The Painted Bride has found a buyer, but opposition to sale is mounting

The $4.8 million sale of the Painted Bride, Philadelphia’s longtime alternative arts venue, will fund the organization’s transformation. The sale must be approved in court.

The exterior of the Painted Bride building

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

The Painted Bride, one of the oldest arts venues in Philadelphia’s Old City neighborhood, has found a buyer for its iconic building on Race Street.

Shimi Zakin, an architect and developer with the Atrium Design Group, has offered $4.85 million for the building that for 37 years has been an art gallery and performance space. Zakin is known for high-end residential properties, having built modern apartments and townhouses in the Graduate Hospital, Northern LIberties, and Logan Square neighborhoods.

Zakin is likely to turn the Painted Bride property into a multi-unit residential development. He said it will be developed by-right, meaning he does not plan to build anything that will require a zoning variance.

The Bride has been seeking a buyer for almost two years. Executive director Laurel Razka said the building is too expensive to maintain, and the overhead costs are crippling the organization.

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The nearly $5 million will become an endowment to enable the Painted Bride to continue commissioning artists and presenting work through partnerships with other organizations, in other venues.

“We see this sale as a huge influx of cash into the cultural community,” said Razka. “We plan to use all of our resources to support artists and arts organizations.”

There are no programs planned for the Painted Bride stage, aside from outside rentals. Razka said there are not yet firm agreements in place to partner with other organizations.

“We’re probably going to start out commissioning a few Philadelphia artists. We’re going to be trying new ideas and see what works and what doesn’t work,” she said. “It’s an experiment at first until we get it down.”

As a nonprofit organization seeking to sell a major asset – its own building – the Bride needs the approval of Pennsylvania Orphan’s Court for the deal to proceed. That is where it will likely face opposition.

The building has become iconic: It is enveloped by a wrap-around mosaic by artist Isaiah Zagar. Zagar is named in the court filing as a respondent, giving him standing to object if he chooses.

A coalition of neighbors and arts organizations is supporting Zagar to do just that, on the grounds that as an asset of a charitable organization, the building and its mosaic should be preserved as an art space in the public interest.

“Charitable dollars have created both that mosaic and the performance venue,” said Jonathan Stein of the Coalition to Retain the Zagar Murals/Painted Bride Building as a Performance Space. “Both the attorney general and the court have an obligation to protect the public interest and ensure charitable assets continue to be used for those purposes.”

The coalition backed an effort last year led by the Magic Gardens – the operators of a permanent art installation created by Zagar on South Street – to have the Painted Bride building designated as historic. Such a designation would have forced preservation of the mosaic, making the building less attractive to a developer. That attempt failed.

One of the bids to buy the building came from the Lantern Theatre, which promised to continue using the space as an arts venue and preserve the mosaic. At $2.6 million, the offer was just over half as much as the high bid.

Right now, black netting is draping the Bride, resembling a mourning veil. Razka said the deteriorating exterior mosaic is delaminating itself from the structural wall, and pieces are falling off. The black netting is a safety measure.

A date for the court hearing has not been scheduled.

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