Contemporary Art

Getting into the Spirit with Philadelphia Contemporary’s Nato Thompson

By Maria Howard
Nato Thompson’s dream for Philadelphia Contemporary is to create a “multidisciplinary kunsthalle” that will celebrate the historic city’s subculture as much as its culture. Appointed to the role of artistic director of the non-profit last November, Thompson says that he looks forward to it being “a locally, civically engaged international art institution”.

F or now, the organisation has no permanent home, but he is working with architects to ensure this will happen by 2021; in the meantime Philadelphia Contemporary will continue working on public art projects, as initiated by founder Harry Philbrick.

Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

Thompson, who previously spent 11 years at New York non-profit Creative Time, is a champion of Philadelphia and its growing art scene. He hopes to involve the wider community as part of his new role. “We are really interested in broadening the space of what art we play home to. Sure, we’ll do painting shows, video art and sculpture, but we also want to do performing arts, music and food.” This idea of inclusivity is clearly important to Thompson, who is aware of the opportunities the city can offer. “Philadelphia is very affordable so artists can actually get big studio spaces, they can even buy their own homes,” he says. “I feel like cities that allow mixed income people to all live together makes for great culture.”

Nato Thompson.

Indeed there is a healthy diaspora of artists leaving New York for Philadelphia, as well as many sticking around after studying at the city’s respected art schools. The art scene reflects that, with a number of non-profit and artist-run spaces opening up every year, and Thompson hopes Philadelphia Contemporary can embody some of this fresh spirit by being an evolving and experimental project space rather than a traditional museum. “I really like institutions that allow young artists to try things,” he says. “Sometimes I feel like museums have gotten so tucked in – everyone has to be famous and everything looks so clean. I remember the early [MoMA] PS1 exhibitions in New York were fun: artists just tried stuff out and even when they failed you felt the energy coming from having [their] first project and going for it. I really want to keep that energy – supporting a local scene, having it loose.”

Marilyn Minter, RESIST FLAG. Photo: Guillaume Ziccarelli. Courtesy of Creative Time.

It is with this in mind that Thompson is created the project, the Festival of the People. Which previously opened on 13 October, featuring talks and installations from internationally renowned artists including Hito Steyerl, alongside Instagram sensations such as Bread Face, a woman who gained 200,000 followers by filming herself planting her face into various kinds of bread. “I love keeping it really fluid between popular culture and contemporary art culture,” Thompson says. “So under the aegis of festival, we’re bringing in a lot of [things] that you wouldn’t call contemporary art but are certainly cultural, whether it’s underground comics, tattoo culture, zines or mixtapes.”

Temple Contemporary.

His agenda of inclusivity stretches to local institutions as well. “We’re being very collaborative with a lot of institutions in the area, giving them space to do projects and trying to be as ‘team spirit’ about the ways we work as possible”. Some of Thompson’s favourite institutions in the city include Little Berlin, an artist-run space founded in 2007, The Coloured Girls Museum – a museum devoted to the stories and history of black women – and coffee house Amalgam Comics, along with established spaces such as the ICA, Temple Contemporary and, of course, the renowned Barnes Foundation.

The Coloured Girls Museum.

After the Festival for the People Thompson will be presenting a project with choreographer Reggie Wilson in partnership with Partners for Sacred Places and the Danspace Project. “It will be an experience of performances in different churches in the city – you will walk from one to the other – which is really exciting.” At the same time he is busy working on and raising funds for a permanent home for Philadelphia Contemporary, one that can accommodate his broad vision and the great love he has for this vibrant city.

Reggie Wilson, Photo: Aitor Mendilibar.


Reggie Wilson: Grounds That Shout! (And Others Merely Shaking), various sites, Old City and Society Hill, Philadelphia, Spring 2019

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