It’s a typical Saturday night on south 52nd Street. Neighbors spill out onto the sidewalk from delis and barbecue restaurants and barbers and sneaker stores that line the commercial corridor, once called the “Main Street” of West Philadelphia.
But at the corner of 52nd and Irving streets, an elevated storefront with large plate glass windows, it’s a different scene entirely. Inside Urban Art Gallery, brightly-painted canvases line the crisp walls and shine under sleek track lighting; feathered gowns hang from hangers. Wine is poured, live violin music plays, and a crowd stands about, admiring the artwork and talking with the artists—Chuck Styles, a West Philadelphia barber-turned-painter and fashion designer QueenBHair. It’s the opening night of a new show at Urban Art Gallery, the only dedicated art gallery within the city limits west of Penn’s campus.
“There’s a disconnect between people who live in this community and the art world of Center City,” says owner Karl Morris. “We’re bridging the gap.”
Morris does not fit the stereotype of a gallery owner, with money to burn, flying the world to hobnob with new talent. A postal worker, he grew up just blocks away from UAG. He bought his first piece of real estate when he was 22, after selling a car to buy a home in the neighborhood. Now he owns several rental properties, including the building where the gallery sits, which he had planned to rent it as a commercial space. He was also an art lover, who had spent his free time in art galleries and museums for years.
“If you go into a gallery in Center City they make you feel uncomfortable if you’re not bougie bougie,” says Morris. “This space breaks the ice. If people come here, they are more likely to go downtown and see art afterwards.”
As time went on, Morris watched the 52nd Street corridor stay just as it had been when he was a kid—the same chain restaurants, high gun violence, citizens struggling with their health—even as the rest of the city changed and offered more cultural opportunities to its citizens.
“There’s no life here,” says Morris. “I wanted to bring some great energy to this area and I thought—art.”
Morris was also socially connected to West Philadelphia artists who had had no luck trying to get their work noticed in the major Center City galleries. “It’s almost like a secret society to get in there,” he says. At UAG, all work is for sale—60 percent of the proceeds goes to the artist; 40 percent goes to UAG, all of which gets channeled into UAG programs. Each time Morris opens a new show, he distributes around 2500 flyers to West Philadelphia and University City neighborhoods and places an ad in the Westside Weekly.
Urban Art Galley, which Morris opened in April 2013 is first and foremost an art gallery, highlighting the work of a new artist every first Saturday. But Morris and others see it as also providing a vital service to the community and filling a unique need.
“People around here see art galleries on TV but they don’t see any in their neighborhoods,” says Morris. “If you go into a gallery in Center City they make you feel uncomfortable if you’re not bougie bougie. This space breaks the ice. If people come here, they are more likely to go downtown and see art afterwards.”
Morris’ observations are corroborated by research. According to a recent study by the American Association of Museums, despite the fact that people of color make up the largest percentage of the American population in history, they attend museums and art galleries at numbers much lower than they did 25 years ago. The study attributes this to a growing sense of marginalization and disengagement from institutions that are seen as white and serving only the white community. People of color are likely to attend art events only if they are “FUBU”—”for us, by us.”
UAG is. It provides a space where emerging artists, many of them artists of color from West Philadelphia, Belmont, and Mantua, can get their start and gain exposure. Shanina Dionna, a multimeda visual and performance artist who is part of the collective Art Sisters, exhibited at UAG in October of 2013. After, she says her career began to take off; she connected to artistic mentors and collaborators, and started to grow her reputation and exposure. “Karl really helped Art Sisters find our home in the city,” she says.
Dionna now serves as a volunteer teacher for the other nonprofit mission of UAG—free Saturday morning music and art classes for neighborhood children ages 7 to 13. The small classes with dedicated teachers and full stock of supplies fill an important gap in the city, where only 11 percent of Philadelphia schools have a school-based music teacher, and two-thirds of art teachers don’t have sufficient supplies. Morris says most of the students, recruited through Facebook announcements and word of mouth, tend to live within a three mile radius of UAG. At the end of each 8 week session, they display or perform their creations in the gallery, just like the professional artists Morris brings in, giving them a sense of accomplishment and self-esteem. Some kids even return to serve as teachers for new students, which helps build leadership skills.
Despite the fact that people of color make up the largest percentage of the American population in history, they attend museums and art galleries at numbers much lower than they did 25 years ago. People of color are likely to attend art events only if they are “FUBU”—”for us, by us.”
“Nowhere else are these kids getting told they can be artists and to believe in themselves as artists,” says music teacher Christian Tizon of Beatpeace Inc., whose band also got its start at UAG. “We say, explore your creativity, don’t let it get stifled by school or what’s going on in your lives.”
Morris uses the proceeds from the art sales and openings to fund the arts programs, even buying guitars for music students to take home and use for practice. UAG has offered chess classes, a gaming academy that combines video games with adult mentorship, a cultural field trip series, and a storytelling series, all free to local kids. The space also hosts comedy shows, spoken word shows, and rentals to diversify the clientele and bring new people into the space. Morris estimates between 400 to 500 people come in every month.
For Morris, a full-time postal worker and involved dad of two daughters in college, UAG is more than a side project. It’s a passion—which, he says, is the key ingredient to enriching a neighborhood.
“When you have a passion for something it doesn’t feel like work,” he says. “I’ll be in here from 6 AM to 10 PM hanging a show and it doesn’t feel like work at all.”
Photo Header: Urban Art Gallery courtesy of Kalphonse Morris