Hanging Out At Baird Mansion Atrium: Philadelphia's Coolest House Venue
If you turn the corner of Parrish Street in Philadelphia onto North Carlisle, you would almost miss the nondescript metal door that leads into a dark miniature alley, and then into large, airy foyer flooded with natural light that is Baird Mansion Atrium. Situated on a small, industrial block not too far from Center City, most of the time Baird Mansion Atrium (or the BMA) is a two bedroom apartment built in the 1860s as the atrium to a mansion that was later turned into a series of apartments. But during the night, it doubles as a DIY venue that has housed acts from small, local Philadelphia musicians to Matt Ox, The Garden, Chxpo, and Wiki.
To describe the BMA and the eclectically weird but also strangely calming effect of the space itself is to then try to describe its current owner and the force behind it all, Richard Smith. Having moved to Philadelphia to attend Temple University four years ago after feeling restless in his hometown in Pennsylvania, Smith has experimented with a variety of artistic mediums, from performing music under the moniker Rugs to photography and filmmaking. His art, which he describes as a unified aesthetic of “the absurd and the mundane,” has a quality about it that you can’t quite put a finger on, almost escaping categorization and reference.
In turn, the aesthetic and the feel of the BMA takes on after the artistic vision of Smith. Its programming, the diversity of the crowds it draws on any given night, the types of acts that pass through its doors (from punk to indie pop to Soundcloud rappers), all have an intensely eclectic feel—almost as if it shouldn’t make sense but somehow does. The BMA transcends genres, niches, and strong associations to any particular scene in an otherwise already small and close knit community of creatives in Philly. It is perhaps this neutrality and the BMA’s positioning as a space unfettered to a particular scene or vibe while simultaneously delivering sick events that cement its status as a crucial space and organization within Philadelphia’s creative community. Whatever it is, it’s definitely working. After a solid run of two years, Smith is planning on moving out of the BMA, with its final and closing show on July 21.
Below, Milk sat down with Smith to talk about the BMA, the process of curating shows, and the Philadelphia creative scene.
How would you describe Philly to someone who hasn’t been?
It’s the only city I’ve ever really known. I haven’t spent much time anywhere else. I grew up around it and spent a lot of time visiting the city. For making work and throwing events, it’s a great city because it feels like there’s space. It doesn’t feel competitive. There’s just enough stuff happening to keep you excited but it feels like also people are eager for things to pop off so they will support you if you are going for it. It’s a small community.
For people who are actually making and doing things, would you consider yourself at the forefront?
I feel like I’m still new here. I feel like I have a lot of dues to pay, so I don’t really know if I can speak to the community as a whole. A friend was trying to encourage me to not stay in Philly and move to New York, and they were like, “I think you’ve already captured the entire audience that would be interested in what you do,” and I think that’s interesting. Maybe it’s true that I’ve already accessed the whole market here. But I don’t know. I might try to move to New York at some point. But I’m trying to be patient because it feels like good things are happening here.
What made you want to open up the space? How did it come about?
I used to live in this place called Goldilocks Gallery. It doesn’t really exist anymore but it was right by the Liberty Bell and it was this really strange DIY space above a fancy restaurant. Through living there, I started to book some shows there and was introduced to a lot of people. My friend Ben and Andres lived in the BMA before me while I was at Goldilocks. Before, it was just an apartment but I loved the space and was trying to move there. So when they said they weren’t resigning the lease, I jumped on it with my friend Charlie with the quasi-intention of booking events but I didn’t think I would book so many. I didn’t think it would be much of a thing. It was kind of like, “Wow, I love this room a lot and I wanna make some stuff happen here.” But then it tumbled into a full-blown show space.
What makes the BMA so unique to you?
I guess it’s just incredibly unique in a certain way. It was built in the 1860s, I think, as a party room in a greater mansion that was split up into apartments. Drums sound really good in it and just the way it’s shaped, it’s perfect for acoustics. I think the whole thing of it is really cool—for people who’ve never been there, it feels like you’re in an alleyway and there’s a bunch of doors to backs of restaurants or something but this one just leads you down a dark hallway into this really huge room. It’s spellbinding like that.
How has the process of booking shows been?
It’s kind of crazy. There’s been a handful of shows that were pipe dreams that somehow happened over time. I think I honestly only personally reached out to the artists and pieced together shows like five or six times. I need to thank Luke Myers, Jazz Adam, and Nicki Duval for doing a lot of sick programming, alongside other people.
I guess I was just very selective about it. The way I approached the BMA was that I’m not gonna book a show that I’m not passionate about. I only wanna showcase certain artists I think that need to be showcased. There were a lot of shows that could’ve happen but didn’t. But yeah, I honestly don’t know. I was trying to trust my own taste and push forward only the things that I fucked with really hard and hope that people fuck with the same things I do.
What was the most challenging aspect of running the BMA?
It’s pretty much me managing it. I’ve had a few roommates during that time, but it’s pretty much exclusively me setting up for the show, cleaning up for the show. Most of the time I was doing shows, I was also doing school and working a job, so that was kind of hard. Booking shows at your house is weird because everyone you know will be there but you won’t be able to talk to anyone because you’re also trying to make sure that no one is gonna die or something.
Any close calls?
Somehow it’s been ok. Nothing’s been stolen or broken. Someone tagged my stairs but I don’t really care, I deserved that. I do a pretty good job at putting things I care about away and hiding them. I was never nervous about it for some reason. It just seems like if someone were to try to fuck with my house, someone I know would probably see it. It felt like I had 100 bodyguards or something because I always knew at least half the people at any given time.
Are you often able to enjoy your shows?
It’s really hectic because I also film every show. It’s fucked up because I’m doing ten things at once. People usually help me with door because if I had to do that too, I couldn’t actually do anything. I just enjoy the hecticness a little bit. It’s interesting. I never regret doing a show, even though sometimes it’s going to be like, “Oh my god, this is gonna be really stressful.” It usually pays off in a way. People appreciate the work.
What do you think needs to happen in Philly’s creative scene?
I’m not really sure. I feel like the BMA maybe felt like a place where areas of the DIY scene that don’t usually intersect or something could intersect, and it felt like a neutral space for that to me. I guess that might’ve been in part because I haven’t been booking for that long and I didn’t have as much strong ties with anyone. I still don’t really feel like I can speak for any type of DIY scene. I appreciate the network and I wouldn’t have been able to do anything without that preexisting collective network.
I think the only thing that needs to happen is that a few more spaces need to open. There are a bunch of spaces in Philadelphia that are cool but they’re all on the verge of shutting down. It’s like this eternal hampering for a new space. I think that’s another reason why the BMA did well. This spot run by my friend Andre called Girard Hall was really cool but that got shut down as I was opening the BMA. A lot of things that would’ve happened there ended up happening at my apartment.
Any regrets? Anything you wished you did with the BMA?
There’s a few. I had a shortlist of artists I wanted to bring to Philly. I always wanted Alex G but that never happened. I don’t really care, I feel like I did more than enough stuff that I’m hyped on.
What inspires your art?
That’s hard to answer. I don’t quite understand what I’m into, I just know it. I just learned to recognize it when I see it. Whatever I’m doing is very intuitive in a certain way. But I don’t really understand it yet, I just trust myself.
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