Libby Rosof and Roberta Fallon
Surprise, surprise: we like art bloggers.
Libby Rosof and Roberta Fallon, co-founders of Philadelphia’s theartblog, might be the prime example of art bloggers who get a conversation moving. Over theartblog’s now ten-year life, they’ve helped give local artists a start through their unrelenting coverage of shows that would have otherwise gone undiscussed, whether through their annual Liberta awards or driving collectors around Philadelphia in a tour van.
Add to this, their mentoring of dozens of emerging art writers and coverage of the national fairs and exhibitions in Philadelphia, and the body of work is staggering. Ten years ago, Libby and Roberta might have described the coverage around Philly’s emerging art scene as anemic. This is, definitively, no longer a problem.
Whitney Kimball [AFC]: How did you both meet?
Roberta Fallon: We were moms on the playground at [our children’s] kindergarten. This was in 1985 perhaps…
Libby Rosof: No, it’d have to be 86–
Roberta: Yes, we were talking on the playground, so we spent a lot of time together yakking, and we immediately discovered that we had a lot of interests in common, such as art and going to look at exhibits. I was taking some classes at Tyler School of Art at the time, and we went up to New York and were looking at shows together, and got inspired to start making art together.
We thought we could do better than what we were seeing [in Philadelphia], and that was ludicrous, of course, but that didn’t stop us.
Libby: At the time, I was teaching journalism at Temple University.
Roberta: Yes, that’s right, Libby had a great journalism and editing background which, of course, I don’t have. But anyway, we started making work together and we had a studio practice that was in one of our basements for quite a number of years. We were making yucky stuff, like poured plaster and poured concrete. And that’s how we started.
Libby: And out of all of that, we made a mess. [Laughs]
Roberta: But it didn’t discourage us, and we knew immediately that we weren’t making anything better than what we were seeing. But that also didn’t stop us, and at a certain point we weren’t satisfied with showing in galleries, so we went out on the street corners, and started giving away small paper multiples.
Libby: I wanted a larger audience. We weren’t satisfied with the audience in the gallery– that you put up the show, a lot of work that went up for one month, and maybe twenty, forty people saw it. Never as many as you would’ve wished. So we wanted to reach the masses.
Whitney: Is that one of the reasons you started the blog?
Roberta: Yes. The other reason was that the newspapers and media in Philadelphia had severely curtailed how they were covering visual arts. It was happening all over the world. And we were just outraged, because at the same time that that was happening, we were seeing all this wonderful new energy from young artists who certainly weren’t being covered. Even back in 1999, when I started looking around and writing, there was already Space 1026 and Spector Gallery and Project Room, Nexus and Highwire, and places that were doing amazing things with young artists. If anything was being covered, it was the blue chip gallery artists and the museums.
Libby: We also realize from our experience that if you put up the show and nobody writes about it, and if there’s no material cultural sort of record of it, it’s as though the show didn’t happen. So we tried to provide some of that writing.
Whitney: Was there any show in particular that you felt people needed to know about?
Roberta: Well, Project Room was this wonderful alternative space that came and went. Sadly, it was only around for five years at most. It was run by an artist, and it was an unheated space in North Philadelphia, not a great neighborhood.
[The owner], Kait Midgett was a sculptor and a fabricator and had her workshop in the back. In the front, she was curating the space, and letting people do amazing things. Among others, there was an artist named Mark Shetabi, who took over the space and transformed into what looked like a suburban office park corridor out of sheetrock. He created a corridor that went into and around the space, and he put doors into it, so that it was like you’re walking down the corridor, and each one of the doors had a peep hole in it, and inside, you looked into the peep hole, and there was a miniature environment he’d created. And this is someone whom we were vaguely familiar with because he was a young artist and had just graduated from Pennsylvania Academy. I didn’t know much about him, but this completely came out of nowhere, and seemed spectacular. Every bit as good as anything we had seen in New York. And nobody was writing about this.
Libby: Yes. And I want to say, those environments were incredibly personal and dreamy. So you couldn’t really say much about who this person was, but there were pools of water, and a sense of drowning, and bathrooms…they were just wonderful images of a personal life.
Roberta: Right, but lots of art historical references. It was very packed work. It was not a toss-off by any means. And this kid maxed out all his credit cards to do it, which was the first time I had heard of that, but not the last time. That’s what people do here. If they have a fire in their belly and wanna get something done, they max out their credit cards and do it. So that’s what he did.
We take a little bit of credit for this artist’s rise because we put this show on people’s radar. So we were outraged that it wasn’t being covered, and we took action and we wrote about it, and we got people to go see it. And we felt great about that.
So that was our mission, accomplished.
Whitney: So do you think that’s something about Philadelphia in particular? There’s kind of a do-or-die, intense passion? Do you think there’s something in Philadelphia that you’re not seeing anywhere else?
Libby: I think the success of Philadelphia’s [art scene] is unique. Because of the number of art schools here, there’s a tremendous flux of artists annually who want to make it, and who can’t make it using the commercial gallery scene. There isn’t enough of one. But there is a lot of talent here, it’s made its own space, and has caused this incredible synergy. There is something really special going on here.
Roberta: People are very collegial here. There’s not a cutthroat atmosphere, and [opportunities] tend to not be motivated by sales. You can argue over whether that’s good or not, because a lot of these artists have day jobs, and perhaps they’re making the art of a quality that it will never sell.
Whitney: So you’d say the art scene is expanding?
Roberta: Yeah, all the time. And it contracts, too; we don’t want to say that things always work out. There was a wonderful space called Flux Space, and they were magnificent, and they closed. They couldn’t sustain it.
Libby: Extra extra was also an amazing space and they also closed, after two or three years.
Roberta: That’s something Libby and I think about a lot; how to sustain the wonderful energy that comes from the collectives. As these artists get older and start having families, I don’t know that the collectives will be sustainable. We worry about that. And the city loves it them here, but they don’t have money to help them.
Whitney: Are there any things that you’ve found that can be done about that? Or do you think it’s just a problem?
Libby: Well, for one thing the city can provide transportation. I am just outraged that they haven’t figured out how to provide a shuttle bus on gallery night. Because, you know, it’s not Chelsea or the Lower East Side, where all these galleries that are sort of near each other. They’re very spread out, partially because of the economics. Money isn’t a factor here in terms of selling, and so there’s always need for a newer, cheaper area that hasn’t got exploited yet. We just think there needs to be a way for people who are not particularly savvy about these parts of town to have a guide.
Whitney: Getting people out to neighborhoods they wouldn’t go to– that would be focused on collectors?
Roberta: Yes. Would be great. It’s one reasons that we started the art safaris. Although they’re walking tours now, we had a grant to get a van, because we needed a vehicle to get people to these galleries efficiently. And so we all piled into this van, went to places like Little Berlin and the hinterlands of North Philly other places up there on Frankford Avenue and Old City and Chinatown. It was very efficient.
We also want to start working with people who want to be collectors and don’t know how to do it. That’s part of the Philadelphia puzzle. There’s not a lot of collectors who go out and buy art locally. We envisioned having some sort of workshop, a dog-and-pony show in a space that we’re now renting. That has a conference room where we could talk to people about collecting, and how they started. And then we’d take them out in the van and show them art they can actually collect. People don’t feel empowered to go out there. They just don’t feel they can walk into a gallery.
Libby: They go to New York and buy Philly artists at New York prices. It’s ridiculous. The other thing we provide is listings. You can’t get enough of informed, up-to-date listings, and the newspapers don’t always have the out-of-the-way places. So we create curated listings, in which we do picks of what we think is going to be a lot of fun this month end of interest. Those were not part of the early blog. We’re constantly trying to find ways to make what’s out there more accessible to people.
Whitney: So has your focus changed at all since you started blogging? Do you find new needs and try to focus on them as they come up?
Libby: Yes. When we first started, all we were doing was blogging. And it didn’t take us long to start giving talks, as well as some teaching, (Roberta’s still doing some teaching).
Roberta: We’ve also started working with emerging writers. In the beginning it was me and Libby writing, and some buddies who were also really great writers. It was all volunteer love.
Whitney: When you’re mentoring young writers, is there any point that you really try to hit home with them?
Libby: Yeah, one of the things is that anyone can look at art, and get something out of it more than a description.
Roberta: It’s shocking how aspiring writers don’t get that. The really good with giving a description, and are gun-shy with putting an opinion out there.
Another thing that’s different now than when we started out is that we are a non-profit organization. We didn’t even envision that we would go that route until recently, but at some point we had to get serious about longevity.
Whitney: Obviously as a blogger, I’m really interested in that. Has it been struggle to find ways to be sustainab–
Libby: Yes, it has. You have two hours, we’ll tell you all about it.