The Philadelphia Museum of Art Looks to a Decade of Zoe Strauss

01 Jan 2012

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The Zoe Strauss: Ten Years opening night dance party at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, January 14, 2012. Photo by Inna Spivakova/Philly.com, courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Charday Laverty can't say enough about Zoe Strauss. The two have been friends since 2006, when Laverty worked on a documentary about the Philadelphia-born photographer, a 2005 Pew Fellow in the Arts and a universally beloved figure in her hometown and beyond. Laverty was the subject of one of 54 billboards on view around the city, featuring larger-than-life versions of Strauss' photography. The Billboard Project was part of the Philadelphia Museum of Art's (PMA's) exhibition, Zoe Strauss: Ten Years. In the June 2009 photo, taken the day before Laverty left home to serve in the army, she lies on a bed, legs curled up and half-covered by a towel. From her perch above Torresdale Avenue, she gazes upon North Philadelphia, young and anxious about what lies ahead.

During a short tour of Strauss' billboards prior to the exhibition opening, Laverty showed off iPhone footage of her own billboard to everyone in the car, talking excitedly about how it came to be. "I had to take this video because my friends didn't believe it was real," she said. "They thought I Photoshopped it." Thoroughly dedicated to Strauss and her work, Laverty took time from her job to help Strauss with the ancillary events around her mid-career retrospective. She was especially excited for the opening dance party being held at the PMA. "Everyone has been asking me how they can get tickets. And they never go to stuff like this," she said, delighted. "It's going to be funny to see who shows up."

As it turned out, the sold-out party for Zoe Strauss: Ten Years attracted almost 2,000 people to the museum, all of whom danced the night away with Strauss and celebrity DJs, including Questlove of The Roots. Since its opening weekend, the exhibition has received exceptional coverage in the New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Condé Nast Traveler, CityPaper, Philadelphia Weekly, WHYY's NewsWorks, and elsewhere. The retrospective covered Strauss' project from the past decade, I-95, which consisted of annual public showings of her work beneath the interstate. At these ambitious exhibitions, which transformed an otherwise abandoned space into an outdoor gallery, Strauss sold prints of her photographs for five dollars each, giving attendees the opportunity to purchase art at a very affordable price, no matter their income level. The Billboard Project, conceived by Strauss herself, carried on this tradition of accessibility, as Karen Rosenberg of the Times noted: "The ones I saw engaged their surroundings with cleverness and without the slightest hint of condescension." Strauss was also available for public office hours at the museum throughout the exhibition. A satellite installation, run by artist duo Megawords, hosted several public programs, as well as a curated library and gathering space for museum visitors.