In Philadelphia, a Wellspring for Artistic Creativity

  • February 04, 2019
  • by Tom Infield

For nearly three decades, Pew’s fellowships for Philadelphia area artists have nurtured talent and enhanced the city’s cultural scene.

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Alex Da Corte had to earn a living, so he was painting houses, not just canvases, back in 2011 when he opened his mail one day and learned that he had been nominated for a Pew Fellowship in the Arts.

He was well aware of the fellowships, which are awarded each year to 12 artists in the Philadelphia region and currently come with $75,000 in no-strings-attached support for their work. But he didn’t know that he had been anonymously nominated—and, in his words, was completely “blown away.”

Since its inception in 1992, the fellowships program has helped to enhance Philadelphia’s cultural life by allowing 350 people—among them 130 visual artists, 43 poets, 39 composers, 26 filmmakers, and 26 choreographers—to lay aside financial constraints for a period of time and deeply explore their talent, vision, and ambition. Many have gone on to international acclaim, earning 30 Guggenheim fellowships, three MacArthur fellowships, two Pulitzer prizes, two Rome prizes, two Grammy awards, and three Philadelphia poet laureate appointments.

“As someone who grew up in the Philadelphia art scene, I felt it was something to aspire to,” Da Corte says. “I had worked previously for an artist who had won the Pew fellowship. I had always admired the artists who had been awarded the fellowship. So getting nominated really meant a lot to me.”

Artist Alex Da Corte, shown in his studio, is a 2012 Pew fellow known for using everyday objects in his conceptual art, which explores ideas of consumerism, pop culture, literature, and mythology.

Da Corte’s art defies easy categorization—he paints, sculpts, and creates video. By his account, his work is “dreamlike,” “nonsensical,” and “changing at every turn.” Often, it is lighted in neon color. Sometimes, projects take up whole rooms.

And his fellowship came at the perfect time in his career. During the Great Recession that followed the 2008 financial crisis, the market for commercial art almost collapsed, and he says he just about gave up trying to sell his work.

“I was running a small business that did Venetian plaster work. I was doing that as my main source of income and working for my brother painting houses. And, in between, I was just occasionally making work for art shows.”

But the recession also freed him creatively. He focused less on being commercially appealing and gave free rein to his imagination. “The art I was making was completely abject, covered with soda and shampoo and dripping—and,” he acknowledges, “weird.” But it was also breathtaking for its individuality, and people began to notice.

The fellowships program relies on anonymous nominators—Philadelphia-based professionals with deep knowledge of artistic practices—to scout the regional art scene for candidates, and someone put forward Da Corte.

Like other nominees, he then completed an application that was reviewed by two local evaluators in his field on his artistic excellence, his commitment to his art, and the potential for a fellowship to affect subsequent creative work and professional advancement. A panel of art experts from around the country—whose identities, like the evaluators, are public—makes the final fellowship decisions. Da Corte was awarded $60,000 (the fellowships have since increased to $75,000 disbursed over two to three years). “It totally changed my life,” says Da Corte, a 2012 fellow. “About two years after that, I ceased operating my company and handed it over to my partner, and just kept doing art stuff as my whole source of income.”

He has gone on to exhibit in solo shows in England, Germany, Austria, Denmark, and the Netherlands, as well as in Philadelphia, New York, and Los Angeles. “It has all transpired since the fellowship,” Da Corte says. “The fellowship really put some fuel in my tank.”

The “Lightning” installation from Da Corte’s expansive “Free Roses” exhibition incorporates a riot of vibrant colors as well as sculptures, paintings, and videos that touch on popular culture, the work of other artists, and personal narratives.

And “that’s the goal of the program,” says Paula Marincola, executive director of the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, to “raise the bar for artistic excellence in Philadelphia.

“We see the fellowships program as serving the arts in the same way research-and-development funding does for the sciences. It can lead to advances that might not be possible otherwise,” she says.

“Artists don’t necessarily make a lot of money, and there aren’t a lot of opportunities for them to just be focused on their work. The fellowships buy them time to concentrate on their art.” And, she notes, it’s one of the nation’s longest-running programs  in providing direct support to artists.

By supporting artists, the fellowships also help the Philadelphia region’s reputation. In the past decade the city’s cost of living, which is far less than other creative meccas like New York, has attracted artists; the fellowships offer one more step of financial independence. “Philadelphia is increasingly a vibrant place for artists to work and live,” says Melissa Franklin, director of the fellowships, and the program has “raised the visibility of the arts community in Philadelphia and allowed artists to take on more ambitious projects and go deeper into their practices.”

The artists themselves see it. Through its selection of fellows, the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, over time, has subtly “opened up” Philadelphia’s art community to new visions and approaches, says Pepón Osorio, a 2006 fellow.

Pew has aided the career paths of artists working outside of traditional bounds who otherwise might not get by financially since they are not producing art for the commercial market, he says.

Osorio, a visual artist who teaches at the Tyler School of Art at Temple University, moved to Philadelphia from New York in 1999. He is engaged in social practice, a relatively new term for art that is community-focused. He eschews museums and galleries, preferring to put his large-scale installations in social settings.

“There is a lot of great work being done in art institutions, but we cannot neglect that there is a serious, wonderful, and exciting development happening outside of those institutions,” Osorio says. “And I think Pew is creating leverage between those places.”

On a practical level, the fellowships also provide specific counseling to help artists succeed, such as advice on finances, communications, fund-raising, and promotion.  The Pew center also helps fellows enroll at prestigious artist residency centers, such as the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, where they spend days alone with their work and nights in conversation with other artists. 

When Philadelphia closed two dozen public schools in 2013, the Temple Contemporary gallery commissioned Pepón Osorio, a 2006 Pew fellow, to address the loss. The resulting work, “reFORM,” incorporates items from a shuttered classroom.

Fellows have been as young as 25; on the other end of the spectrum, jazz bassist Jymie Merritt, who played with bebop legends of the 1950s, was almost 90 and still creating music when he was named a fellow in 2016. But the focus is always forward, Marincola explains. Fellowships are not an award for past performance, but instead are intended to encourage artistic growth and new and better work from those showing great potential. Musician and composer Matthew Levy, a 2016 fellow who teaches at Temple University and leads an all-saxophone chamber ensemble called PRISM Quartet, says fellowships fit best for artists “at a breakthrough point in their careers.”

“They have gotten to a certain place of excellence, but their best work may lie ahead of them,” Levy says. “The encouragement and support and generosity of Pew ignites a whole new body of work and a whole new level of ambition. I know that was the case for me.”

The fellowship enabled Levy to buy new saxophones and upgrade the sound equipment in his studio. Perhaps as importantly, he says, it gave him and his quartet the financial freedom to pick their own musical projects.

“It has enabled us to self-direct projects instead of relying on external commissions or external employers,” he says, “so we can pursue our own ambitions.”

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Poet Yolanda Wisher, a 2015 fellow, says the rigorous application process itself had value for her because it expanded her vision of the artist she could become.

“They’re asking you for your potential as an artist, not just what you’ve accomplished,” she says. “It makes you really have to think about your practice into the future.”

The hard thinking so transformed her view of herself that she quit her job as director of art education for the Philadelphia mural arts program before hearing whether she had won a fellowship.

When the announcement came, she says, “I considered it a blessing from the universe,” a confirmation that “I would be okay without a 9-to-5 job and that my writing could provide for me.”

She performs a blend of poetry and song with her band, The Afroeaters, and is curator of spoken word at Philadelphia Contemporary, a nonprofit arts organization. She leads workshops and has curated events at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and elsewhere.

A year after the fellowship, she was named poet laureate of Philadelphia.

“All the good stuff in my poetry career, or most of it, happened after the fellowship,” Wisher says. “I remember hearing that it was kind of an indication of future success. For me, it became prophetic.”

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For Sarah McEneaney, a 1993 recipient, the fellowship gave her what she most wanted: time to go into her studio, close the door, and work, work, work.

“I am a painter, but I make drawings, I make prints, and every once in a while I make sculpture,” she says. “My day job was carpentry. So having that cushion of money and time enabled me to work.”

The Pew fellowship marked the first time that she received high-level recognition, and it opened other doors for her.

“I was 38 and had been a practicing artist ever since I finished studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. I had been making art and showing my work in Philadelphia since 1979. I had applied for a lot of grants, but I had never gotten any.”

Pew’s faith in her meant nearly as much as the money, she says. “Getting that kind of honor snowballs, and good things tend to follow.”

Today, McEneaney continues living and working in a neighborhood of lower North Philadelphia that she has depicted many times in rooftop-view paintings. She has regular solo exhibitions in Philadelphia and New York, and has participated in several artist-in-residency programs and fellowships around the country. Her work hangs in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Rhode Island School of Design, and in the galleries at her alma mater, the Pennsylvania Academy.

She says that one of the nicest benefits of getting a Pew fellowship has been the chance to get to know other artists. Even though so much of their creative work is done alone, fellows become a community, with periodic opportunities to come together. She has befriended artists outside her field and “expanded my community to the literary world, not just the visual art world.”

And that’s part of the goal, too, says Marincola. The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage provides grants supporting art institutions and art projects in Philadelphia. But the fellowships also help create a community of artists and empower these producers of art. As Marincola likes to say, “artists are the foundation.

“No artists,” she adds, “no art.”