Pioneering Philly women’s arts club celebrates 125 years

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Philadelphia in the late 19th century was home to some of the country’s most successful and celebrated women artists. They studied at the city’s renowned art and design colleges, and worked as illustrators for the town’s top-selling magazines. What they couldn’t do: participate in Philadelphia’s art clubs. At the time, these salons and societies banned women, and offered only men the space to discuss and exhibit work.

So Philly women started a group of their own. They called it The Plastic Club, and later this month, members will celebrate the organization’s 125th anniversary.

In March of 1897, the founders met at Philadelphia School of Design for Women (now Moore College of Art) to realize their vision. They included two women taught by Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts: painter Emily Sartain, also principal of the School of Design, and Blanche Dillaye, an early printmaker. (It was she who suggested the club use the word “plastic” — the fluid state of a work in progress — in its name.)

Organizers also included muralist Violet Oakley, one of the first women to receive a commission for public art, and celebrated painter and engraver Alice Barber Stephens, one of the most popular illustrators for Ladies Home Journal at the time.

“A club of women artists now exists in this city,” The Inquirer reported on May 16, 1897. Membership, it said, was open to “women engaged in the practice of art in any of its branches, whether it be as teachers, as painters, sculptors, illustrators or architects.”

The Plastic Club rented a small space at 10 S. 18th Street, and the press began covering its events widely. Its slate of exhibitions drew critical praise and reviews in Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, and Town and Country. While the society did on occasion invite men to lecture and show work, it maintained some events just for women: members-only meetings, exhibitions, and Wednesday “Club Day” programming.

With over 100 members on the roster, The Plastic Club was ready for a permanent home. In 1909, members held arts benefits to help fundraise the approximately $7,500 they would need to purchase property for a clubhouse

They chose 247 S. Camac St. in Center City. The narrow street — nestled in the modern Gayborhood between 12th and 13th, Spruce and Locust — was at the time home to several taverns that sent bar fights into the alley at all hours.

But it had recently become known as an art hub. Six years earlier, the men-only Philadelphia Sketch Club moved into 235 S. Camac St., and the men’s cultural lodge Franklin Inn opened a few years prior at 205 S. Camac St.

The Plastic Club in the right foreground of the Camac Street strip
Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

The Plastic Club still operates out of the same Camac Street address, which it has done continuously since its founding.

A few decades ago, in the early 1990s, both it and the Philadelphia Sketch Club dropped their gender-specific membership rules. Artist Michael Guinn, a UArts graduate, lived near the club for decades without knowing much about it. About 25 years ago, after entering his mother’s piece into a club-sponsored contest, he realized the membership had become almost entirely elderly ladies. The building also needed costly restoration.

“I thought, this club won’t be around much longer,” Guinn said, chuckling. He decided to get involved.

He became president, and also served on the board, helping the nonprofit save its modest membership dues (either $40 or $60 annually) for building repairs and scholarship awards. The new leadership added more weekly programs, and leaned into social media. Gradually, Guinn said, “It started to turn around.”

When COVID started shuttering the city, the club shifted to a virtual platform.

The club has an outdoor space that hosts social events in spring and summer
Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Plastic Club member Tina Cheung, a web designer based in Bella Vista, helped revamp the website and shift exhibitions online. She’d joined in 2013 after moving from Brooklyn. Having studied at the Pratt Institute, Tina Cheung was used to the NYC art scene, where private art clubs require some kind of insider status for admission.

“I thought, ‘Oh, I have to be somebody to go in,’” she said of The Plastic Club, and almost couldn’t believe it when a co-worker told her that anyone could pay a small fee to attend a drawing class for three hours. So she tried it out.

“It is so welcoming yet it feels so old school and old fashioned.” Cheung said. She generally loves Philadelphia’s art scene, which she describes as “super accessible” and “down and dirty” compared to New York’s “upper crusty” atmosphere.

To help The Plastic Club’s transition to virtual, she and member Bob Lee rebuilt the website twice to make it “lively and interactive,” and she and others beefed up the club’s social media presence.  Board member Roberta Gross led the effort to produce live salons, talks, and exhibitions online.

Guinn, who is now responsible for membership, building maintenance and archives, said the virtual shift has attracted members from around the world. One reason is the Plastic Club’s open call for “Artists in Quarantine: An Ongoing Exhibition.” Accepted submissions are consistently published on Facebook and Instagram.

To commemorate its 125th anniversary, the club is planning a Jan. 25 event to install a new plaque at the Camac Street property. If they don’t feel an in-person event is appropriate, Cheung is confident they’ll adjust.

The Plastic Club has possessed a resilient spirit since 1897, Chung said. To her, that’s what makes its story “quintessentially Philadelphian.”

Members are planning to replace the plaque in a ceremony commemorating the 125th anniversary
Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

125 years after women founded The Plastic Club to break into a men-only scene, the arts group is thriving