well-known mosaic should be overturned.

A year ago, Philadelphia Orphans’ Court Judge Matthew D. Carrafiello blocked Painted Bride’s sale of its Old City building to developer Groom Investments, saying the continued existence of the building’s “irreplaceable” mosaic facade was in the public interest. Groom Investments’ plan called for demolishing the former arts center and constructing 16 condos in its place.

The leadership of Painted Bride disagreed and appealed.

“The judge conceded that, but for the facade, he would have granted permission to sell the building,” Marc Sonnenfeld of Morgan Lewis, representing Painted Bride, said Thursday. “[But] the mosaic can’t be moved, can’t be assessed separately from the value of the real estate to which it’s attached … so how do you appraise it? You can’t.”

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In other words, the art is inseparable from the building, and the building belongs to Painted Bride. Sonnenfeld said that means that regardless of the perceived public value of the mosaic, Painted Bride is well within its rights to sell the building based on nonprofit corporation law.

Philadelphia-based Zagar, the creator of the mosaic, argues, however, that his work is priceless. He and other artists who consider the building a city landmark support the lower court judge’s September 2019 decision to block the sale.

“The decision of the court as to the value of the mural clearly justified the decision made,” said Jim Moss of Astor Weiss, the attorney representing Zagar. “The judge refused to approve the sale to the developer, who would have knocked down the building and destroyed the mosaic … in effect, he saved the mosaic, and we feel that that was a reasonable decision.”

Moss noted that Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens — an arts organization and gallery work also created by Zagar — has volunteered to repair the mosaic and maintain it in perpetuity, without charge to the Painted Bride or the building’s potential buyers.

“Even with this decision, the Painted Bride is still free to negotiate with the Lantern Theater or other possible buyers and proceed in that direction,” Moss said.

Philadelphia-based Lantern Theater Co. previously promised to preserve the Painted Bride mosaic and continue using the space as an arts venue. At $2.65 million, the theater’s offer was just over half as much as the high bid from Groom Investments, and was dismissed as noncompetitive by the Painted Bride.

The Office of the Attorney General, represented at Thursday morning’s proceeding by Claudia Tesoro, said it had no objection to the Painted Bride’s initial application for the sale. That doesn’t mean that it disagrees with the Orphans’ Court ruling.

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“Given that granting the original application as presented would have resulted in the destruction of the mosaic, which would be irreversible, the AG took the position on appeal that the court’s measured approach — allowing for further proceedings — was reasonable under the circumstances and within the court’s discretion,” the office wrote in a statement to WHYY News Thursday.

Painted Bride’s case could set a precedent for similar cases involving nonprofits and public art in the future, attorneys on both sides say. Judges Patricia McCullough, Bonnie Leadbetter and J. Andrew Crompton are expected to issue a final decision by the end of the year.

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