Chapter 6: Twenty Years of the Fleisher Challenge (1978–1998)

An integral part of Fleisher Art Memorial’s exhibitions and public programming—Fleisher Challenge, now known as the Wind Challenge—was established in 1978. This prestigious annual juried competition has long been committed to featuring the work of exceptional artists living in the Philadelphia region. In the 45 years since its inception, the Challenge series has provided an important showcase for both emerging and more established artists, welcoming a remarkably broad range of practice over the decades. While the structure of Challenge and related programming at Fleisher has continued to evolve, the yearly series of exhibitions has remained devoted to its original mission with a flexible format centered on and largely directed by the participating artists. 

In her 1998 essay from the exhibition catalogue Twenty Philadelphia Artists: Celebrating Fleisher Challenge at Twenty, former Fleisher Art Memorial Director Thora Jacobson reflected upon the formation of Challenge: The creation of the Challenge exhibitions at the Art Memorial in 1977-78, as an institutional commitment and inclusive call to working artists living within a fifty-mile radius of Philadelphia, helped foster a tentative if fragmentary sense that Philadelphia was indeed a good place for artists to live and work.” The establishment of the Fleisher Challenge series in the late 1970s came at a time of need for the city’s artists, who were frustrated by limited opportunities to exhibit and find representation for their work, especially considering the quantity and quality of the art schools in Philadelphia. 

“But in framing the nature of the Challenge series,” as Jacobson explained, “Fleisher found that it could rely on the currency of goodwill that had accumulated during its more than eighty years of direct relationships with artists. From the outset, artists have been at the heart of the Challenge exhibitions–as the constituency served, the primary audience, and the decision-makers who would, over the next twenty years, guide its evolving program and focus.” 

10 x 12 Exhibition 

In 1988, Fleisher co-sponsored and hosted City of the Imagination, a two-day gathering of artists, administrators, funders, and framers of cultural policy meant to shift the focus of discourse from an abstract notion of art-that-provokes to one that examines how artists function in society, and thereby subtly but effectively galvanized the region’s artists into activists. 

City of the Imagination also coincided with the tenth anniversary of the Challenge exhibitions, a moment that tested the impact of the series, and drew the school and gallery closer together. In searching out a venue for that anniversary exhibition, Gallery Coordinator Lanny Bergner recommended that Fleisher in its entirety offer all 37,000 square feet of the space as well as the “sense of place” that would allow for formal as well as informal settings for installations. 

Of the original group of 120 Fleisher Challenge artists, 110 responded to the invitation to participate in the summer exhibition 10 x 12, with seven creating site-specific installations at Fleisher. Using the galleries, Sanctuary, stairwells, and studios, the exhibition served as a confrontation between artists and audiences. Fleisher’s current Business Manager—and former Artist-in-Residence—Geoff Hindle recently shared his memories of the joyous nature of some of the resulting installations, including turf brought in by one of the artists to create a “living lawn” in one of Fleisher’s upper floor studios. The exhibition enlivened classroom discussion at Flesher for months and attracted a record number of Challenge applications in the following year.

Fleisher Challenge at Twenty 

In 1998, Fleisher Art Memorial celebrated its centennial as well as the twentieth anniversary of the Challenge Exhibition series. The Philadelphia Museum of Art paid tribute to Fleisher by inviting 20 artists from the Challenge series to participate in an exhibition at the PMA. The show focused on a twenty-year span of artists and their work and was planned as a complement to Fleisher’s own show featuring nearly 200 Challenge artists. 

The artists featured included Lisa Bartolozzi, Lanny Bergner, Norinne Betjemann, Charles Burwell, Syd Carpenter, Frank Galuszka, Michael Grothusen, Mei-ling Hom, Stacy Levy, Tristin Lowe, Gabriel Martinez, Susan Moore, Kate Moran, Brooke Moyer, Don Nakamura, Stuart Netsky, Bruce Pollock, Judith Schaechter, Hester Stinnett, and Stephen Talasnik. [will include a bit more about the exhibition] 

 In the exhibition’s catalogue, author and curator John Ravenal said, “the notion of Philadelphia art has long been associated with a particular figurative style, identified primarily with the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.” He went on to explain how a subsequent shift in the late 1970s “with the emergence of the Fleisher Challenge series, along with the growth of the local cooperative and commercial gallery scene, played a part in the erosion of cohesive regional style and helped foster the viability of pluralism in the region’s contemporary art.” 

In our next installment, we’ll explore the continuing evolution of Fleisher Challenge and how the exhibition series came to be linked with the Dina Wind Art Foundation and known as the Wind Challenge.

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