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Arts on South

By Brianna Watts-El, Kate Dolgenos, Steven Schwering, Stephen Laarkamp


South Street was once full of restaurants, stores, and art galleries, with hardly any empty buildings. The recent economic slump has forced many of these businesses to close, leaving vacant storefronts all over South Street. Arts on South is a two-year-old initiative that installs art galleries in these empty spaces.


Not just anyone is able to display their art in the galleries. Artists are selected by Philadelphia's Magic Gardens. Just six spaces are currently available, since only one landlord has agreed to participate in this year's program. The storefronts are especially coveted because artists are only obligated to pay utility bills, not rent, and most artists "couldn't afford to operate galleries themselves, in that manner," says David Hammond, who is in charge of Arts on South. The program does not dictate what type of art should be displayed, and artists are essentially given free reign over their galleries, which can showcase anything from the bowls made of melted-down vinyl at Dumpster Divers to the pop-up books at Philadelphia Center for the Book. Any artist or artist organization with enough talent and members can have their own gallery for a few months.


The program has had to overcome a surprisingly small number of obstacles. The landlord is willing to lend his spaces to artists for a few months, since the artists "fill up a vacant space on the street, so ...[pedestrians] don't see an empty building with paper in the window," says Mr. Hammond. However, the artists may be forced to leave if someone decides to rent the space. That happened this year, when one deal fell through before a gallery could even open. Although the long-term goal of Arts on South is to have the space rented, it can be a challenge for an artist who hoped to open a gallery in that space. Still, artists continue to vie for their own gallery, even though they may be forced out by a renter. "We jumped on [the opportunity], because we've always wanted a physical presence," says Jessica Hoffman of Philadelphia Center for the Book. "We worked really hard to make this space look really nice, and luckily we weren't asked to leave, but hopefully in the future someone will rent this space."


The public's reaction to Arts on South has been predominantly positive. Ellen Owens, who works at Magic Gardens and selects the artists who will participate in the program, says that before the galleries came to South Street, "there used to be eyesores and it looked like a dead spot on the street." Chase Randall, a local student, agrees that the galleries are a positive thing for Philadelphia residents because "people need more art." Although most people think the art galleries will serve to beautify and improve the economy of South Street, most, including Mr. Randall, have not visited them. Some are not aware of their presence. Still, the galleries seem to attract hordes of tourists and artsy locals - about 600 people showed up for South Street's last Fourth Friday, when art galleries stay open later.


Arts on South is not a permanent solution to the problem of empty storefronts on South Street. The ultimate goal of the project is for the spaces to be rented, and landlords prefer paying renters in their buildings. However, the galleries, which Ms. Owens calls "wonderful, welcoming homes for artwork", make people more likely to rent the spaces, conceal the bleak, empty storefronts, and encourage visitors to spend money in the area.