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At the end of the 19th century, Philadelphia was home to some of the country’s most successful and famous female artists. They studied at the city’s renowned art and design schools and worked as illustrators for the city’s top-selling magazines. What they couldn’t do: Participate in the art clubs of Philadelphia. At the time, these salons and companies prohibited women and only offered men the space to discuss and exhibit their work.
The women of Philadelphia therefore created their own group. They called it The Plastic Club, and later this month members will celebrate the organization’s 125th anniversary.
In March 1897, the founders met at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (now Moore College of Art) to realize their vision. They included two women taught by Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts: painter Emily Sartain, also director of the School of Design, and Blanche Dillaye, an early printmaker. (She was the one who suggested the club use the word “plastic” – the fluid state of a work in progress – in its name.)
Organizers also included muralist Violet Oakley, one of the first women to receive a public art commission, and acclaimed painter and printmaker Alice Barber Stephens, one of the Ladies Home Journal’s most popular illustrators at the time. .
“A club of women artists now exists in this city,” reported The Inquirer on May 16, 1897. as painters, sculptors, illustrators or architects.
The Plastic Club rented a small space at 10 S. 18th Street, and the press began to cover its events extensively. Its list of exhibitions has garnered praise and criticism in Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, and Town and Country. While the company has occasionally invited men to lecture and show work, it has maintained some events only for women: members-only meetings, exhibits and “club day” programming on Wednesdays.
With over 100 members on the roster, The Plastic Club was ready for a permanent home. In 1909, members organized arts performances to help raise funds of approximately $ 7,500 which they would need to purchase property for a clubhouse.
They chose 247 S. Camac St. in the city center. The narrow street – tucked away in the modern Gayborhood between 12th and 13th Spruce and Locust – was home to several taverns at the time that sent bar brawls down the alley at all hours.
But it had recently become known as an art center. Six years earlier, the male-only Philadelphia Sketch Club had moved to 235 S. Camac St., and the Franklin Inn Men’s Culture Lodge had opened a few years earlier at 205 S. Camac St.
The Plastic Club still operates at the same address on rue Camac, which it has done continuously since its founding.
A few decades ago, in the early 1990s, he and the Philadelphia Sketch Club abandoned their gender-specific membership rules. UArts graduate artist Michael Guinn has lived near the club for decades without knowing much. About 25 years ago, after entering his mother’s piece in a club-sponsored contest, he realized that the members had almost entirely become older women. The building was also in need of an expensive restoration.
“I thought this club wouldn’t be around for very long,” Guinn said with a laugh. He decided to get involved.
He became president and also served on the board of directors, helping the nonprofit save its modest dues (either $ 40 or $ 60 per year) for building repairs and scholarships. The new management added more weekly programs and took to social media. Gradually Guinn said, “It started to change. “
When COVID started shutting down the city, the club moved to a virtual platform.
Plastic Club member Tina Cheung, a Bella Vista-based web designer, helped redesign the website and bring the exhibits online. She had joined in 2013 after moving from Brooklyn. Having studied at the Pratt Institute, Tina Cheung was used to the New York art scene, where private art clubs require some sort of insider status to be admitted.
“I was like ‘Oh, I have to be someone to come in’,” she said of the Plastic Club, and almost couldn’t believe it when a coworker told her no anyone could pay a small fee to attend a drawing. class for three hours. So she tried it.
“It’s so welcoming and yet so old school and old-fashioned.” said Cheung. She generally enjoys the Philadelphia art scene, which she describes as “super accessible” and “low and dirty” compared to the “crisp high” atmosphere of New York City.
To ease the Plastic Club’s transition to the virtual one, she and her member Bob Lee have twice rebuilt the website to make it “lively and interactive”, and she and others have strengthened the club’s social media presence. . Board member Roberta Gross has led efforts to produce live shows, conferences and online exhibits.
Guinn, who is now responsible for members, building maintenance and archives, said the virtual change has drawn members from all over the world. One reason is the Plastic Club’s open appeal for “Artists in Quarantine: An Exhibition in Progress”. Accepted submissions are systematically published on Facebook and Instagram.
To commemorate its 125th anniversary, the club is planning an event on January 25 to install a new plaque on the property on rue Camac. If they think an in-person event isn’t appropriate, Cheung is confident they will adapt.
The Plastic Club has had a resilient spirit since 1897, Chung said. For her, this is what makes her story “in essence Philadelphian”.