Fleisher and Immigrants: a History and Future Together

Dear Friends of Fleisher,

Since our founding in 1898, Fleisher has been a Sanctuary driven by a simple mission: make art accessible to everyone. More than a century later we remain wholly committed to that ideal and remain an ally to the remarkable immigrants who have persevered for access to freedom, opportunity, and self-expression.


This is Sam. Samuel Stuart Fleisher was the third child of German Jewish immigrants. Driven by a desire to improve the lives of the children of the families laboring in his family’s successful wool factory, Sam started Fleisher – then called the Graphic Sketch Club – to provide them with access to the arts, “a playground for the soul.”

“The effect of stimulation to the mind and heart is enduring. It results in good government builded on citizens with a vision. A vision comes to those who are permitted to study and to master the arts. Without art life often is a hand-to-mouth existence.”

— excerpt from Philadelphia’s First Citizen, The Brooklyn Eagle, 1923.

One of the countless children who benefited from that access was Louis. A 12-year-old immigrant from Estonia, Louis Kahn’s parents fled their home country in 1906 to avoid conscription in the Russo-Japanese War. His interest in the arts at an early age forged a path toward his later recognition as one of America’s most important architects (and a Fleisher board member). He could often be found playing the piano in the Sanctuary, and his vibrant architectural legacy is the inspiration behind Fleisher’s Kahn Lecture Room.


This is a work of art by Siah, who was inspired by Louis’s ideals. Siah Armajani is an Iranian-born American sculptor who emigrated to America in 1960 to study. His fascination with American writers such as Emerson, Melville, and Whitman is implicit in his 1982 Kahn Lecture Room, where a verse by Whitman is engraved in the floor. Running along the cornice are some of Kahn’s quotations, one of which reads, “Schools began with a man under a tree who did not know he was a teacher, sharing his realization with a few others who did not know they were students.”


Our facilities manager Grisha Zeitlin takes care of the Kahn Lecture Room, our Sanctuary, and all of our art studios. His family came to Philadelphia in 1975, when he was 12, as political refugees supported by HIAS. After a brief accidental first job with the CIA, his father opened a family restaurant in Germantown (Grisha claims he still makes a mean cheesesteak).

Grisha is an artist and is currently watching 11 documentaries on Ai Wei Wei. If an artist proposes presenting a controversial work at Fleisher, Grisha is the first to vehemently advocate for their freedom of expression.

This artwork pictured at the top of this post was made at Fleisher by Erika Guadalupe Núñez and was printed on bags to raise money for Juntos and awareness about the Berks Detention Center, one of three family detention centers in the country.

She first interned at Fleisher while attending Bryn Mawr College. At the time, she was undocumented. In her spare time, she took classes at Fleisher. We first met in an etching class, and months later, I was thrilled to have her join the Fleisher team.

Today, Erika works behind the scenes of all our programs, handling tuition-assistance, models, faculty pay,and coordinating ColorWheels visits. Nothing at Fleisher happens without her deft touch. After Fleisher, she goes home and starts her second shift, as an artist, a volunteer board member of Juntos, and to teach GALAEI youth about art and social justice.


This is Juan Hurtado. I met Juan when he interned with José Ortiz-Pagán, our exhibitions manager. From there, he participated in Teen Lounge and gained educational experience as a teaching assistant in our Saturday Young Artists program. Juan is a DREAMer from Colombia and an art student at Tyler School of Art.

I took this photo last weekend at #CollectiveActionPHL where he donated artwork and volunteered his time. Like Erika, he is also getting involved in bringing attention to the impact of deportation on families through art and activism.

These are just a few of the extraordinary people in Fleisher’s community. Often, we talk about the scale of our programming – more than 70 free and affordable classes and workshops each term! 850 children in our youth education programs! 17,000 people touched by art annually! In our news, people are grouped and labeled — immigrants, undocumented, 99%, refugees.

Today, I want to take a moment and share some of the individuals that I have had the privilege to know and who make Fleisher a Sanctuary for all of us.

You are welcomed here. We are here to help you tell your story through art.

In solidarity,

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