Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Prisons Reimagined for the Arts

Described as America's "most historic prison", Eastern State Penitentiary opened in 1829 in the Fairmount neighborhood of Philadelphia with the express purpose to change inmate behavior through "confinement in solitude with labor". Its radial or wheel floor plan and sky-lit cells became a model for more than 300 prisons worldwide. After closing in 1971, Eastern State existed for decades as nothing more than an abandoned fortress. Now a preserved ruin, it is the setting for audio tours narrated by actor Steve Buscemi, "live" tours, and site-specific contemporary art installations. The latter include Mary DeWitt's "Pardon Me", comprising reverse glass paintings of a group of women sentenced to life in Pennsylvania's State Correctional Institution at Muncy; sculptor Susan Hagen's "Recollection Tableaux", a series of miniature dioramas of daily life in Eastern State; and Alexa Hoyer's "I always wanted to go to Paris, France", which uses three televisions to screen excerpts from more than 70 years of prison film history.

The video below offers an introduction to Eastern State's 2010 arts season.

You might also enjoy ESP's Ghost Hunters and Ghost Adventures projects. 

For a virtual reality tour of the complex, go here. A recently opened Tower Cam offers the perspective that a guard would have had on  the center tower's catwalk.

Currently, ESP is seeking art installation proposals for its 2011 tour season. Proposals (meaning delivery at the site) are due June 15. Up to $7,500 per project is available.

Eastern State Penitentiary is not the only such re-imagined institution. Here in Virginia, Lorton Reformatory is being renovated as Workhouse Arts Center. Currently, the center, which is set on 55 acres of land, is home to more than 150 established and emerging artists. In addition to artist studios, the Workhouse provides venues for theatre and other performances, dedicated space for art exhibitions, and state-of-the-art facilities for art classes and workshops and such events as wine tastings and arts festivals. When renovation is complete, the center will consist of 234,000 square feet of building space, 60,000 square feet of new construction, and 40 acres of open space.

Go here for a brief history of Workhouse Arts Center. Below is a promotional video. The center is administered by the Lorton Arts Foundation.

Other examples of innovative reuse of former prisons as art spaces include Armory Arts Village on the site of the 19th Century Jackson State Prison, in Jackson, Michigan (go here for more information about the AAP); Telfair Central, home to a branch of the Houston Museum of Natural Science in the historic Central State Farm building donated to the City of Sugar Land, Texas; and Norristown, Pennsylvania's proposed location of a Museum of Industry and Industrial Arts in the county prison.


lucy said...

wow. what an interesting use of space.

M.L. Gallagher said...

I love the 'repurposing' -- if only they'd thought of incorporating art while the prison's were in use, perhaps lives might have been changed for hte better too!

n. davis rosback said...

sounds wonderfully artsy-fartsy