Few buildings are as intimidating to enter as The Barclay at 237 S. 18th Street, which explains why most people have no idea that the gallery of the Center for Emerging Visual Artists (CFEVA) is hidden away on its third floor. There is no exterior signage indicating the presence of an art gallery, just a bronze sign that reads “Private Residence” that is meant to deter interlopers. Then, there is the matter of getting past the doorman. That is about to change thanks to the CFEVA’s new executive director, Juliette Cook.
“The hope is that more people will find us here in The Barclay building and discover the amazing artists we have the good fortune of working with,” said Cook. “We are expanding the hours the gallery is open to the public as well as the opportunities for visitors to engage directly with artists.”
CFEVA’s current artist-in-residence, Mary Henderson, can be found Thursday afternoons at the gallery working on her “Commons” series–four-by-four inch paintings scaled to the size of a hand. Henderson’s realistic figurative paintings call to mind French Impressionism with a decidedly contemporary bent. Created from photos taken in Clark Park by Henderson, they reflect ordinary people in what the artist calls “mundane moments.” As for their small size, besides affordability, Henderson points to “the very rich tradition of miniature paintings in Western and non-Western art.” A West Philly resident, Henderson maintains a studio at Green Line Workspace, 42nd Street and Lancaster Avenue.
Henderson received her MFA in painting at the University of Pennsylvania and credits her professor John Moore with guiding her towards realism. She was awarded a two-year CFEVA artist fellowship, which qualified her to be an artist-in-residence in the gallery. Her work has been featured or reviewed in Harper’s Magazine, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Art in America. Her paintings are also in the permanent collection of the Rockefeller Foundation.
“CFEVA has been organizing exhibitions since 1984, but having an artist-in-residence in the gallery is relatively new for us,” Cook explained. “Our first residency was in 2021 during the pandemic when artist Leroy Johnson set up his studio in our gallery. Shwarga Bhattacharjee was an artist-in-residence last year.”
“While we serve hundreds of artists across Greater Philadelphia, our core program is our artist fellowships,” said Cook. “The fellowships span over two years and there is a very competitive selection process which selects four new artists each year to participate.” Any artist can apply to be a fellow. The next application deadline is March 1, 2024.
While most art lovers couldn’t tell you where CFEVA is located, the vast majority have attended their most popular annual event, POST (Philadelphia Open Studio Tours), the largest open studio program in the region with audiences reaching over 47,000. This year, the free, self-guided tour of 250 artists’ studios will happen throughout Philadelphia on October 14-15 and 21-22.
Another reason to visit the CFEVA gallery? It’s a convenient excuse to experience the bygone glamour of what had been one of the most famous hotels in the city when it opened in 1929. It was designed by JER Carpenter Company, the same architecture firm that built the Empire State Building and elite residences on Park Avenue in New York City. Modeled after The Ritz in Paris, The Barclay began as a luxury hotel and apartment building. It’s long-term residents included Eugene Ormandy, conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and it’s transient guests tended to be stars of the stage and screen.
By the 1970s, when Rittenhouse Square became a hangout for scoring pot and sex, rather than a place for uniformed nannies to push prams, The Barclay had begun to lose its allure. The 1974 New York Times article, “Hub of 19th‐Century Philadelphia Social Elite Fades Into History,” documented its descent. In 1980, The Barclay went from famous to infamous when it was the site of the FBI’s Abscam sting operation and, later, the basis for American Hustle, a 2013 Academy Award winning film.
The Barclay went bankrupt in 1992. It has since been converted into condominiums and is owned by real estate developer Alan Domb. When you step through the building’s brass plated doors you are transported back to its heyday when mink-draped socialites swept through the lobby. Crystal chandeliers still glitter from its ceiling. Its elevator is a veritable jewel box of highly polished wood and brass. And if you have to rent out your first floor to a restaurant, you could do a lot worse than Barclay Prime where a cheesesteak goes for $140.
So, how did a nonprofit like CFEVA manage to snag such a posh address? They did it the old fashioned way through an inheritance. In 1983, visionary art collector and philanthropist Felicity “Bebe” Roosevelt Benoliel inherited a two-bedroom apartment at The Barclay which had belonged to her mother-in-law. Rather than relocate from her home in St. Davids, Benoliel used the suite to launch the Creative Arts Network to give young artists a place to show their work and to serve as a proving ground for major galleries. Benoliel served as executive director until her death in 2000. In 2004, the organization changed its name, but maintained its original mission.
“Until recently, we were only open to the public from 11 AM to 4 PM during weekdays and occasionally for receptions. Our new hours are 12 to 6 PM during the week, and, starting November 11, we will be open on Saturdays from 12 to 6 PM,” said Cook.
Upcoming events include Mary Henderson’s book launch and reception on Saturday, October 21 from 5-7 PM, a group exhibition featuring Chee Bravo, Sophie Glenn, and Sarah Gutwirth on November 9 through December 15, and an exhibition of Krista Svalbonas’ work from January 18 until March 1, 2024.