The relationship between artist and neighborhood is a complex one. While social and economic revitalization can come on the heels of a vibrant, growing arts scene, a common fear is that mostly newcomers will benefit while those who need outside investment and support the most will be sidelined.
Last September, I discussed such tension unfolding in three West Philadelphia neighborhoods. At that time, a report released by Drexel’s Westphal College of Media Arts & Design showed the potential for the area to become one of the city’s premiere arts districts.
In January, an artist residency program called Neighborhood Time Exchange launched with the goal of creating robust reciprocity between artists and the surrounding West Philly community. The program, which runs till September, offers a rotating group of artists the chance to spend time volunteering and providing community services as they work on their own individual civic projects.
“I was thinking about what artists’ residencies could be doing differently,” says Justin Langlois, director of Broken City Lab, an Ontario, Canada, artist-led research collective that is a project partner for Time Exchange. The nonprofit has previously done smaller projects trying to articulate ways artists can better serve and embed themselves into communities challenged by poverty.
“There’s a lot of extraction that takes place,” says Langlois, speaking about how much artists actually stand to benefit from working in underserved communities. “Artists get a certain amount of cultural capital from the work, and maybe a neighborhood gets temporary artwork out of it and that’s great. But maybe there are some other ways to resource that relationship.”
The idea for Neighborhood Time Exchange grew out of a Mural Arts Program event in 2012, when that Philly-based organization invited Broken City Lab to talk about place-based social practice. Mural Arts’ relationship with community organization People’s Emergency Center created the perfect opportunity for the three groups to leverage their resources and create the residency. Over the course of the project, 12 residents will get studio time in a West Philadelphia storefront space, a monthly stipend and basic supplies in exchange for volunteering in the neighborhood.
Artists Rasheedah Phillips and Camae Dennis will take up residency from April to June. Phillips is a writer, lawyer and founder of The AfroFuturist Affair, which seeks to celebrate, strengthen and promote Afrofuturism and science fiction through events and creative writing. Dennis is a musician and a founding organizer of Rockers!, an annual music and art showcase seeking to feature and empower artists from marginalized communities.
“I feel like a lot of the work I do with the AfroFuturist Affair … engages people who already have access to these ideas or some access to resources or ability to advocate for themselves in terms of the activist or arts communities,” says Phillips. “I really had in mind that [for the Neighborhood Time Exchange] I wanted to speak to communities who don’t already have access to these ideas — who can use them to empower themselves, or help them to envision futures that are outside of the futures that have been imposed on them, in some sense.”
Phillips and Dennis’ project for Time Exchange is “Black Quantum Futurism Collective,” a multimedia exploration of the intersection of futurism, literature, art, DIY aesthetics and activism in marginalized communities using “science, quantum physics, as well as ancient traditions of time, space and math, and applying them in a very practical sense to our realities today,” says Phillips.
Both artists have experience teaching culture and media literacy in Philadelphia neighborhoods; Dennis has taught a writing retreat called Anthropology of Consciousness, which uses poetry, fiction and meditation to explore ideas of “what happened to our community in the past and what’s happening in the future.”
Ian Sampson, a cartoonist in residence through last month, has been publishing comics reflecting on his residency. Other artists from the first wave this year include Betty Leacraft and Kandis Friesen, who are creating fabric projects like banners, window treatments and a quilt with and for the New Bethlehem Baptist Church. Philippe Leonard is creating a New Freedom Historic Walking Tour brochure for the New Africa Center based on weekly community input.
In 2012, the People’s Emergency Center created a revitalization plan for the surrounding area after a year-long public input process called “Make Your Mark.” Langlois says that the document has served as a guidepost and reminder that they’re not working from scratch: “That became a really good reference point for all of us to figure out not just how we can complete this to-do list, but how can this really be a reminder to check our assumptions against what the neighborhood really needs and wants.”
“The cool thing about the residency is that it allows us to say what our skills are, so that people can then come to us and say, ‘Well, this is what we need and this is what you can do, so let’s hook it up,’” says Phillips. This could even include legal skills from her day job as a housing lawyer for Community Legal Services. “There are many different ways I feel I can be of service with the community.”
For those in Philly, the project’s storefront hours (4017 Lancaster Avenue) are from 1 to 5 p.m. on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. You can also follow the progress of the Neighborhood Time Exchange on the project’s blog.
The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Alexis Stephens was Next City’s 2014-2015 equitable cities fellow. She’s written about housing, pop culture, global music subcultures, and more for publications like Shelterforce, Rolling Stone, SPIN, and MTV Iggy. She has a B.A. in urban studies from Barnard College and an M.S. in historic preservation from the University of Pennsylvania.