Why there's a North Philly living room going on display at the Art Museum

It’s not every day that the living room appointments of a Tioga rowhouse become a period room at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Not every day do Lazy Boy recliners enter the world occupied by the 18th-century rococo easy chair crafted by Thomas Affleck and now displayed in the museum’s Cadwalader Room.

But here they are, not one, but two recliners that ordinarily sit in William Goldsby’s house on West Tioga, where generations of ex-offenders have gathered and struggled with the difficulties of daily life.

Here are the black cushions featuring yellow silhouettes of Pennsylvania encircled by the words “Made for Lifers in PA.” Many a lifer has rested on them during meetings at Goldsby’s house.

Now they are in the museum’s Perelman Building, set in a partially constructed house that was built at Fourth and Master Streets in Kensington to draw attention to that neighborhood’s explosive gentrification.

Camera icon Timothy Tiebout. Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The meeting space for the Alumni Ex-Offenders Association in William Goldsby’s Tioga house will be displayed at the Perelman Building of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

House, chairs, cushions, recliners, and hundreds of other objects are all part of the museum’s sprawling fall exhibition, “Philadelphia Assembled,” a community narrative more than three years in the making. It’s safe to say there’s never been anything quite like it in the Perelman Building.

The exhibition opens Saturday for a run through Dec. 10.

Camera icon Members of the Alumni Ex-Offenders Association at meeting space in William Goldsby
Members of the Alumni Ex-Offenders Association (from left) Hakim-Ali, William Goldsby, and  Nadiyyah Morrison at a meeting space in William Goldsby’s Tioga house. Objects and furniture from the room, including the Lazy Boy recliners, have been transported to the Perelman Building as part of the exhibition.

“Philadelphia Assembled” was sparked by Dutch artist Jeanne van Heeswijk, who was invited several years ago by the museum’s contemporary art curator Carlos Basualdo to come to Philadelphia, poke around, and present an exhibition.

That’s what she did. But this isn’t really van Heeswijk’s show. It derives from the many conversations she had here, the people she met, and the community organizations she encountered.

More than 150 artists have collaborated. Dozens of organizations — from the African Cultural Art Forum, Alumni Ex-Offenders Association, and the Attic Youth Center to the Urban Creators-Life Do Grow Farm, W/N W/N, Ulises, Women’s Community Revitalization Project, and the Village of Arts and Humanities — have actively participated.

Camera icon Photo Courtesy of Rashid Zakat and creative director Shanti Myers.
Portrait of Kristin Schwab, one of 12 artist chefs and storytellers who will cook and share stories of survival, resistance, and victory with guests at communal tables at the Perelman Cafe.

It is a show incorporating stories, performances, crafted objects, photographs, documents, and even architecture conceived and made in neighborhoods and now filling the Perelman Building. What emerges is a civically and socially engaged narrative, changing on a daily basis, depending on who is in the galleries and what they are doing and saying.

“Philadelphia Assembled” finds its nesting place in the unchronicled and usually invisible history and hopes of the city.

“You see the multiple ways people create visions and futures for Philadelphia,” van Heeswijk said recently as installation at the museum began. “They’re all the different ways people tell the story about their community, about who they are, what they think is important, how they envision what a thriving community looks like and needs,” she said.

The show occupies several enormous galleries, the Perelman’s atrium space, and even the cafeteria (staffed by “artist chefs”).

Damon Reaves, the museum’s associate curator of community, engagement, and access, said visitors will see “a lot of beautiful things, a lot.”

“This is the museum engaged in community work at its finest, or at its most extreme,” Reaves said. “This is what it means to have a voice in the collection. Visitors will see the concerns and questions that fellow Philadelphians have about their city and their country.”

Camera icon Photo by Joseph Hu. Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Sanctuary dome on Thomas Jefferson University’s Lubert Plaza. Now at the Perelman Building, the domes, built by the Traction Co.,  served as sites for community discussions and  imaginings of sanctuary in Philadelphia.

“Philadelphia Assembled” is organized in tandem with working groups formed by artists and community members. These groups addressed questions of power, land use, economics, sanctuary, the future.

For instance, the reconstructed “period room” from Tioga and the ex-offenders group not only displays the Goldsby living room with its recliners, warm orange wall, mantle piece, African warrior shield, and sculptures. It will also be filled with real people, holding regular meetings, talking about real issues — a kind of unscripted dialog.

In an earlier interview, Goldsby likened his house to “a wailing wall.” He said, “People can come and transform themselves. The door is never locked.”

Camera icon Timothy Tiebout. Philadlephia Museum of Art
Sculptures at the African Cultural Art Forum on 52d Street. Many objects from the forum  are in the exhibition and in the museum store.

Now, his wailing wall is set within the partially constructed house, part of the effort to draw attention to the disruptions and dislocations of gentrification. Performer Mona Washington did a series of plays when the house was in Kensington; a similar use is planned for it during the exhibition.

“It’s a bit like getting a glimpse into someone’s journal,” Reaves said, talking about the show as a whole. “You’re getting a lot of thought processes, a lot of information, and ideas and questions and notions.”

Said van Heeswijk: “Like with every artwork, you’re reacting to what you see, what it does to you, what it tells you. These are objects that tell a story about now.”