Snyderman to be feted for 48 years in Philadelphia's crafts movement

Gallery owner Ruth Snyderman, with husband and partner Rick, will be honored by the Clay Studio.
Gallery owner Ruth Snyderman, with husband and partner Rick, will be honored by the Clay Studio. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 16, 2013

For Ruth Snyderman, 1965 was a year to remember.

First, she married Rick.

Then she hitched up with a friend, each plunking down $200, and started something called the Works Gallery in the 2000 block of Locust Street.

She and her partner showed crafts - pottery, jewelry, all handmade.

"The shop was in the basement and you walked down the steps - that was a commitment - and there I was," Ruth Snyderman, 75, said this week in an interview.

"She was young and beautiful," husband Rick, 76, chimed in. "Now she's old and beautiful."

From that modest beginning - at one point their daughter, Ami, bounced around in a Jolly Jumper attached to the gallery ceiling - the Snydermans have built one of the most prominent craft galleries in the country.

And that has helped propel Philadelphia into the front ranks of the nation's resurgent crafts movement.

On Friday and Saturday, the Clay Studio will take note, honoring Ruth Snyderman at its annual gala.

Works Gallery and Snyderman Gallery (established in 1982 - they merged in 1996) have, according to Clay Studio encomiums, "mounted landmark exhibitions such as glass and ceramics designed by Ettore Sottsass' Memphis Group, one of the first exhibits of Robert Venturi's post-modern chair and table designs for Knoll, and solo exhibits by the likes of Dale Chihuly, William Morris, and many other pioneers in the field of glass sculpture."

So Ruth Snyderman will give a talk Friday at Works-Snyderman Gallery in the 300 block of Cherry Street, all part of the scheduled activities. She'll be toasted. And why not?

During their nearly half-century of marriage and crafts, the couple not only have devoted themselves to unique vases, jewelry, and furniture, they've been deeply engaged in the renaissance of two of the city's most important neighborhoods - South Street and Old City.

When it all began, Ruth Snyderman said, "I didn't know much" about crafts. "But I was interested."

Rick Snyderman, who had a day job in his family's small-loan business, quickly caught the bug from his bride, joining the gallery operations in 1972.

"I knew very little about visual art," he said as he sat in the couple's loft on the third floor of their gallery building. "I guess I learned on the job."

The learning began immediately, but it went into high gear in the late 1960s, when the Snydermans discovered South Street, then under threat from a proposed crosstown expressway that never came to pass. Traditional merchants were fleeing and artists were moving in.

"We saw posters around town for Peruvian crafts at the Eyes Gallery on Fourth and South and we were also showing Peruvian crafts," said Ruth Snyderman, small and agile with a neat shock of gunmetal hair. "So one day, I went down there with Ami to see what that was like. And as I walked in, the floor was very rough - it was primitive - and Ami fell through the hole in the floor and Isaiah [Zagar] had to go pull her out of the basement."

Artist Isaiah Zagar and his wife, Julia, in love with Latin folk culture, and proprietors of Eyes, "became our closest friends."

It was the Zagars who talked them into moving their gallery to South Street (Ruth Snyderman's co-founder bowed out of Locust Street early on), where two floors of a large building in the 300 block could be had for $135 a month. They split the rent with another couple and moved in.

Change was rocking the street.

The Painted Bride Art Center started up in an old wedding-dress shop. The Theater of the Living Arts was producing plays and performances under André Gregory, going great guns. Group Motion Theater, an innovative dance company, was bringing new German approaches to movement to U.S. audiences. New restaurants, like Black Banana and Lickety Split, attracted young, hungry people far into the night on weekends.

The Snydermans eventually bought their building and lived upstairs, running the gallery downstairs, like many a produce dealer before them. "We were the next generation of Jewish merchants on South Street," said Rick Snyderman, who opened a second gallery to focus on furniture and glass sculpture in 1983. "We just didn't think about it that way."

In 1992, Snyderman Gallery opened in the Cherry Street building. Old City "was empty" or nearly so, but after some organizing and networking, the neighborhood's dozen galleries have grown to more than 40. The Fringe Festival, Arden Theatre, the Painted Bride - these and more call Old City home.

In the mid-1990s, once again in sync with rising regard for a "craft" medium, the Snydermans launched what has become a major event, the International Fiber Biennial, which lasts for weeks and draws fiber artists from around the world.

Said Rick Snyderman, "When we opened in 1965, as it turned out, we pretty much paralleled the development of the craft movement. As we were moving along in our career in the field, the field was itself was developing and maturing."


Contact Stephan Salisbury at 215-854-5594, ssalisbury@phillynews.com, or @SPSalisbury on Twitter.

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