Weekly Update – Franklin and Cassway

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This week’s Weekly has my story about Nexus and its Ben Franklin show. Here’s the link to the art page and below is the copy with more pictures. Here’s Libby’s post on the show.

All About the Benjamin

Thirty-year-old Nexus Gallery has been a grand old player in the Philadelphia art scene and an anchor at 137 N. Second St. since 1990, when it signed a 30-year sublease for its space. Like all nonprofit membership organizations, Nexus weathered financial storms in the 1990s when NEA grants evaporated and other agencies tightened belts. Right now the group is chugging along with high energy sparked by some great alternative programming by executive director Nick Cassway, who organized the museumlike “Benjamin Franklin: An American Idol”-a show so rosy, educational and democratic it feels like an outpost of the Franklin Institute. (image is cast silicone bust of Franklin produced by Robert A. Erb, Ph.D. in conjunction with Silicone Studio in Valley Forge. The piece uses Erb’s newly-invented technology and materials, something Franklin would be happy with.)

Cassway, an artist and former Nexus member with a history of activist projects of his own (one at Eastern State Penitentiary focused on juvenile offenders on death row), has been steering the gallery into adventuresome waters in which art is a more slippery and political fish than in other Old City galleries. Art exhibits for Cassway often involve collaboration, interactivity and things that some art enthusiasts might have trouble labeling as art-although they’d probably enjoy them just the same. (image above is cast medallions of “Franklin and Aretha” by Ryan Kelley.)

“Idol,” a collaborative effort with the local Media Tank, is a case in point. Not only is the show a mix of sculpture, video, puppetry and audio, but it’s got several public-spirited projects that stretch beyond what’s “normal” for a gallery. Katherine Sharpe‘s Four Hundred Words autobiography station is a small writing desk with free paper, stamped envelopes and directions on how to submit your story (400 words max) for inclusion in the Four Hundred Words book project. (image is the sweet 400 Words desk)


There’s an antique letterpress (shown above) on loan from University of the Arts that artists are using to make prints on the spot. (Cassway has made several.) The prints are free for the taking, and if you’re lucky, you’ll drop in when someone who can explain how a letterpress operates is working.

I asked Cassway about Nexus’ new edgier image.

“When I took over there was an image problem with the gallery,” he says. “I heard the gallery looked run down and dodgy. I knew people weren’t doing their gallery jobs.”

(image is a slide show from flickr projected on a wall in the gallery — all images tagged “democracy” are included in the rss feed from the image server.)

Cassway and Nexus board president Chris Vecchio did “a significant amount of budget cutting” when they took over a few years back, and now they’re in the black.

“I changed the logo,” says Cassway. “We painted the front gallery. To me, we exist for the public eye, so I’ve been concentrating on the image. We have a great space, and if we don’t concentrate on who we are, then why are we doing this? What we need now is more artist members.”

Nexus has 17 active members. Membership comes with a two-year commitment, $50 in monthly dues and six hours a month of gallery sitting. For that you get one solo exhibit in two years and the chance to participate in group shows like “Idol,” or the recent members’ theme show “Discontent.”

(image is installation shot from the First Friday opening. Spiral Q Puppet Theater installation on the right)

Cassway, 37, a Tyler B.F.A. who teaches computer design at Drexel and Temple, is inventive, civicly engaged and interested in technology. (Here’s his website and more about his curating at Dissentia a renegade curating venture he does with Chris Wilson. Stay tuned, Cassway told me he’s working on a Dissentia idea.)

Cassway sees Nexus’ new role as an incubator for new art: a place where handmade zines, podcasts, spoken word and blogs-things that have performance and interactivity in their heart-come together.

“I like to bring in nontraditional artists and people who don’t really call what they do art. I liked curating this show. It’s not typical of what you see in a gallery. I wanted it to be an event like the circus-something you could investigate, something evolving.”

He also wants to broaden the audience beyond the First Friday crowd, and move Nexus further into the technological realm with computer and video art. February will see the gallery turned over completely to a traveling show of young British video artists. Local artist Nick Lenker is making soft sculptures for viewers to lounge on while watching. (I took these images of Cassway when we talked in the gallery. My favorite is the phone booth shot, below, where the artist sits in Jodie Sweitzer‘s interactive installation piece. The affect is Clark Kent after a really bad day chasing villains.)


Ben Franklin would love this Nexus show, and where the new Nexus is headed-into the land where science, art, words, performance and invention collide and make something exciting and new.

“Benjamin Franklin: An American Idol”
Though Jan. 22. Nexus, 137 N. Second St. 215.629.1103.

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