Located in the charming Old City district of Philadelphia, Arch Enemy Arts provides a taste of the contemporary among the vibrant arts and culture scene. Celebrating both established and emerging talents from around the world, their engaging and multi-layered aesthetic continues to garner national recognition. As creative pioneers with a penchant for lowbrow, pop surrealism, realism, figurative, macabre, and narrative art styles presented in a variety of mediums, I wanted to get to know the owners and learn what it takes to make an art gallery thrive.
Read my exclusive interview to find out what Patrick Shillenn (Co-founder & Director) and Lawren Alice (Co-founder & Curator) had to say about life in the business of art.
109 + 111 Arch Street | Philadelphia, PA 19106
On view through June 14, 2015
Opening reception: June 19, 2015 | 6-10pm
On view through August 2, 1015
? Interviewer: Bella Harris | Online Editor
First things first, when was the gallery born?
April 2012 was when we first opened our doors to the public. We had come together at the very beginning of that year to start Arch Enemy, and I moved back to Philly full time in February of that year, but the first few months were spent renovating and building up the space.
Who are the owners, curators, founders, and immediate staff of Arch Enemy Arts?
Myself, Lawren, and Noah are all Co-founders and are the team behind Arch Enemy Arts.
I’m so curious… will you describe some of your specific responsibilities at the gallery?
I handle things like our contracts and agreements with artists, creating budgets for advertising and promotion, or if extra money is needed for a show’s production or a special project, as well as marketing plans for our shows. It can get a bit hectic, especially with the contracts because renewing them with artists we like can be a pain. I’ve been thinking of getting some contract lifecycle management software to ease the work on that side at least. I also work with press, but most of the decisions concerning the gallery’s creative direction, including things like themes and ideas for shows, show titles, stuff like that- who to work with and how we can be a better partner for artists- those things are typically a collaborative effort between Lawren and myself. We share one big office space and spend time every day spit balling, discussing, and sometimes debating those things.
In addition to overseeing the general curatorial direction of the gallery, I handle things like the design and maintenance of our website, the management of our social media accounts, the design and creation of all our promotional graphics, as well as any administrative work. Despite the fact that I thought I had zero reasons to get an undergraduate degree in accounting, I used to do all the bookkeeping, but this became a pretty time-consuming job. A friend pointed me towards an article called ‘freshbooks vs quickbooks‘ and as soon as I read it I decided this sort of software was the way forward. Other people may prefer other options though. I like to keep things in-house as much as possible, but some may find hiring a Xero Accountant Melbourne, or based elsewhere, is the way forward. For the most part, all the artist relations are pretty much split evenly between Patrick and me… it’s a part of the job that tends to take the most time and effort.
Who came up with the name Arch Enemy Arts? Is there a backstory?
It was one of those things that came out in a conversation and nobody really took seriously until a couple days later. All of us share sort of a (maybe not so) secret shared love of puns and corny word play. One day we were brainstorming and the ideas were getting increasingly bad and gimmicky. Serious dad-joke stuff.
So, we’re located on a block of Arch Street in the Old City district in Philly, and one of the riffs on that, was “Arch Enemy”. Also at the time, we had experienced a few not-so-welcoming moments from a few other gallery owners in the neighborhood. This is a very arts-heavy district of the city and there are a lot of galleries and art spaces, performance venues, theaters, and things like that. I should say that many of the older galleries are very nice to us, but there were a few in the beginning who would come in and be very outspoken about ‘real’ art and disapproving, and then go back to their spaces where they were currently exhibiting a burlap sack filled with human hair. Anyway, rather than be angry or sad about that sort of thing, we settled on the name Arch Enemy because we felt it struck a good balance between dad-joke wordplay and the decision to love and embrace our new role as the young upstarts.
In the beginning, we thought of trying on a few different names. The Couch was a one we considered based on our unintentional accumulation of vintage couches, but that was short lived. Then I had the idea (that no one else was really into) to call the space Monarch Gallery, but upon asking a close friend of mine for his outsider opinion, all I received in return was a rant about how ‘The Monarch’ was the self-proclaimed arch enemy of The Venture Brothers (an American cartoon on Adult Swim). Though his answer pretty much shut down my idea completely, when he uttered the words arch enemy there was this unspoken “ah ha!” moment between the three of us and within days we’d made the decision to go full steam ahead with Arch Enemy Arts. I mean, say it out loud – it’s catchy, no doubt. Plus it’s a play on words using our location (Arch Street), and the three of us are real suckers for puns.
As an artist, for me this question is especially interesting. What’s your process behind choosing art and artists for exhibitions?
The process is a lot of discussion and planning between Lawren and me. She always has a list of artists who she would like to work with, and I keep a running list of artists who I have come across or really like, too. Then we have other artists who we work with more regularly and there will be a longer-term plan with that artist that we’ll consider that will usually include some of our themed group shows as well as features, and perhaps a larger solo every year or two. Having some sort of constant representation from Philly artists is really important to us too, so we’re always trying to keep a close eye on what’s happening here. There’s a really vibrant scene right now and the energy is really good, so that part has been pretty easy lately. So, we’ll flesh out our program schedule usually first with solos, then artist features which are specific to an artist but take place in a slightly smaller gallery space that is connected to the main space, so it carries a bit less of a workload for the artist, and then we’ll start scheduling the themes for our group shows. We attack the artist invitations to that sort of like a puzzle, putting together what we hope will be a balance between people who we work with regularly, artists who we would love to begin working with, and an opportunity for some emerging artists. We also consider themes will play to a particular artists strengths or maybe even challenge them in a good way, while meeting our goal of producing a cohesive and well-balanced show that represents our brand. As far as the artwork itself, we’ve tried to be pretty clear about our expectations up front, and then not be too hands-on during the process outside of regular communication and check-ins. I think our goal is to be encouraging, and maybe even challenging, but not limiting. Sometimes I think we achieve that, maybe not every time, but that’s what we try for.
You’re surrounded by beautiful, inspiring artwork all the time…pretty much sounds like such a dream. What’s a typical day like at the gallery?
It’s a real nice work environment for sure. There are a lot of variations to our day, as I’m sure there is with anyone running their own small business, but each day for us requires some time spent on our current show, usually there’s work that needs to be done for whatever is next, and after that. Sorting out other programming details for later in the year, working with clients, as well as talking with press, like we do all the time, about shows and artists and art, and whatever else is going on. We try to have our hands in different special projects and lately we’ve been spending more time on those types of things. Also we all try to keep time to stay involved in various local arts and community projects. For example, I helped co-found the Old City Art & Design Festival and work on the festival’s steering committee, and am involved with the benefit committee for InLiquid, which is a great Philadelphia-based arts non-profit. So those things factor into our days as well. We also run an in-house print shop and a photo studio. Noah spends a lot of his time running those services and his day consists of a lot of work there. We always have to hustle, it’s how we are able to keep doing this.
One of the best parts of this job is getting to work in an environment where we’re surrounded by work created by our favorite artists. Also, since we’re actively working in the gallery/office around the clock and sometimes 7 days a week, this place has quickly become our second home and we can get fairly attached to some of the pieces over the course of a month. Basically, the only way I can explain it to someone who doesn’t work in a similar setting would for me to tell you to pretend that money was no issue and that every few weeks you were allowed to pick up to 30 of your favorite artists to create work to decorate your house, and then watch as friends, family and strangers came to pick them up at the end of each month. It’s a interesting feeling I had to get used to – sometimes I’ll get super attached to pieces, and then when they sell it’s this conflict of emotions of whether to be happy that they’re going to new homes, or be saddened because I’ll most likely won’t ever see them again. I suppose we do get several weeks to fully enjoy and appreciate the pieces while they’re up on the walls throughout the duration of an exhibition, and in that sense, we’re actually pretty spoiled.
No holding back…have you ever felt awestruck by a particular artist or artwork at an opening reception? Not gonna lie, this happens to me a lot.
All the time. In a way, I feel like if I ever stopped experiencing that, at least somewhat regularly, that might be a sign that it’s time for me to find a new project. At any given point, there are always groups of artists that are making work that I feel especially connected to. Lately for me it’s been Jason Snyder, Jeremy Burks, Brian Mashburn, Chie Yoshii, Andy Kehoe, Chrystal Chan. Nicomi Nix-Turner and Sarah Louise Davy just opened new shows here in Philly on Friday, and I thought they were both pretty great. And there is never a shortage of Philly artists who help inspire me. Nosego, Caitlin McCormack, Paul Romano, Maria Teicher, Dessie Jackson, and Scott Kirschner, just to name a few.
For me there have been several pieces that I have been awestruck by that have stuck with me. Heidi Taillefer’s gorgeous painting titled “Silkworm” that I saw in person at Scope Miami this past year left me totally hypnotized and I found myself wandering back to it again and again because I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Also, James Jeans’ entire exhibition at the Jack Tilton Gallery back in 2012 that Patrick and I randomly wandered into during the middle of the day. Even now I still reminisce about that show and how extremely happy I am that we got to see it in person. Truth be told, a lot of my totally geek-out “awestruck” moments have happened when artists drop off or ship work to Arch Enemy and I finally get the chance to see the work in person for the first time. The day we received Michael Reedy’s work for last year’s Equinox group show was like Christmas day opening those boxes – examining that caliber of work up close was totally mind blowing. His craftsmanship is some of the best I’ve seen, bar none. Same thing when we received Carly Janine Mazur’s “Gold Children” painting for our Wait For The Moon group show – I’d loved the piece when she sent her images in, but once we got it in-house I couldn’t stop staring at it. Naoto Hattori’s work threw me for a loop the first time we worked with him, too. Upon receiving his piece in the mail I opened it and was immediately pissed thinking he’d duped us and sent us a print – turns out it was (of course) an original and it was just that his painting technique is so damn close to perfect, I could barely detect any brush strokes.
As founders/owners, do you each have educational backgrounds in art?
No not at all. We all have different backgrounds. Lawren and Noah both at least went to art school for a while. Noah has his degree in fine art and photography. I didn’t go to college myself because I started working right away. My background before Arch Enemy was spent mostly working in music and entertainment marketing and artist development. Media planning and artist development work, areas like that, with a couple different independent firms. That’s where I really became interested in artist advocacy and caught a desire to learn about how the different systems and pathways especially in more creative-leaning business like music and art, work. And how I might be able to help within that system.
I was enrolled in the Fine Arts Program during my high school years and then attended Parsons in NYC the summer before my senior year for a pre-college program that focused on drawing and painting. I continued onto college at University of The Arts here in Philadelphia, but left after two years because I’d decided I wasn’t going to pursue my Metal + Crafts Major professionally after college. Even though I never received a degree, I think that going to art college (even if it was for a brief amount of time) was really beneficial for me as it taught me a wealth about the technical execution of nearly every medium we’ve exhibited – with the exception of photography, that’s totally Noah’s forte. In fact, a lot of my taste in art and my personal curation style come from analyzing an artist’s level of craftsmanship and composition – something I don’t think I would have as much of handle on had I not had a background in art education. I tend to be more attracted to representative work that’s heavy with intense detail and looks like it required obvious talent and technical execution rather than work that would be considered on the more abstract side. I think my interest in certain pieces and artists comes out of respect for their talent and an understanding their process of how their work was created.
What would you say is the biggest risk you’ve taken, obstacle you’ve faced, and achievement you’ve made as independent gallery owners?
I think our greatest accomplishment is still being here after 3 years. I guess in a way one of the biggest risks was opening Arch Enemy in the first place. There are a lot of elements and challenges, as I imagine is pretty common with a lot of small businesses, that exist and pop up all the time and you’ve got to keep your eyes open and try to stay on your toes and expect that new obstacles will always be presenting themselves. You try to make decisions that hopefully minimize some of the risks that come from those factors that may be outside of your control. I think it’s really important to try to see these types of things as challenges instead of obstacles. I know I have to in order to continue to feel energized and excited about what we do. I have been lucky enough to spend a lot of time working in areas that I feel an emotional attachment to and, as unbelievably rewarding as that can be, the lows can be really discouraging and devastating if you allow them to be. You’ve got to try to look at it as more of a long game, and do your best to contextualize the risks and obstacles in a way that doesn’t fry your soul.
You recently celebrated three years. That’s an incredible accomplishment, congratulations! I bet you have a few memorable moments. Care to share?
The first night we opened the gallery was important. There were shows we did early on that really helped to shape the vibe and evolve our own ideas of what our role can be. Super early on we did a show for our friend Colin who plays in a band called Circa Survive and it was very heavy on the production side. Lots of installation. A canopy bed made of real vines with 100 arrows suspended pointing at the center. A baby rowing its crib like a boat across the gallery. Crazy stuff. That was a milestone in terms of really opening up how we could use the space and help create something special. About one year in, we did a show called Semiotic Weapons and I think although we were proud of the shows we had done previously, everyone feels like it was the first show that really clicked on all levels. It was sort of a moment for us. We just recently did a solo show with Nosego called Invisible Village. I am really proud of that show.
Patrick nailed it when mentioning Semiotic Weapons – that was the first exhibition where I think we perfectly executed Arch Enemy’s vision, and it proved to be a pivotal and defining moment for us as a gallery. There have also been a couple other moments that I’m really proud of – one of them, and to me it’s the most important, seems to be a repeating instance that happens each month when someone new proclaims that the current exhibition on the walls is their favorite. I like that we hear that every month and with every exhibition, without fail. It certainly solidifies that we’re doing something right if every month is someone else’s new favorite. Also, our print feature in Philly Weekly last year was a pretty special moment for us as it was kind like a pat on the back from the city of Philadelphia itself for a job well done. It’s one thing to get recognition from blogs and online outlets based elsewhere, but it’s another thing for your own local press to give you (what feels like) a high five in print.
List five words that describe the character of the gallery.
We go 0-100 real quick.
What advice would you impart to someone looking to open his or her own gallery?
Think about why you want to open a gallery and be sure you have the time and can generate the resources needed to work toward those goals. I think there’s room for all sorts of galleries and art spaces. I think it’s important to have clear ideas and be honest with yourself about what role you would like to have and how exactly you can complement the hard work that artists are already doing. Also consider how you can be a productive part of the arts community whether that be local or in terms of a larger subset of working artists, like what you’d see featured in an issue of beautiful.bizarre. That’s important too. I mean, there’s always a certain level of competition, especially between galleries, but I think it’s crucial to check yourself and be sure you aren’t competing in a way that could undercut the service you are trying to provide for your artists, and can be a good partner and platform for their work. In my experience that comes a lot easier by being a part of something bigger, rather than being an island.
Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to do this interview. It’s such a pleasure knowing more about you, Lawren, and the gallery. So, one final question…what do you see for the future of Arch Enemy Arts?
We have a lot of ideas and opinions about how we want to grow and what we want to do next. We’re trying to do more behind the scenes and more special projects outside of the gallery itself to try and build a more effective platform for the artists we work with, and to make it easier to have the resources to allow ourselves more flexibility in what we do and what we can provide. There’s always some progress that comes through constant tweaking and being mindful of what’s working for us, and honest about what’s not. We’re trying to learn and keep an open mind so we can be better at what we do. A lot of that comes from an ongoing conversation with artists about what they need, and what they would like to see someone on our side be able to do. That has always been really important to me. I was never interested in being just a retail space for paintings. To keep that conversation going and to keep evolving, sometimes in unpredictable ways. That’s the stuff that keeps me going.