Liz Spungen

Liz Spungen
Executive Director
The Print Center


1984. After getting my undergraduate degree, I had my first job as a curatorial/administrative assistant at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. It’s pretty safe to call that “back in the day” – ICA was in its old building and had a full-time staff of just five. We all had big shoulder pads and IBM Selectric typewriters (self-correcting!) and were learning what to do with the new word processing machine that unrelentingly flashed its amber cursor at us. Membership records were kept on 3 x 5” cards, and Andy Warhol was the guest of honor at our annual Gala. Along with exhibitions of Robert Mapplethorpe, Laurie Anderson, The East Village Scene (graffiti art was big news), and the Neo-German Expressionists, we were working on the latest installment in a series of shows stretching back to 1973 called “Made in Philadelphia.”

The guest curator was Marcia Tucker, the director of the New Museum in New York. She had made a selection of studios to visit from slides submitted for the show, but complications of her pregnancy dictated bed rest. The New Museum’s Assistant Director, Ned Rifkin, came to Philly in her stead. Ned’s career, as you may know, has since followed a stellar path including Curator of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C, the Director of the High Museum in Atlanta,  the Director and Chief Curator of the Hirshhorn in Washington, D.C., the Director of the Menil Collection and Foundation in Houston, and most recently, the Smithsonian Institution’s Undersecretary for Art.

Since I was the one with a car (a hand-me-down Toyota Celica hatchback), I was elected to chauffeur him around the city. My degree in art history was concentrated in Italian Renaissance Art, and the relatively quiet nature of the local contemporary art scene, more commonly referred to then as “provincial,” was not something with which I was too familiar. I didn’t know any of the people we were going to visit, and I wasn’t really looking forward to what promised to be a number of gruelingly packed days kowtowing to a visiting VIP.  But the arrival of the tall, handsome, charming Rifkin with his quick sense of humor made it seem a bit less trying. We visited more than the fourteen artists that were selected for the show, and what I got was the best possible introduction to some of the finest artists in the city. I had never even been in a professional artist’s studio before, and just getting a glimpse into most of these living/work spaces was an education in itself.

Looking back, a couple of things were notable. Almost half of the artists included in the shows were active in Nexus. Its place in nurturing the art and artists of our city is long-standing and significant. It is also interesting to see that the strong contemporary art community that we as Philadelphians can proudly boast of today parallels the growth of our thriving restaurant scene.

Our last studio visit, which began on an early Friday evening, lasted many, many hours, as the artist felt this would be a good time to show all the work he had ever created. When we finished looking at everything, it was about ten o’clock and we were exhausted and starving. I couldn’t think of a restaurant to take this vegetarian to for a decent meal, so I took him to my one room apartment and cooked him some spaghetti before getting him back to the train station. I wonder if he ever remembered the glamour of that meal later, while he was dating Katie Couric.

Some of the artists I met then have forged strong careers and today show widely. Some were married to each other then, but aren’t anymore. Some have stayed focused on Philadelphia as artists and teachers. One has moved to France and is a contributing writer for Art in America. Some have dropped off the radar. The list as a whole though (Phoebe Adams, Robert Bingham, Mark Campbell, Mark Dean, Lydia Hunn, Jane Irish, Michael Kessler, Jim Kugler, William Larson, Jessie Lewis/Peter Rose, Eileen Neff, Wade Saunders, Jeanne Silverthorne, and Robert Solomon) contains the names of some of our city’s best artists.

The work that I saw, and people that I met, during that week have impacted me almost continuously since. I have crossed paths with almost all of them in the intervening years, and have built professional and personal relationships with many.

This experience certainly had a strong influence on my future. After a year at ICA I went back to grad school, planning to get a Ph.D. – still focused on the 16th Century. But in the process, I realized it wasn’t going to work for me. There was something so much more compelling than learning about art from books: hearing about it from the people who were creating it, participating in discussion about it and having it come together in front of my eyes. I had a glimpse into the world of living artists, and found that I was inspired to contribute to the creative process in my own small way, and doing my part to bring artwork to a greater audience was where I wanted to put my energies.

All because I was the one with a car.
Published November 2008

The Print Center