It takes three flights of stairs to enter Vox Populi and the view of the train trestle becomes increasingly beautiful from each landing. This isn’t a refurbished, eye-candy part of town. Instead, there are hollowed-out buildings, abandoned trolley-tracks and the trestle—the only thing around that is exploding with anything green.
I spoke with Andrew Suggs, the Director of Vox, over the course of several months. Suggs, a Tennessee native, embraces the legacy of the 1980s-founded-gallery, the challenges of its third-floor locale and his transition from artist to curator.
This is a great old building.
[Laughs] Yeah...but sometimes it's not ideal...we just had a freight elevator fiasco.
Just now? [February 2011]
Mmhmm, from our last show, we had to transport 60 or so cinderblocks. Come 'ere. [Andrew invites me to over to his desk, where he pulls up a photo of a long beam of blocks—in varying colors] Yeah, we had to pack that up and ship it back to the artist.
Last time we spoke, you mentioned the cinderblocks. Have you had any recent dilemmas?
[Laughs] Yeah, for our current show, we couldn’t get one of our artist’s paintings up in the elevator because the piece is eleven-by-six feet. So instead, we attempted to reel it up using ropes.
A pulley system?
Nope. [Laughing] Just ropes on the side of the building. Then, we had a problem because the balcony railing isn’t removable and there was no way to angle it so it would clear the balcony. In the end, the artist was really great and she unstretched the painting, broke it down into pieces and fitted it back together here. We try to make things work.
What other challenges have you experienced in this building?
We’re actually pretty lucky. Our landlord is flexible about the space. When we first got here, there were no walls, so we had to build all the walls you see. As far as artists, [looks behind his shoulder at a metal apparatus that extends from the ceiling and tapers all the way down the wall] we allow people to drill into the walls and the floors and give them as much license as they need. We want to provide them with opportunities they don’t have at a commercial space.
What changes have you seen in the neighborhood since you’ve been here?
When we moved here, another gallery was in the building called Copy Gallery. It was just Vox and Copy at that time.
Has that place since closed?
Yeah. And the building became quickly populated. Now, there are about ten galleries. It’s a locus of activity.
How about the neighborhood itself?
The bar on the corner, Trestle Inn, was formerly a seedy strip club. People used to go there to pick up 40s to go for [gallery] openings. Recently, a couple bought the place and they are making it into a younger, artistic space. It’s going to be a gastro pub with burlesque dancers. They are trying to retain the flavor of the space, but it’s definitely being gentrified.
How did you get involved with Vox?
I moved to Philly in 2005 and found Vox, it seemed like the most interesting gallery around. I interned, and then became an artist member, and after a year and a half, I applied for the director position—because the previous director was about to take another position.
Wow, so things happened pretty quickly for you. Where are you from originally?
The Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. [Laughs]
You transitioned from artist member to director pretty seamlessly. Was this a path you’d always planned on taking or did it happen more serendipitously?
When I was an artist member, I was also the exhibitions coordinator, so I had a leadership role. I had to decide whether I wanted to leave the non-profit sector for a position that was only eighteen hours a week.
So the director position started at only eighteen hours?
How did it grow to full-time?
Grants. I had to look for funding. But for the first six months or so, it was only eighteen hours a week. I supplemented that time by teaching a class at Moore College.
And what brought you to Philly?
After school, I decided to come to Philly because I heard it was cheap and there was good art stuff happening.
What did you study in college?
I studied visual and environmental studies at Harvard, but it's caused a lot of discrepancies because it has nothing to do with nature. The “environmental studies” part refers to building space, architecture.
Really? That is confusing; you'd think that Harvard of all places would be focused on diction.
Yeah, it has forced me to do a lot of explaining when I've applied at various places. But it's a really cool studio program that focuses on visual culture.
Since your background is in art, how has your own art changed since you came to Vox?
I was trained as an artist, but my role has really shifted now. I'm a lot more focused on administrative, curatorial involvement. I'm still an artist member here, so I show every fifteen months—and for my last show, I set up a stage and had people do performances. My own art is kind of on a hiatus, but I'm happy about what I'm doing.
Are most of the artists that show here local?
It's actually half and half. We have a core membership now of between twenty and twenty-five artists.
The artists run the space too, each person has duties and must staff for a certain amount of hours each month.
How did Vox land at this location?
Our last location, next to the Pennsylvania Convention Center, was torn down, so we were forced to move. Vox has moved a handful of times since the '80s. We have a friend next door in a printing studio and at the time, this space was loft apartments, but our friend heard the tenants were leaving soon and he was right. Our move here was rather serendipitous.
Has the Philly art scene changed since then?
In the past six years, I've seen between thirty and forty galleries emerge in the city. Three and a half years ago, we were one of only two galleries in this building—now there are between eight and ten galleries. Which is great, I think a plurality of voices is exciting. Now that there are so many galleries, people can focus in on an individual need they can serve.
So what is the history of Vox?
Vox is an artist collective that's about twenty-three years old. It was formed in the late '80s by young college grads that felt there was no art space for them.
What's the story behind the naming of Vox Populi?
It's actually a Latin term meaning “voice of the people.” I'm pretty far removed from the original naming, but rumor is a bunch of the original members were sitting around, arguing over a name and one of them was flipping through a dictionary and landed on Vox Populi. [Laughing] It's a lot more anarchist and socialist than we are staking claim to now, but back then it was influenced by the punk and squatter culture. A lot has changed.