Jenice Armstrong: Florcy Morisset, owner of Vivant Art Gallery in Old City, celebrates 5 years in business

Hussein Saidi's work is displayed at the gallery.
Hussein Saidi's work is displayed at the gallery.
Posted: November 20, 2012

VIVANT ART Gallery in Old City can get to jumpin'.

The last time I went to an event there, free wine flowed, local artists performed and the place was packed with hip young professional types. The gallery's owner, 32-year-old Florcy Morisset, had to repeatedly warn partygoers to be mindful about the original oil paintings on the walls - and not lean against them.

The cool vibe left my mind free to indulge my wildest fantasies about one day actually taking home one of Morisset's artistic finds from Haiti or Tanzania or wherever. (She specializes in art from countries that aren't well represented in other galleries.) I never felt pressured to buy.

Vivant feels like more of a cultural hub than a stuffy art gallery, with couples art classes and screenings of locally produced movies by Reelblack/Syncopation. "My thing is to really entertain people," Morisset told me.

Don't get it twisted, though. While this young woman is a gracious hostess, she's all about making a sale.

She accepts layaway, letting patrons pay by installment. She'll take a series of postdated personal checks if that's what it takes to close a deal. And if you want to haggle over price, she'll do that, too. Artwork at Vivant generally goes for $450 to $750, although Morisset has a cash-and-carry room with smaller pieces for as little as $50.

Odd as it sounds, it's working. The art gallery, which launched in 2007 just as the economy was about to tank, celebrated its fifth anniversary last week. True to character, Morisset celebrated with a four-day event that included a jazz night and a champagne art auction, among other gala events.

Science? Golf? Art!

Morisset, who was conceived in Haiti but born and raised in New York City, is all about keeping things interesting, even if it involves taking chances. After growing up in Queens, she moved to Pittsburgh, where she majored in psychology and minored in biology at Duquesne University. The family expectation was that she'd go into medicine, like her four siblings. But Morisset, who had done some modeling, gotten a real estate license and was an amateur golfer, had other plans.

"I remember when I told my mom and my brother," she recalled. "I was, like, 'Guys, I think I'm going to open an art gallery.' They said, 'You can't do that. . . . You're not serious.' "

At 26, she moved to Philadelphia, partly because she had a sorority sister living here and also because loved the city. She had been a clothes buyer for a boutique and was getting by with the help of friends and family as she went about securing art and a space in which to show it, eventually at 60 N. 2nd St. in Old City.

Simultaneously starting and art gallery and establishing a life in a new city - in the depths of a recession and without either a business or an arts degree - was a handful. "I have two rents," she told me recently between sips of wine. "I have two gas bills, three insurances. . . . I have no money in my bank account. I put it all on the line."

For the past five years, she's invested "all of my resources, my heart and my money into making sure that this survives and continues," she said. "I'm now the only black gallery left in Old City. October Gallery used to be here. Art Jazz use to be here. . . . This art needs to be here, not just for you and me but for everyone."

During a recent visit to Vivant, I watched as Carolee Houser Dunn from South Philadelphia stopped in to pick up a huge stack of fliers she planned to pass out promoting the gallery's anniversary parties. Since she's on a fixed income and has no money for art, Dunn volunteers for Vivant as a no-cost entry level way to be part of the art world.

Fine art the Florcy way

When she's not hosting an event, Morisset rents the approximately 1,000-square-foot gallery as an event space. Prices start at $500 a night.

Arthur Meckler, vice president of the Old City Arts Association, admires what he calls her "proactive" approach - without which, he said, a gallery owner "can get pretty bored sitting there waiting for folks to come in the door."

"Somebody came to me a while back and wanted a gallery to host a product rollout and asked me who might do that sort of thing," Meckler recalled. "Without any hesitation, I thought of Florcy."

Most galleries don't branch out like that, said Meckler, who also owns Reform Vintage Modern, at 112 N. Third St. "They'll have their openings one a month and they'll have a crowd in, but that's pretty much it. But she seems to go after customers."

One of her new buyers is Maisha Leek, chief of staff for Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Philadelphia), who recently started collecting and has purchased two oil paintings from Vivant.

Leek was drawn to Morisset's approach to art as "something that you want to consider as part of your lifestyle," she said. "No one wants to just have their money taken from them. They want to be a part of an art community."

" @JeniceArmstrong

Blog: philly.com/HeyJen

Email: armstrj@phillynews.com

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