Snyderman-Works Galleries, a Philadelphia institution for 50 years, is closing down

Ruth and Rick Snyderman at their gallery Snderman-Works, on Cherry Street. The Old City institution, a vanguard of the gallery scene there, is closing this summer. (PHOTO COURTESY OF SNYDERMAN-WORKS GALLERY)

Rick Snyderman spent some of a recent afternoon repairing a 50-year-old whirligig on the back deck of his summer house near the Indian River in Washington County, Maine.

“These are the kinds of important things I do when I’m up here,” he chuckled over the telephone.

Ruth Snyderman allowed that they had now reached “the end of the pipeline” on the rural coastline: No one could repair their washing machine.

For 45 years, the Snydermans — Rick, now 80, Ruth, 79 — have been coming to their house in Indian River. And at the end of every summer, they’ve returned to their gallery in Philadelphia, known as Snyderman-Works Galleries since the 1990s, one of the city’s oldest art showplaces, and a key force in the resurgence of the craft movement here.

The Snydermans have spent 52 years as gallery owners on South Street in the 1960s and 1970s, and in Old City since the early 1990s. They’ve been central to Philadelphia’s neighborhood and cultural revival.

But no more. Last month, they sold their Old City gallery building and home at 303 Cherry St. The gallery will remain open for business until the end of July. Staff will be on hand through August – and available to make appointments by telephone – as the final clearing of the space takes place. Everything must be out of the building by the end of September.

After that, a design firm will occupy at least some of the space.

Snyderman-Works Gallery, on Cherry Street, is closing this summer. The Old City institution was a key force in the resurgence of the craft movement in Philadelphia. (JEFF FADELLIN / Courtesy of Snyderman-Works Galleries)

“When we go back [at the end of August], for the first time ever, we won’t have a gallery,” said Ruth. “I don’t know how I feel about that. Oh, I’ll feel alright. We’ll be so busy!”

Rick said, “I’m looking forward to it. I’m energized by the idea of doing things I’ve wanted to do for a long time.”

The Snydermans are, you might say, an institution.

“What surprises me is their continued commitment to the larger community, not just the art community,” said Christopher R. Taylor, president of the Clay Studio, a 40-plus-year-old educational, gallery, and studio organization.

“They’ve treated this [craft work] seriously,” said Taylor. “Craft wasn’t someone with a brown pot and a hobby. It was jewelry, fiber, ceramics, furniture of the highest quality. That resonates.”

The Clay Studio honored both Snydermans and their separate and combined galleries (Ruth founded Works Gallery in 1965, the year she and Rick were married) at its 2013 gala, noting that collectively the Snydermans “mounted landmark exhibitions such as glass and ceramics designed by Ettore Sottsass’ Memphis Group, one of the first exhibits of Robert Venturi’s post-modern chair and table designs for Knoll, and solo exhibits by the likes of Dale Chihuly, William Morris, and many other pioneers in the field of glass sculpture.”

But the Snydermans have had an impact beyond their serious treatment of art. They cared about their neighborhood and community.

Taylor cited the fight to stop the Crosstown Expressway, which almost obliterated South Street in the 1960s and ’70s. The threat of the expressway, intended to connect the Schuylkill Expressway with I-95, first undercut real estate prices and left a street of abandoned spaces and shells.

That made it possible for risk-taking artists and art aficionados to acquire buildings on the cheap. Count the Snydermans in on that, along with their good friends Julia and Isaiah Zagar. They all fought the expressway, with many others, and stopped it.

South Street took off as an arts and entertainment strip.

The arts and art-makers “energized” South Street, said Rick.

Ruth said, “It was energizing the South Street area until it got so busy we couldn’t be there anymore.”

Rick said, “That’s the price of success.”

Ruth continued, “And then Old City, and the energizing of that. First Fridays [which the Snydermans were instrumental in starting] and the arts associations are still happening, but the galleries are moving away and will continue to move away because they don’t own their buildings. The leases expire, and they have to move to another neighborhood.”

The Snyderman-Works Gallery, a landmark on Cherry Street in Old City and longtime First Friday mainstay, is closing this summer. (JEFF FADELLIN / Courtesy of Snyderman-Works Galleries)

Rick sees Fishtown and Kensington as the current art-world neighborhoods, with the areas around 20th and Washington Streets and 13th and Callowhill Streets waiting in the wings.

“These things migrate,” he said. “They have interesting ways of moving and re-energizing themselves. But something else happens: They re-energize areas of the city that have long been moribund. That has positive and negative sides.”

Snyderman is not endorsing “pushing poor people” out of neighborhoods. Far from it.

“In Philadelphia, there are enormous numbers of under-utilized places,” he said. “We’d like to see a strategy to develop areas collaboratively in conjunction with the people living there.”

A combination of factors finally led the Snydermans to decide to close their gallery and sell their building, although they are not getting out of the arts, by any stretch of the imagination.

For one thing, running a gallery takes a large amount of physical energy, easy to parcel out when you’re 60, less so when you’re 80.

Unlike other recent gallery closures, they have not been intimidated by rising rents (they’ve been building owners); nor have they been undermined by the rise of art fairs as commercial venues. They have been attending and selling at art fairs for 20 years with success, said Rick.

Nonetheless, he said, “the art business has changed and continues to change, and each year it changes more dramatically in a particular direction – the art fairs.”

Ruth agrees. She’s pretty much had it with schlepping art around the country.

So what lies ahead instead?

The Snydermans will be actively engaged as consultants on various projects, they said. First up is a program they’ve developed for Bridge on Race Residences, a development at 205 Race St. Their plans involve everything from cultural programming to functional sculptural seating.

There is also some lecturing and writing in the works; a personal account of 50 years at the center of the city’s emerging art worlds and neighborhoods is something Rick has turned over in his mind quite a bit.

The stories, Ruth said, “are priceless.”

“We’re not withdrawing from the art scene,” Rick said. “But we are withdrawing from having a physical gallery.”

Said Ruth: “But we’ll be living only two blocks away.”