Thursday, April 17, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Artist fights to save studio from city

James Dupre in his studio
James Dupre in his studio City Paper

By James E. Dupree

From world-class museums to iconic murals, Philadelphia is a city well-known for its love of art. It's a shame the city won't extend that respect to my art studio.

Instead, City Council is abusing the power of eminent domain. The city wants to seize my property, bulldoze it, and give my land to a private developer, all to build a parking lot and supermarket.

I never wanted to be anything but be an artist. Growing up in Philadelphia, I had a difficult upbringing, but expressing myself through art helped me overcome adversity. I became the 17th African American to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania's master of fine arts program.

Over the next four decades, I have pushed the boundaries with my paintings and I am grateful for what I have accomplished so far. The Philadelphia Museum of Art has five pieces of mine in its permanent collection. My work has been shown at the Governor's Mansion, during the administration of Gov. Dick Thornburgh, and in the office of Mayor Wilson Goode. As an ambassador for the arts, I have represented this city in Brazil, Denmark, and Wales. My art also put my three kids through college.

My studio in Mantua has more than 5,000 pieces of art and more than 10 rooms, all renovated for a particular use. Just eight years ago, the building was a broken-down warehouse and garage. It was practically condemnable. To make it what it is today, I had to invest years of sweat equity and hundreds of thousands of dollars - basically everything I owned.

Through my studio, I have reinvested in the local community. I've hosted and taught art classes and I would like to start a mentoring program so that inner-city kids - like I once was - can learn how to appreciate and make a living with art.

This studio is the building of my dreams. But that dream is becoming a waking nightmare.

Last December, the city seized the deed to my property. The redevelopment authority lowballed me, offering less than a third of what the studio is worth. And that was a "drive-by appraisal" - they didn't even bother to enter the building.

When they did come into the studio later on, the appraisers saw my entire collection and all the renovations to the interior. But for all of my life's work, they offered me only $40,000 more. I've sold individual paintings worth more than $40,000.

It's distressing how little the city values my art and what I have done for the community. The moving costs alone for professionally relocating 5,000 pieces would put me back a quarter of a million dollars.

This is an attack on my constitutional rights. Under the Fifth Amendment, private property can only be taken for "public use," such as constructing roads or schools. But this project isn't like that at all. Instead, this is a land grab to enrich a private developer.

Not only is eminent domain appalling, it's completely unnecessary in this case. Mantua could certainly benefit from a grocery store and investment in the community. But supermarkets are built all the time without seizing someone's property. There is already space to build a grocery store in my neighborhood.

According to the city's very own redevelopment plan, city agencies own more than 400 vacant lots and properties in Mantua. Build there and let my studio stand. There is no reason to use eminent domain against my property.

I am determined to keep fighting until the deed to my studio is returned. In the coming weeks, the Institute for Justice, a civil liberties nonprofit, will be building a grassroots coalition to urge the city to drop the condemnation. More than 2,000 people have already signed a petition on change.org to save Dupree Studios.

I've also taken the redevelopment authority to court. My saving grace could very well be the city's incompetence. My studio lies on three lots. But the city condemned two. You can't bulldoze two-thirds of a building.

Art should not be exploited like this. Instead of condemning my studio, the city's actions should be condemned.

 


James E. Dupree is a Philadelphia artist who owns Dupree Studios in Mantua and Dupree Gallery in Queen Village (www.dupreestudiosinc.com).

James E. Dupree
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