Art & Design

Fleisher Art Memorial: Welcoming Immigrants Since 1898

June 17, 2024 | by Stacia Friedman

Fleisher Art Memorial at 719 Catharine Street. | Photo: Michael Bixler

We tend to take Fleisher Art Memorial for granted. It is where we may have gone as kids and returned as adults to make jewelry, paint, or try our hand at ceramics. Yet, we often forget the unique history and mission of this South Philly institution, which has been serving the needs of a constantly changing immigrant community for over 126 years.

When Samuel Fleisher founded the Graphic Sketch Club for lower-income boys at 422 Bainbridge Street in 1898, the students were primarily Jewish. In 1906, registration was so high that the school moved to 740 Catherine Street. While there is no available information on when the new location was built or who designed it, we can infer from the exterior that it was a typical rowhouse previously inhabited by an extended family which was typical at the time. Later, in 1926, the school acquired the adjacent Romanesque Revival church, previously the Episcopal Church of the Evangelist, established in 1837 as a mission for the poor. By 1941, over 3,000 students of all genders and religions had attended the free art training it offered.

Samuel Fleisher was born into a prosperous Philadelphia German Jewish family. He never experienced any of the hardships faced by the impoverished immigrants he helped throughout his lifetime. Fleisher’s family fought in the Civil War and was listed in The Jews of Philadelphia in 1894. He sailed straight out of Wharton business school at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) to become vice president of his family’s yarn manufacturing company. In spite of his wealth, Fleisher was deeply moved by what he saw all around–millions of unskilled immigrants desperately trying to make their way in the New World. Not just Jews, but Italians, Germans, Poles, Irish, and African Americans.

The Graphic Sketch Club was open in the evening with working people in mind. When Fleisher died in 1944 he left his estate in trust to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for the perpetuation of the Graphic Sketch Club, which was renamed the Samuel S. Fleisher Art Memorial in his memory. Thanks to Fleisher’s bequest, the school continues to offer children and adults tuition-free classes and low-cost workshops, as well as serving children in public schools and community centers throughout South Philadelphia. Last year alone, Fleisher served 25,000 students.

Episcopal Church of the Evangelist in 1885. | Photo courtesy of Fleisher Art Memorial

Famous immigrants who studied at Fleisher include architect Louis Kahn. Born into a poor Jewish family in what was then the Russian Empire and is now Estonia, he arrived in Philadelphia as a child in 1906. It is not known whether Kahn attended Fleisher before or during his architecture studies at Penn. We only know that he opened his own architecture studio in Philadelphia in 1935 and went on to become a professor of architecture at Penn and Yale, as well as one of America’s most acclaimed architects. His most famous works include the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California and the National Assembly Building in Bangladesh, which appears to float on water.

Given the number of students who partake in Fleisher’s programs every year, it is impossible to say how many other immigrants, like Kahn, have benefited from art classes there. So why has the cost of attending Fleisher increased? We put that question to the current executive director.

“Until 1983, Fleisher was a department of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which had allowed the art school to charge students as little as ten dollars a class,” said Monica Zimmerman. “Since then, Fleisher has raised tuition prices for those who can afford to pay which has resulted in the school’s ability to hire a larger and more diverse faculty. Meanwhile, free classes, which quickly fill up, are still offered ever semester, along with tuition assistance for low-income students. In addition, Fleisher has an ambitious outreach program with public schools and with Philly’s many immigrant communities.”

Gerard Silva, Fleisher’s director of exhibitions, community outreach and social activism, works with a multitude of communities that seem to grow everyday. “I have to understand what art means to each nationality,” said Silva. “For Indonesians, everyday life is art. How they eat, dance, dress. Most live in Point Breeze. When we got a grant, I reached out to Modero, an Indonesian dance company. We decided to do an Indonesian festival and used the grant to give free dance lessons to children and adults here at Fleisher every Wednesday evening.” 

Modero, an Indonesian dance company teaches classes to the public at Fleisher Art Memorial on Wednesday nights. | Photo courtesy of Fleisher Art Memorial

When it comes to the Latinx community Silva says it is constantly expanding. “I started working with the Mexican community. Now, I work with immigrants from Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala,” said Silva, who is from Puerto Rico and began as a Fleisher instructor of screen printing 16 years ago. 

“The newest group are Venezuelan,” Silva said, who launched El Mercado Cultural, a once a month Venezuelan artisans marketplace at Cherry Street Pier, now in its third year. “We try to promote culture through craft. Our purpose is to get these craftspeople out of their communities and display their artwork to the public. It’s free for vendors and for the public.”

“Our largest event is the Day of the Dead Fest in the fall,” said Silva. “When we first started, only 50 people attended. Now we have thousands. In 1929, Fleisher commissioned Philadelphia’s most famous muralist, Violet Oakley, to paint The Life of Moses in the sanctuary. Now, the alter of that sanctuary is decorated with La Ofrenda, offerings to honor the deceased by members of the Mexican community.

If the ghost of Samuel Fleisher were to revisit the art school that bears his name, he would likely be amazed by the center’s students’ passion, talent, and the multitude of nationalities they represent, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he chose Le Dia de los Meurtos for his reappearance.



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About the Author

Stacia Friedman is a Philadelphia freelance writer and visual artist who tried New York and Los Angeles on for size and came home to roost. Her articles have appeared in WHYY’s Newsworks, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The New York Times, Broad Street Review, and Chestnut Hill Local. She loves the city’s architecture, history, and vibrant arts scene.

2 Comments:

  1. Joshua Castano says:

    If Mr. Fleisher were to visit he would no doubt be saddened and disappointed by the poor stewardship of this landmark building by the school named for him. He loved the church for its unique artistic glory, nearly completed ignored (except for the Oakley altar), and now is a very sad state of neglect and destruction.

  2. Tony Farma says:

    Three generations of my family have benefited
    from the diverse artistic and cultural offerings that Fleisher has made available! My brother in the 70s attended Fleisher while preparing to attend Philadelphia College of Art for an Industrial Design B.A. My daughter then attended Saturday morning youth classes in the 90s and went on to attend Moore College for fashion design.And finally my grandson attended weekend and summer classes at Fleisher and appears to be a budding Anime artist.Fleisher Art Institute has indeed served my family and the city in providing artistic opportunities for all walks of life in Philadelphia!

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