CAi founders Brookes Britcher (left) and Bryan Rice. (Photo by Pete Mazzaccaro)

by Pete Mazzaccaro

On a cold Saturday morning, Brookes Britcher and Bryan Rice were busy breaking down the interior of 8517 Germantown Ave., a retail space that had for the past eight months served as the home exhibition space for the arts collective they founded, the Chestnut Hill Arts Initiative.

Britcher and Rice took a moment to talk about the past year and how the initiative has grown since its earliest Germantown Avenue exhibit, Project Sketchbook, which filled empty storefront windows with works by student artists from area schools. After that, the initiative became a driving force behind contemporary art in Chestnut Hill.

Since that show, Britcher and Rice organized two exhibits. The first was “New Trails” that had numerous exhibits by 24 different artists installed along the Avenue in Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill, along the Wissahickon Creek and at 8517 Germantown Ave. That show was open for 28 days and saw 1,300 people pass through the Avenue space. Last month, Chestnut Hill Arts Initiative’s “Ambassador” saw 600 people visit the space in only six days.

What distinguishes from CAI from anything else going on in Chestnut Hill? How important do you think it is for Chestnut Hill?

Rice:  I think the first thing is the idea that it is an initiative. It’s something that can continually be developed. With that we can bring in outside ideas to develop and parallel our own ideas. There’s a lot of ground for really contemporary projects out here. Just in the last two shows we were able to determine there’s a real interest in contemporary art on the Avenue and in Chestnut Hill in general. The fact that it’s an initiative it’s continually driven and not holding steadfast to one idea.

Britcher: It’s one thing that’s unique about it. It’s so malleable. You can do projects in empty storefront windows and then you can do the New Trails in the Wissahickon. We saw an amazing amount of positive response based on the tone and mood of work and the kind of space we were working in. People young and old were impressed, refreshed with seeing younger work that’s not readily available here. It’s something that can grow and be anything. Without the weight of operating a physical space and not completely concerned with the sale of work.

Were you able to tell how many people came here from Chestnut Hill? How have the crowds been?

Britcher: We did our best to capture ZIP codes at New Trails and found people had come from London all over the country and region. The Ambassador opening had more of a local feel. That was the nature of the project anyway. Seeing all these shopkeepers from the Avenue all in one spot enjoying a beer.

Rice: That was a pretty wonderful night. It was a community celebration.

Britcher: It’s tough for people to realize something’s going on when there hasn’t been something in it for a while. As we’ve done this project, the response is larger and larger and more and more people stop in and join the mailing list to see what’s going on.

Would a permanent space be a benefit at all? I see something where people knew that this is where the contemporary art can be found?

Rice: It’s definitely something we’re interested in. The idea of flexibility and malleability speaks mostly to the type of dialogue that we want to bring out here. Wherever it happens, even if it happens in a permanent space, we want to create different types of artistic dialogue in this region. This region is ready and already accepting of it. They want to be challenged. They want to be questioned and reciprocate and ask their own questions. It’s an incredibly intelligent audience here and very cultured. They’re very aware of what’s going on in the art world.

Britcher: We wanted [when we started] to be sure that the young artistic community is aware there are opportunities out here. It’s a wonderful audience here. A different audience. I knew it would be a challenge. There’s a stigma about Chestnut Hill as a place where art can’t happen.  We knew it could.

So how has this last year been? Has it been good? Do you see Chestnut Hill Arts Initiative growing?

Rice:  A lot of awareness has been created about the kind of projects were doing. It’s been huge for us.

Britcher: And the artists too. We think of projects as a dialogue. We want to see if it’s possible if we can learn what’s going on and the artist can learn something and take active ownership with the projects. New Trails was a real sense of process to get these things approved, and it took a lot of creative brains storming together. That’s the most rewarding.

What we’d love to see grow out of that is a community that can support younger artists, that attracts people, whether it’s affordable studio space or desirable place to show work and have performance space. What drives that is to get artists to invest in that idea. I think that’s what we’ve done – we’ve scratched the surface of that.

What else defined the year for the arts initiative?

Britcher: What’s definitely important to me is that the Bowman guys didn’t have to do this. For the last two years all we’ve experienced is a real beneficial relationship with them and seen people really interested in doing something different in the community. They sent up guys to help us finish the floor … It wasn’t just stick stuff in the window, and we’ll let you know when you need to leave. Richard [Snowden] and Jess [Orso were always excited about what we were doing. They treated us like a real tenant. They treated the projects like they were going to be beneficial to the community.

When can we expect the next project?

Britcher: We’ll reevaluate what the next step is. We’ve kind of run out of spaces we can use. Maybe the idea has to change into something else. Maybe it becomes more collaborative with the CHCA or maybe it’s networking with the galleries. We’re going to keep developing ideas and projects. Maybe this summer?

Rice: Yeah. Why not?