When the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center was founded almost seven years ago, it was created with the purpose of bridging the gap between digital and analog photography. With the Philly Block Project, the PPAC is bridging gaps once again—this time between community history and art.
Sarah Stolfa, the founder and executive director of PPAC, has always felt that making art accessible to people in the community around an arts organization is one of the arts’ most important responsibilities.
With the Philly Block Project, she hopes to build those community relationships. During the course of a year, several photographers have been enlisted to create a visual record of the South Kensington neighborhood surrounding the PPAC, taking pictures of the houses and the families who live there. Residents have also been invited to submit personal photos to be scanned into a collaborative community archive.
“It’s really important that community members not only have the opportunity to come to PPAC and see the art that we make, but also be a part of that dialogue,” Stolfa said. “So it’s really important for me to have a world-renowned photographer and artist like Hank Willis Thomas, and have him engage with the community to kind of break those barriers.”
As the lead photographer for the project, Thomas has been involved from the very beginning—from the writing of the grant, which was awarded by the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, to bringing in co-collaborators like Kalia Brooks, who will curate an exhibition of selections from the community archive. He also invited photographers Wyatt Gallery, Lisa Fairstein, Hiroyuki Ito and Will Steacy to be involved in the initiative.
A project like this is two-fold, Gallery said, a contributing photographer. Not only does it create a collaborative community art space, but it also documents a historically rich neighborhood entering a transitional period. Both phases of the project, the photographers’ record and the community archive, combine to create a history of the neighborhood as it has been experienced for the last 100 years and how it will look going into the future.
Gallery said the project is also “creating a visual record. Not only from photographer’s view, but also from the residents themselves based off of their own photographs. And then allowing other people, outsiders, to experience that.”
“It’s important for the PPAC in that it helps this organization get to know its neighbors and to let the people who live near the gallery and the center know about the kinds of things and services PPAC offers,” said Lori Waselchuk, the project coordinator for the Philly Block Project. “For the neighborhood, it’s allowing residents to participate in an art project that is communal and it sort of brings art away from the museum walls and into the neighborhood.“
As part of the Philly Block Project, PPAC will be holding art workshops open to the community, running from early May to the end of the year. With these workshops, PPAC hopes to bring attention to the project and continue a conversation with community members about their needs and desires regarding communal art.
Stolfa said the year-long timeline for the Philly Block Project is not nearly enough to scratch the surface of the immense history of the neighborhood, though the photographers will try their best. She hopes that there will be a second stage to the overall project, especially for the community archive.
“It’s hard for me to say right now [what I’ve learned the most from the project] because we’re in it,” Stolfa said. “Whatever my answer is now, I have a feeling it’s not going to be the same answer if you asked me in December. But one of the things that I’ve learned is the huge amount of generosity people have that can cross societal barriers when you take the time to reach out and talk to somebody. The wealth of understanding and knowledge we have to learn from each other if we would just stop and listen has really been driven home in this project.”
Morgan Slutzky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.