20 Years, 20 Stories: University City Arts League

Apr 24, 2017 33 days ago

University City District launched in 1997, as dedicated residents, institutions and businesses came together to create an organization to help transform their community. Throughout 2017 we will be celebrating our 20th anniversary by holding community events and reflecting on the accomplishments of our organization, the community, and the many people who made the work possible. Read other stories in our 20 Years, 20 Stories here. 

If you’ve lived in University City long enough, you’ve probably come across the University City Arts League. Perhaps you’ve heard music spilling from the four-story Victorian twin at 4226 Spruce Street, where inside people take dance classes, practice yoga, or learn the Brazilian art of capoeira. Maybe you’ve enjoyed bottomless chili served in handmade ceramic bowls at one of their Chili Bowl events. Or perhaps your children have learned to draw, paint, or sculpt during the Arts League’s after school art program or summer camps.

If it feels like the University City Arts League has been around forever, you’re not far off: this year marks their 50th anniversary. For any organization to last 50 years is an accomplishment, but for an arts organization run by volunteers for most of its history? It’s nearly unprecedented. To learn more about the Arts League’s origins and plans for their 50th Anniversary, we spoke with George and Phebe Shinn, two of the Arts League’s founders, and Annette Monnier, the current executive director.

George and Phebe Shinn have lived in University City since 1954, and in their Spruce Hill house on 43rd Street since the early 60s, when they purchased the home for $8,500. The Shinns bought in University City because it was affordable, near public transportation, and the schools were good. “We had an apartment on Chester Avenue and two little boys,” Phebe explains. “We never thought about moving out of this area. We had friends here.”

Some of those friends were involved in the art community. George, who says he can’t remember a time when he wasn’t making pictures, is an artist who has been featured in galleries throughout Philadelphia. His work, along with paintings from friends and people they admire, decorate the walls of their house, which is practically its own art gallery.

In the mid-60s, the couple was looking for a way to showcase the work of local artists, including George and their friends. “Whenever they had the Spruce Hill May Fair we would set up a clothesline, and anyone who wanted to show their work could bring a painting in,” Phebe remembers. “Spruce Hill, Garden Court, Powelton Village--every single one of these places had their own an art committee.” But at the time there was no organization representing artists across the whole community.

George and Phebe came to know Sylvia Barkan, a commercial artist who felt that the various neighborhood art committees would be better served if they worked together. Sylvia brought the artists together; while they were originally loath to give up their unique neighborhood representation, they finally came to a consensus. “What the hell,” someone finally proposed, “let’s call it the University City Arts League,” adopting the name that had begun to be used for the neighborhood.

The Arts League experienced growing pains in the early days. “We were so disorganized for so long,” Phebe says. “Whoever’s house could host events was president at that time.” They didn’t even consider offering classes – something the organization is now known for – until community residents suggested it, saying they’d enjoy doing art themselves or having classes for their kids.

Classes were first offered in people’s houses, and then for a time at 4601 Spruce. Phebe says Jim Cox, a founding member and president in the late 60s, made the Arts League into a real organization. “He helped to get money together, he pulled in people from Penn and he is the one who engineered buying the building,” Phebe explains, referring to the Arts League’s current home on Spruce near 42nd.

“We moved in and teetered along the edge,” she continues. “There was chaos, there was disorganization, and poverty.”

Early on the Arts League raised money any way they could. “We had fundraisers, we had parties, we even had dress-up dances there,” the Shinns recall. The dances caught on and attracted a wide array of people from all over the city. Phebe and George reminisced about a costume party that brought out famed jewelry maker Henri David, known today for his own extravagant galas. “He came wearing a big cape,” Phebe explains, “and after he danced a bit he threw his cape back and there was a live snake draped around his neck!”

UCAL’S offerings evolved over the years. Their Speakers Bureau free lecture series drew in big names like famed Philadelphia architect Robert Venturi, Scottish landscaping pioneer Ian McHarg, and Pulitzer Prize-winning Inquirer cartoonist Tony Auth.

Later, in the 80s, the Arts League ran into financial issues and considered closing. After news of the impending disbandment was covered in the local newspapers, community members came forward to help prop it back up again. “We would walk this line between solvent and poverty-stricken,” Phebe says. “The fact that they now have an executive director who makes a reasonable salary is just amazing.”

These days, that executive director is Annette Monnier. Annette began in January 2015 after working as Outreach Program Director at The Clay Studio in Old City. Part of her charge since accepting the position has been to bolster the Arts League’s programs in local schools. They currently partner with Powell, Henry Lea, Comegys, and the Science Leadership Academy, offering programs free of charge through artist residencies. She stresses the importance of this initiative and arts education in general.

“Not everyone who takes an art class is going to be an artist,” Annette says, “But everyone who takes a class gets something out of it: relaxation, different ways of thinking about the world, different ways of using their hands.” Additionally, their after-school program serves about 200 children each week. “Kids will come to us having never used scissors before, or doing that much artmaking before. People still need to use their hands. Just on that level we’re making a major impact.”

UCAL has made a big impact on the neighborhood and has a tremendous legacy to celebrate. They now offer classes  and workshops for adults and children throughout the year, including photography, art and design, dance, pottery, and more. “The Arts League is obviously doing something of value in the neighborhood or it would have died,” says Phebe. “The fact that it’s been 50 years and we’re chugging along says we’re filling a need.” 

“There was a time when we were in danger of closing,” Annette says, echoing Phebe’s story. “We’ve struggled financially. It’s been artists at the helm, which is part of what’s kept it going with very little resources, and very little outside money. It’s a bunch of people who are really willing to put their sweat into it.”

From the original board to the countless volunteers to the current leadership, the sweat has paid off in the form of a vital University City organization. The Arts League will commemorate this accomplishment throughout 2017, starting with the Heart of Gold Gala that occured on May 13th. At the gala they honored local artists including Powelton Village’s own Leo Sowell, whose “junk art” created from Philadelphia refuse has earned him national acclaim. 

The Arts League is also organizing a Clothesline Art Show Initiative as an ode to the grassroots art exhibitions put on by George, Phebe, and other original founders. They will set up clotheslines at various community events throughout the year and invite neighbors to create original works which will then be hung and exhibited that day. The Clothesline Art Show was present at our 40th Street Summer Series on May 20th, and will return on August 19th and to the Baltimore Avenue Dollar Stroll on September 7th. The Arts League will collect the art to display at an Open Hearts event in December. Annette says they’re hoping for more than 300 pieces of work that will create a wonderful display to showcase the community. “We thought this would be a really free-spirited way to show art, and feel it really ties in with the spirit of what the Arts League is.”

Learn more about the University City Arts League on their website. 

Comments

Thank you for the great write-up!

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