William Pym

William Pym
Writer and
Former Director of Fleisher/Ollman Gallery

All kinds of goofy people ring me at work.

Three years ago in the spring I started getting calls from a man named Scott Pressman who was in the final stages of planning an international art fair at the Philadelphia Convention Center. Fairs are a stressful crapshoot at best. They take a toll on your pocket, they use a large part of your brain and take hours to plan, and there are no guarantees. So this Pressman did not get very far with us. He wanted five grand for a booth at his fair – too much for an untested event – and no one, anywhere, knew who the guy was. But he kept calling, twice a week or so, with bigger and better offers for us. We weren’t remotely trying to haggle, but by the time he had promised us the twenty thousand dollar marquee booth in a special red-carpeted section of the hall for free, we said OK. Apart from time spent working on the weekend and schlepping some art to the other side of City Hall, it wasn’t going to cost us anything. The situation was very odd, and perhaps we should have questioned it more, but this is how we came to participate in Art Philadelphia 2003.

The booth was absolutely spectacular. We filled it with beautiful work. My dear colleagues and I got drunk and high in one of those weird tunnels on 12th Street and rolled into the VIP opening in our finest threads with our name tags swinging in the air conditioning: wise, optimistic, unstoppable. How could I have been such a pill? Art Philadelphia was destined to be an unmitigated triumph.

Things started going wrong as soon as they opened the doors on Friday night. The electricity had not been properly rigged, and vast wards of the great hall were in complete darkness. Those who did have power were no better off, since they had to worry about the shitty clip lamps crashing down into their walls of carefully hung art, as they did throughout the evening. More than this: over years of art mingling I have tasted questionable canapés, but those at Art Philadelphia were the most nauseatingly off that I have ever encountered. This did not stop swarms of Main Line ladies brawling over every tray the moment they came out of the makeshift kitchen. No collectors were there; it was if no one had explained that the work was for sale.

We did not sell one single work of art over the course of the weekend. It was fine for us, you know, mostly wasted time, but what about those folks who had paid for their booth? By Sunday morning forlorn dealers were passing around petitions demanding refunds, since they had started to talk to each other and had discovered that that they’d all taken several-thousand-dollar losses over the weekend. Organizer Scott Pressman, who had tooted around the installation day in a little golf cart, toting a clipboard and glad-handing everyone in sight, had completely disappeared. He wasn’t just hiding — he was gone. One could only imagine that he was already flashing his winning smile in the convention center of the next town, setting the scene to rob another naïve working population. I understand that every single Philadelphia dealer innocent enough to take the bait had been let down by this event.

This is not a happy story, but it brings something of a smile to my face as I tell it to you now. Working in art in Philadelphia is funny, vivid, unique. This it will ever be. This particular tale came to me on the eve of the Fabric Workshop and Museum and Vox Populi Gallery closing gathering at 1315 Cherry Street. The city decided to expand the Philadelphia Convention Center further north and thus, for no good reason, will demolish the building that houses these two venerable institutions: another soul detonation wrought upon art and artists. It is not easy making a dollar and having a vision in this town, but we are not going to stop trying, man, never.
Published December 2006

Fleisher/Ollman Gallery
Artforum.com