Stairwell fire closes artists' space Vox Populi

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319 N. 11th St. houses Vox Populi, a contemporary art space and collective.

A stairwell fire early Tuesday has closed Vox Populi, the artists’ space at 319 N. 11th St., displacing the artists and businesses in the entire building for an undetermined time, forcing tenants to find new locations.

Fire Department officials said that at 1:45 a.m., a fire broke out in the north stair tower. No one was in the building at the time. While the fire was small, there was smoke and water damage. The cause is under investigation.

The news was not the fire per se, but its impact on the lives of the tenants. Department of Licenses and Inspections spokeswoman Karen Guss said the building has been closed. The department posted a violation warning until damage and code issues are addressed.

As of late morning, tenants were carrying belongings out of the building and discussing next steps, making plans in some cases right on the sidewalk. A woman asked to be let in to inspect her premises on the second floor. On her return, asking not to be named, she said, “My stuff’s all right. A little smoky is all.”

Another tenant said his space was “damp but essentially fine.” Yet another said, “We’ve got to find a space. We can’t shut down for two weeks or a month.”

Founded in 1988, Vox Populi is a mixed-use building run by an artists’ collective with a rotating membership. The 11th Street site is its fourth home; the collective moved there in 2007. Vox Populi’s website describes its mission as supporting “the challenging and unsupported work of experimental artists.”

Vox Populi hosts exhibits, talks, performances, individual and group shows, artist’s receptions, and other programming. The building is also the site of several art-related businesses.

Now they must relocate. The Philadelphia Bad Theater Fest, for example, an event of 19 short theater and performance pieces, was scheduled there for Friday and Saturday. No word was available about whether or where it would relocate.

Jeff Stockbridge is owner of Stockbridge Fine Art Print on the fourth floor. He said he was concerned about the artists and business people now looking for new spaces, and about his own clients who would not get their work that day. He has 60-inch printers difficult to relocate, meaning he must decide whether to wait out the closure or set up a new location with new equipment.

Stockbridge sat on a step, petting his dog. “We really rely on our creative spaces that we’ve cultivated here over many years,” he said. “Now we’re wondering where to go from here.”