Painted Bride board's plan to sell historic building is 'organizational suicide' | Opinion

Executive Director of the Painted Bride Arts Center, Laurel Raczka, stands outside the current location of the Painted Bride in Old City.

The board of directors of the Painted Bride Art Center need to take a big step back and reconsider their position against historic designation for the Painted Bride’s Building.

They should also reconsider their murky redirection for the organization. Their supposed vision for the Painted Bride contains way too much ambiguity and a lack of clear direction. The board is asking the public to trust them as they dismantle a vibrant performing and visual arts space and enable the destruction of a Philadelphia icon.

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Why should the public give them this trust? The vision that the board professes to have for the Bride remains obscure and fully incomprehensible. Have funding and audience feasibility studies been conducted? Is there really broad public support for this nebulous vision? Or is it just possible that it is the vision of a small group that will wilt when tested against the real-world reality of finding sustainable funding?

Say the Bride realizes $5 million from the sale of its property (and I say “property” because the building will undoubtedly be razed and replaced with yet another soulless example of the transition of Old City to Condoville). How long will the $5 million last? Does the board think that is enough to fully endow the institution or is the intent to spend it before they die?

I can only envision that in addition to the loss of admission fees, it will be considerably more difficult to raise money for an idea (and a questionable one at that) than a self-described, still fully functioning arts space that is purported to be in no “financial difficulty.”  

Years before the Magic Garden was created, the exterior of the Bride stood as the best example of Isaiah Zagar’s genius in the region. Its preservation should be at the top of the Bride’s priorities. Do you think Barcelona would allow the destruction of one of Antoni Gaudi’s buildings? Would a recognized arts organization be leading the charge?

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For those who might scoff at my comparison of Zagar to Gaudi and consider Zagar to be but a glorified graffiti artist, I implore you to visit the Magic Garden, witness the number of visitors, listen to the variety of languages being spoken. Alongside the Barnes it is one of the most important new destinations in Philadelphia’s efforts to become a destination city.

The irony is that the Bride is seen as a defender of the arts, and if this disregard for a cultural landmark were being perpetrated by another entity, I can easily envision the Painted Bride on the front lines of opposition. 

The Bride has served as a launching pad for new artists and concepts. But how can you launch a great new future for the Bride beginning with the wanton disregard of a great work of art?

The Baltimore Clayworks recently went through a tumultuous period with a board of directors whose vision for the organization failed and they saw no other direction for the organization but bankruptcy. The organization was saved by a literal revolution of the “old guard,” people who had not lost the vision of what their organization was and should be about. 

I propose that the entire board of the Painted Bride resign and run for reelection. Opposition candidates who support the long-established artistic mission of the organization should be encouraged to make themselves available. A meeting of the full membership of the Painted Bride and proxy vote for those who cannot attend should be conducted. Everyone invested in the Bride should have a say in this decision. To continue to move forward without consensus is a path toward organizational suicide.

Jimmy Clark is director emeritus of the Clay Studio (1986-2001) and former president of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance (1997-98).