With the summer season comes a new wave of growth in the City of Brotherly Love, including on the arts front—and it’s going to be a win for the whole community.
Philadelphia-based fine artist and entrepreneur Keisha Whatley has announced plans to renovate an historic building located at 6228 Germantown Avenue (on the border of Germantown and Mt. Airy) and transform it into Germantown ArtHaus — an artist-focused co-working space and café that will become a gateway to one of Philadelphia’s most historic neighborhoods.
“I call myself a community entrepreneur,” says Whatley. “My company, Custom Arts Studio, is a for-profit entity but, in many ways, operates with a nonprofit’s focus. I have always had a heart to help others. It has never been enough for me to win; I want everyone to win.”
Whatley’s Studio focuses on specializing in fine art, but the entrepreneur had the idea to create an organization to help artists, one whose mission is to help other artists earn money from their craft on top of offering professional development specifically designed for creatives, and opportunities to exhibit and connect with buyers.
“Over the years, as I learned about the importance of ownership, self-determination and equity, this idea transformed into purchasing a 3-story building that would offer those opportunities, workshops, and community connection,” explains Whatley.
That building came in the form of the three-story Victorian, which formerly housed several minority-owned businesses.
“Most people shy away from buildings that are falling apart but I love them, there are so many possibilities,” continues Whatley. “The structure and layout were perfect for the vision I had been developing for years. When Jania [Daniels of A Better Community with Daniels] connected me to PIDC, I immediately applied for a loan that would cover the acquisition and renovation. While we have secured the building and the majority of the renovation costs, restoring a 150-year-old building comes with its own list of surprises.”
However, the building also has its own set of interesting values on top of being full of potential for Whatley.
As Whatley says, the building was built in the 1860’s and the former owners were William and Ena Swain. They purchased the building in 1979, but before then it was a pharmacy. The Swains ran both an accounting office and print shop on the main floor. Ena Swain was a prominent historian in Philadelphia and she was the first African-American bookkeeper and accountant for the W.C. Schmidt & Sons Inc. brewery. Her husband, William Swain, Jr., became the first African American in Philadelphia to be granted a “Union Bug” (The Union Bug is a prestigious badge for offset printing and graphics artists, says Whatley). In 1971, he was awarded a Distinguished Service Citation by the City of Philadelphia for his groundbreaking work in promoting access and diversity in Philadelphia’s trade unions. William and Ena had four children, one of which is a visual artist. After her parents died, the artist used the second floor of the building as an artist studio.
“It seems odd to start such a project (one that aims to bring people together), during a pandemic but the timing could not be more perfect in my eyes. When we open in 6-8 months, the community will be ready to connect, view beautiful art and attend events. I am also a crazy entrepreneur. No risk, no reward. I bet on myself, my team, and my community,” explains Whatley. “The pandemic afforded me a perfect storm. I had found other properties over the last 3 years that would work for this project and each time funding was a major hurdle. My realtor and good friend, Jania, experienced all of the ups and downs and knew exactly what I was looking for. When she called me in December and told me about the property—the fact that it was formerly black-owned and the family wanted to sell to an arts and community-focused mission—I knew I had to see it and when I walked in, I immediately fell in love.”
After finding the building, Whatley launched a GoFundMe Campaign in February of this year, two full months before they closed on the building. So far, Whatley’s GoFundMe has raised $7,300 of their $100,000 goal. The fund is still open now, and can be found at charity.gofundme.com
Whatley describes the Germantown ArtHaus as ultimately a creative hub at the gateway to Germantown. But there will be so much more inside than just what meets the eye.
“The first floor will host a Cafe offering coffee and specialty drinks, smoothies, salads, sandwiches and soups. We will also employ a Resident Baker to bake on site. Like Barnes & Noble & Starbucks… but with art instead of books. We will curate various works of art by local artisans (jewelry, apparel, paintings, sculpture, digital art, etc.) and consign with them. We will also mentor our consigned artists. The cafe is also designed to offer artists the opportunity to paint and create “live” in one of our storefront windows and we plan to host live music. Our side yard will be used for outdoor seating, evening live music events and off-hours outdoor arts programming,” explains Whatley.
“The second floor will provide the community three artist studios for lease (individually or with a “studio-mate”) by artists or entrepreneurs. Professional Development Workshops and the opportunity to consign their work in the cafe will be extended to our studio artists. The third floor will be a studio apartment with a rooftop deck to extend the living space. On the lower level of the building, we will lease a 775 sq. ft. space to a commercial tenant or nonprofit for administrative or programming space. The space has a private entrance in the rear of the building.”
A few weeks ago, Whatley hosted The Germantown Artist Summit, a gathering of Philadelphia artists and creators to discuss the many opportunities the space affords local artists, and also pitch their Community Mural project. At the summit, the group of creatives decided on a mural titled ‘Transforming Tragedy: a Gateway to Hope’ which aims to honor the lives lost to police brutality while looking forward to a world where we never have to create a mural like this again. Another mural will include ‘The Selfie Project’. This series encourages youth to create self-portraits, which will be installed on the East-facing wall of the building.
The outreach doesn’t stop there. The Buy a Brick Campaign encourages the community to “Buy a Brick” at the $500 donation level which will be engraved with their name and installed in the sidewalk in front of the cafe. The Give A Hand campaign keeps the same ideology but at the $250 donation level and will get donors a handprint on the exterior of the building. There are also the local businesses sponsorships available.
“The entire building will be covered in mural, selfie portraits and art,” says Whatley. “Given that our building is the Gateway to and from Germantown, I will be completing a “Thanks for visiting Germantown” mural on the East-facing wall. Local businesses are welcome to contact me to have their logo included on the East-facing wall to thank visitors for visiting Germantown.”
In total, the space is planned to open in the fall, but the efforts this summer will help Philadelphians see the vision that Whatley has been working on through a pandemic and over a decade.
“I want people to know that I need their help and support. While we have acquired the building, we are a long way from our fundraising goal. Every donation counts and all donations (from $1 to $1,000+) are tax-deductible (and we accept $1 donations!). I have been clear from the start, that this will be a community effort, and as such, this project will belong to and be in service to the community,” explains Whatley. “I am so humbled and overwhelmed by the community’s support thus far. Our future looks bright as a community. My greatest hope is for The Germantown ArtHaus to be a beacon of light, a hub of positive energy, connection, and a resource to the community; a place where people go to exhale, breathe, take in beautiful works of art and get inspired.”