University City: Making Space for the Arts

Douglas Witmer organized his studio space in University City.]

In University City, production areas are not only a place for artists to build and produce, but for artists to collaborate. University City is home to many galleries. Several of these serve not only to house and display art, but to provide a meeting place for artists to coexist and co-create. The owners of such galleries are often artists themselves.

Douglas Witmer organized his studio space in University City.

Douglas Witmer organizes shows at the University City Arts League, an after-school program that provides art classes to the community. In addition, he co-owns the Green Line Cafe, a cafe and production space located at 43rd Street and Baltimore Avenue. “Art is a mindset for how you interact with your world. What comes out of that mindset are the things that get made,” Witmer said. “For myself, I can’t claim the painting, the actual object I end up making is or isn’t necessarily art for [an]other person. I hope it is, because it is to me.  I put it out there and I release it into the world in [the] hope that another person will come to that and [have] an art experience around that.”

In addition to the Green Line Café, other art spaces provide artists the opportunity to interact with other artists. The 40th Street Artist in Residence program, located at 40th and Chestnut streets, is a program that provides production space to talented artists for one year, rent free.  The program was started by a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and has now operated for over ten years.

Michael Konrad jotted notes down in his studio at the 40th Street Artist in Residence Program.

Michael Konrad is an artist in the program. “You don’t want what you are doing to get lost or end in the studio,” Konrad said. “It is good to have somebody behind it and to give you opportunities to exhibit the work elsewhere in public so that you feel what you are doing matters.”

Gina Renzi, the coordinator of the 40th Street Artist In Residence program, is also the executive director of a community space called The Rotunda, located on Walnut Street. The Rotunda is a space where local artists can hold events, many of which are free. Renzi feels that granting the community access to their events will build support for the program.

“Most of our events are free or really inexpensive to get into, so you immediately have eliminated that barrier at the door,” Renzi said. “It increases access for the public as well as other artists to come in and see what new artists are doing.”

Renzi said he believes that this access will benefit local children in particular.“You don’t have art in every school in the city, so some people don’t grow up with the same appreciation of art,” Renzi said. “I have to say that this neighborhood specifically has a lot of amazing youth programs. So we are trying to overturn that thinking and get young people early on to recognize how important the arts are and then maybe pursue a career in it or use it as a form of problem solving and community building.”

Douglas Witmer examined one of his "Fruitville" sculptures.

To further reach the community, Renzi collaborated with an organization called the Neighborhood Bike Works, a nonprofit that seeks to work with children in underserved areas to increase their opportunities. Neighborhood Bike Works teaches children skills in areas as diverse as bicycle maintenance and artists at the 40th Street Artist in Residence program have gotten involved by teaching the children how to make bicycle sculptures.  They are currently building a UFO to race in the Kinetic Sculpture Derby in Kensington later this spring.

“These kids aren’t trying to be artists necessarily; they’re here to learn how to work on bicycles,” Konrad said. “[We hope] to have them use some of their creative energy or their skills that they have learned in building bikes and fixing up bikes and direct it toward art-making and sculpture-making. [It] is really cool to see what they come up with. There is no one who ever told them this is how to make art or this is not how you make art. They are coming at it very fresh,” he said.

While Neighborhood Bike Works targets children in the community, The Community Education Center is a space that appeals to adults. The center is a former church now transformed into a rehearsal space for performance artists, office buildings for nonprofit organizations, studio space for artists, and gallery space to display artwork.

Terri Shockley is the executive director of The Community Education Center and a retired ballerina. Shockley said she recognizes the value of art in her own life and wanted to share that with the community.

“[In] our own residence program, we usually do three to five artists a year; the artists could be about some very important social topic or exploring something abstract. Hopefully the work they create moves the audience on some level,” Shockley said. “The CEC [Community Education Center] attracts the community to these artists and their works, and soon a relationship between the artists and community members can grow.”]

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