Green artists retake South Street Sunday

It's probably just a meaningless coincidence - sure it is - but ever since Earth to Philly launched with a special feature spotlighting Philadelphia's Dumpster Divers (our Dumpster Diver Dispatches, of which this is #6), the group's public profile has exploded, with multiple new shows and press coverage and people in general saying "Huh. Yeah, these folks really are - and have been for 15 years - the vanguard of eco-conscious art."

There's no surer sign of the group's newly-found credibility than yesterday's meeting, with its discussions of how to manage the new Dumpster Divers Gallery at 734 South Street, specifically with the realization that there would need to be a committee - Omigod, not a committee! - to hammer out policies and procedures regulating what goes on at the space.

Two photos a month apart show the transformation of the space at 734 South Street to funky gallery (top) from empty storefront.

Needless to say, the Divers - artists all, and mostly outside the traditional mainstream of the art world - are not renowned for their dedication to committees and bylaws. The only agenda item for each meeting is reaching a consensus on when and where the next meeting will be. So how did this ragtag bunch of free spirits wind up in possession of a gallery - and on South Street, fer cryin' out loud?

It's part of a dramatic new initiative, in response to These Difficult Economic Times, to turn the lemons of empty retail storefronts into the lemonade of a new South Street "renaissance." The scheme, driven largely by Julia Zagar of Eye's Gallery and Howard Landler, has already resulted in four new artist-run galleries. Landler is the landlord who has temporarily donated the 734 space to the Divers, who pay no rent or commission but do pay for utilities, the theory being that while trying to book new retail tenants the empty space could do something useful for the neighborhood and community.

George Bilyk, a photographer, metal sculptor and longtime Dumpster Diver, said "It's amazing how this place is transformed. When we came in it was dusty, junk lying around... it's well-lighted now, it's all organized and well done." (Joel Spivak, who helped spur the original "South Street Renaissance," and Randy Dalton are two of the Divers who have been riding herd to get everything working from the Divers' perspective.)

Bilyk sees a lot of promise in the overall initiative. "It goes with the original concept of 'South Street' that there's more to life than profit," he says, adding in reference to the neighborhood's glory days that "it was a fun, unique place to visit, thrilling and inspiring - more than just a place to come and buy condoms."

The concept, and this is kind of the hazy part, is that once a tenant is obtained, a new space will be found for the Divers or whoever happens to be at that address. Whether or not this does wind up working out to everyone's benefit, it's certainly working now for the artists and the public, and this Sunday, March 15th, will see the official opening of these four galleries with a "Sunday Art Stroll" coordinated by Eyes Gallery. The event begins at 2 p.m. and runs into the early evening, so if you're in town or coming in for the St. Patrick's Day parade, once it's over head down to South Street for some eye-popping art that may surprise and inspire both greeniacs and South Street bohemians.

The Divers, by the way, aren't the only trash-to-treasure artists represented. Purpose/Repurpose is an installation at 333 South Street and also assembles cast-off and found materials into multimedia artwork. Your best bet is to start at Eyes Gallery (4th & South) to get the lowdown on what is going on where, as well as what's going to be going on, because this, the organizers promise, is just the beginning.

"Eyes," notes Bilyk, "was the last remaining vestige of the old [South Street renaissance]. This shows the possibility of the future."

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