Interview wit Fleisher Art Memorial

Fleisher Art Memorial is the oldest community art school in the country. They have been offering tuition-free and low-cost art classes since the late 1800s. Today, they continue this work and offer more programs than ever. I talked with Communications Director Dominic Mercier about the present and future of Fleisher.

ceramica-3605.JPGPhoto courtesy of Dominic Mercier

How was Fleisher started?

Sam Fleisher’s family owned a wool mill in the late 1800s. His sister Helen encouraged him to tap into his egalitarian world-view. He saw the value in every single employee that was working in his family’s mill, which was rare at the time in industrialist families, workers were really cogs in the machine. He actually saw the value that they all brought and made the company as successful as it was. So his sister encouraged him to find opportunities to support that, through free art classes for the children of the families that were working in his mill. Later on that expanded to the parents as well. He started teaching at 422 Bainbridge St. which at the time was the jewish community in Philadelphia, and that became the Graphic Sketch Club, that was the original name of what we do here. Eventually Sam outgrew that and wound up here in the current space, buying the boy’s home and what we call the sanctuary which was the Church of the Evangelists which was deconsecrated at that time. He began offering classes here and opened up the sanctuary to the neighborhood as a refuge for them to come and contemplate whether for art or to just find a couple moments of respite in a place like this.

011-Day_of_the_Dead-_G4D9252-20181009.jpgPhoto courtesy of Colibri Workshop

Sam died in 1944 and he left all of his money and his properties entrusted to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. From that point on until the mid-1980s the museum actually operated Fleisher as sort of a community arts education arm of the museum. Today we still have a really great administrative relationship with the museum but we’ve been operating as our own non-profit since the 1980s.
Today, we serve about 20,000 people through all of our programs, people mainly know us for our art education programs which are either tuition-free or very low-cost. The most venerable one that most people know about is our Saturday program for kids ages five to 18 and that is a completely tuition-free program that runs from the Fall through June. It’s about $60 total for the 10 week class. They get access to really high quality arts education programs. Then that moves into our adult program which is on the same model, we offer three 10 week terms, then one four week term which is in the summer. Of the 120 classes we offer each term, 20 of them are tuition-free. You just have to be a member to register for them then pay a small model or studio fee depending on what type of class it is, those fees range anywhere from $10 to $90. We actually have a dedicated Community Programs Manager here who is running a handful of programs. One is Community Partnerships in the Arts which pairs art teaching artist with Philadelphia Public School teachers for residencies in Philadelphia Public Schools and some community centers that we work with as well for arts integrated learning. Basically, our artist will come in and work with the teacher to figure out what the kids are learning about then build an arts program.

We also have ColorWheels, which is our mobile arts studio that goes to community events. We roll up, it’s fully supplied to make art with anyone who’s interested.
That’s how it all got started, we’ve been doing it for 121 years and we’re the oldest community arts school in the country. Bringing art into communities and making art really accessible to people has been our mission since Sam started it and it’s amazing to me that we’ve been doing it as much as possible since the 1800s.

What is the importance of community? Is that something that you think a lot about?

It’s something that we think about pretty much every single day here. About a decade ago, we started to really look at South Philadelphia and how much it was changing and we realized that the audience here didn’t reflect the way South Philadelphia was changing. With generous support from the Wallace Foundation we were able to do a really extensive audience-building initiative where we really targeted the Southeast Asian community and the Latino Community because they were the two biggest communities that we weren’t serving. We did a lot of work to understand why they didn’t know about us and if they did know about us, why don’t they feel like they can come here. Everything we learned was really astounding, in that people felt that it was difficult to understand what happens here or they didn’t think that art was for them or the sheer presence of this building was imposing. That was where a lot of community programs that we have today were born. ColorWheels was a direct response to that because a lot of the community members we talked to said that they don’t necessarily want to come to us, we should come to them. Day of the Dead was a direct response to that too because at the time we were thinking about what our exhibitions program looked like.

We’re a community arts school, we have a very traditional gallery but if we weren’t so prescriptive what would that look like?
I think community is at the core of what we do and through all of that effort we’ve really changed what our audience looks like today. We’re not done doing that because South Philadelphia continues to change and there’s other communities out there that we haven’t engaged with. We started offering Spanish Language classes and the community told us that there’s a lot of people who work in the restaurant industry so we do them on Monday nights because that’s their night off. We created a program called FAMbassadors, short for Fleisher Art Memorial Ambassadors, and they are community liaisons who work with the community to see what we can do better and they continuously inform many of the things that we do. Any discussion about new programming or what we’re going to do in the future really hinges on that idea of community.

What can people do to help?

There’s a lot of different ways to get involved, we’re always looking for volunteers. Just coming and taking a class too, we have a ton of opportunities to do that. We realized that some people may be hesitant to step into a studio for the first time if they’ve never taken any kind of art class, so we started these JumpstART programs that are one session, they’re usually two hours long and cost only $25. You will come in, you will learn something, you will walk away with a piece of original art that you’ve made and then hopefully we’ll introduce you to what we do here. We also need feedback from the community too, what they would like to see here because it helps inform our programming. There’s always a ton of opportunities to get involved here, whether it’s an art class or not, there’s ways to be involved and be welcomed here.

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