Even if someone gave you directions to Slought, there’s a good chance you’d walk right by it at least once. The organization’s art gallery, located on Walnut St. between 40th and 41st streets, occupies the same building as The DP’s offices, but many of our staffers probably haven’t even noticed, let alone set foot inside. In their defense, Slought is fairly nondescript, its presence announced only in minimalist, sans serif lettering.
Slought’s definition is amorphous. Is it an art gallery? A nonprofit? A community service project? A Penn program? The answer is a little bit of everything. But its mission is rather clear: to encourage people, especially Penn students, to reevaluate their relationship with the city and the country through art, conversation, and community.
Aaron Levy, a senior lecturer in English and art history at Penn, as well as the executive director and chief curator of Slought, describes it as “austere.” Levy says the building’s historic designation has made so, limiting their ability to place art and signage outside the gallery.
When I arrive for our interview, Levy is seated at a table that’s haphazardly strewn with what appears to be the contents of an entire toolbox—staplers and screwdrivers and the like. His colleague is sorting nails while Levy fidgets with a small piece of wall putty; it’s a perfect encapsulation of his tranquil restlessness, which has permeated Slought’s work since its founding nearly 20 years ago.
Aaron Levy is clearly a teacher above all else; he’s constantly doing what educational researchers call "confirming learning." He peppers every response with multiple “you know”’s just to make sure I’m following along. Words like “porosity,” “ossified,” and “palimpsestic” regularly crop up in his sentences.
At the time of our conversation, Levy is particularly fond of the word “ecology.” It sums up the liminal space that Slought occupies. Physically, it’s precisely on the border between Penn’s campus and that no–man’s land known as “west of 40th Street.” Institutionally, Slought is both a part of the University and apart from it, which has been to the organization’s advantage. For example, the Mixplace Studio project, which ran from 2009–2012, brought together students, faculty, neighborhood residents, and young adults facing food and housing insecurity to mentor one another. For Levy, “[The] ideal classroom would be one where the student and the faculty member and the community resident are all learning together.”
Slought’s ecosystem of art and organizing extends far beyond the borders of West Philadelphia, though Levy doesn’t think it could’ve happened anywhere else. He cites a certain DIY ideology and the way people here take time to talk to each other and see projects all the way through. That said, Slought has been expanding its influence and outreach since its inception. Levy and his team even had the opportunity to represent the United States on the world stage at the 2008 Venice Biennale for Architecture for a project about the 2008 recession.
In fact, one of their current exhibitions, Art and the Invisible City, is intentionally not about Philadelphia. With the aim of building bridges, the exhibition is an olive branch extended to our “sister city” of Trenton, New Jersey. According to Levy, “The lived experience of many people in Trenton remains invisible and unknown to those that don’t live in Trenton.” This demonstrates Slought’s most core ideal, which is to constantly encourage patrons to reconsider where their homes—and for Penn students, our campus—begin and end.
For Levy, the purest experience of Slought would be to meander into the gallery, instead of seeking it out, which is “something our lifestyles don’t allow for often.”
Slought is far from a typical gallery, and exhibitions like Art and the Invisible City explicitly break from the museum tradition. The space is vibrant but also perpetually unfinished. There are no velvet ropes separating you from the art. And there are few pedestals, placards, or elaborate lighting displays that, in other contexts, serve to glorify the work’s own importance—or reinforce a legacy of conquest and colonialism.
All of the works currently on display, which run the gamut from fashion design to photo collage, engage with themes of gentrification and racism in some capacity, although you’d be hard pressed to ascertain exactly how at first glance. At Slought, however, that’s kind of the point.
The space also has no back catalogue, where the museum curator sends pieces in the museum’s collection that aren’t on display. Instead, there's a comprehensive online archive of past materials, resources and exhibits that are always available to the public.
“I’ve always thought of the work here not just as a curatorial project, but really as an editorial project,” says Levy. “We obviously have voice and agency, [but] we’re also trying to respect and honor those of others.”
In this case, Levy handed the curatorial reins over to D. Vance Smith, an English professor at Princeton University. While we should absolutely question filtering the narrative of a primarily working–class city through the lens of academia, that shouldn’t mean denying such a meaningful opportunity for small–scale artists to show their work to a larger audience.
All of this helps to explain what Slought isn’t. It’s not a museum like the Philadelphia Museum of Art or Barnes Foundation. But the question remains of what exactly Slought is. “We think of this space as a platform or as a container that can support the project and the narrative that people come to us with,” Levy says. Still, for a more concrete answer, let’s start at the beginning.
To hear Aaron Levy tell it, Slought was never supposed to be around for this long. Much like Occupy Wall Street arose in response to the wealth inequality illuminated by the 2008 financial crisis, Slought was conceived amidst a climate of political instability. Twenty years ago, in the immediate wake of 9/11 and at the outset of the War in Afghanistan, Levy and his collaborators had an idea that if they could create a space unconstrained by institutional funding and its restrictions, “we would be able to maximize the possibility of being able to talk more freely and with less restriction about the issues that matter to us in this community.”
What was intended as a three–year “thought experiment” was also born out of Levy’s own time as a student at Penn, where he became increasingly aware of a missed opportunity for social justice work from within institutions of higher learning. This was a moment when contemporary art wasn’t often taught, let alone the notion "that a contemporary artist could engage social and political issues,” says Levy.
Out of this climate emerged Slought’s first large–scale project, Cities without Citizens, which was in collaboration with the Rosenbach Museum. Cities without Citizens began with a series of questions about trying to define citizenship and what a city’s relationship is to its residents. Slought’s focus may be in a constant state of flux, but the driving values behind the organization have carried through to the present. And an exhibition like Cities has only been proven to be more prescient and essential with every passing year.
So what are the values of Slought in a nutshell? As per Levy: “Much of our work over the past 20 years has sought to honor the lived experiences of marginalized communities whose lives have been marked and often ravaged by various forms of state and structural violence, racism, and more.”
For an illustration of that goal in practice, look no further than Slought’s upcoming collaboration with Deborah A. Thomas, Penn’s R. Jean Brownlee professor of anthropology and director of the Center for Experimental Ethnography. That exhibition is partially a direct response to the Penn Museum’s unethical possession of human remains, most notably the Samuel G. Morton Cranial Collection.
“The reason that museums hold human remains is because when anthropologists were collecting bodies and bones, it was really designed to determine the kinds of racial traits that different people from around the world might have in their bodies, to map those traits onto a hierarchy of humanity,” says Thomas.
Students in Thomas’ introductory course “Anthropology, Race, and the Making of the Modern World” will create projects to “try to think through what an artistic intervention would look like that deals with the legacy of scientific racism.”
There was no question that Slought would be the venue of choice. “It seemed like a no–brainer,” says Thomas. The stations that students will set up in the gallery space include a “bone room” of papier–mâché crania with traits mixed and matched randomly to the different skulls, as well as a collection of casts made from the students’ own faces.
In classic Slought fashion, Thomas and Levy are working to produce a 3D scan of the exhibit, so it can continue to have a second life online even once it’s physically dismantled.
The journey from a rogue startup to an inextricable part of the Philadelphia arts landscape hasn’t always been an easy one for Slought. The organization’s condition is defined largely in terms of scarcity—of funding, of press coverage, and of Penn student engagement. Although Slought is affiliated with the University, it is an independent organization that operates with little to no oversight from Penn administration.
Levy elaborates that “as a small organization, we don’t have the capacity that would enable us to have a more sometimes sustained and consistent presence on campus.”
But the story of Slought is one of being liberated, not restricted, by a lack of resources.
When it comes to student volunteers, it’s all about quality over quantity. Lacking a campus engagement officer means that the students who find Slought are a self–selecting bunch. Levy is adamant that “one of the defining dimensions of the organization is the role students have played in it.” Consistent with his emphasis on mutual learning and growth, he hopes that Slought has broadened those students’ understanding; “that they were introduced to a more fluid, porous, and dynamic way that culture and collaboration can unfold.”
Meanwhile, a lack of financial resources has allowed the organization to rethink what a resource even is. Slought has its biggest stake in the currency of collaboration; Levy says that the absence of institutional funding has allowed them to become “more of a process–based, nimble, agile, community undertaking.” The concept of divestment has directly inspired some of Slought’s farthest–reaching work; the aforementioned Venice Biennale exhibition was situated amidst the 2008 financial crisis. Levy insists that the only reason Slought was able to survive the global financial crisis was because money has never been their main asset.
Though Slought has had a hand in improving conditions for Philadelphia’s art community, Levy doesn’t take most of the credit for those changes. Now, it’s much easier for organizations to receive support from the city or from major organizations, and arts education is seen as a legitimate endeavor in a way that it wasn’t 20 years ago.
Still, Levy understands the limitations on the potential impact any academic endeavor can have: “Our small, under–resourced organization is not going to solve those [systemic issues], but we have always sought to amplify people’s lived experiences and to foster conversation around what is unfolding around us.”
One recent project that placed heavy emphasis on “amplifying lived experience” is referred to in shorthand as the “Listening Lab.” The collaboration with Penn Medicine consisted of disseminating stories from patients, caregivers, clinicians, and staff members across the health system, “trying to weave the act of listening into clinical encounters.” Believe it or not, the origins of this initiative date back to before the COVID–19 pandemic. As is typical of Slought, its work has only become more relevant with the passing of time.
The Penn Medicine Listening Lab, knowingly or otherwise, answers a question that Levy posed to me at the beginning of our interview: “How can we contribute to efforts at dismantling these long–standing inequities and pervasive kinds of vulnerabilities? What role can the arts play in that work?”
The answer, according to everything Levy and his collaborators have done up to this point—and have lined up for the future—is to always expand the number of people who have access to their platform. In that way, the humanities, and especially the arts, can foster a more caring community, even though we haven’t always been taught to think about them that way. But it’s right there in the name: You can’t spell “humanities” without “human.”
“It is possible to live in a multiracial society. It is possible to work across boundaries and to honor our differences, but also to develop shared understandings and values. And that meaningful work can be done together. Transformative work can be done together,” says Levy.
In spending all this time trying to put Slought into a box, one comes to the conclusion that perhaps “slought” is a concept that you can’t be directed to. For one, it expands far beyond the parameters of that nondescript entrance on Walnut Street. It’s not the kind of place that you look for so much as the kind of place that you find, and what you’ll find is a wealth of resources for desegregation: desegregating the mind, desegregating the school, and desegregating the city. Slought values knowledge as a tool not just for education, but for liberation.