With Ray, Dasha Zhukova Sets Her Sights on Philadelphia

The New York City art world power player speaks on her decision to launch her art and real-estate venture with a debut property Philadelphia's Olde Kensington neighborhood.

Credit (all images): William Jess Laird.

In 2021, Dasha Zhukova Niarchos announced Ray: an ambitious live-work venture seeking to integrate world-class art, studio spaces, and, in New York City, affordable housing. In addition to makerspaces, perks—for artists and art enthusiasts alike—include exhibitions, workshops, and programming for residents and the public. To bring the properties to life, she enlisted high-caliber talent in art, design, and architecture. Handel Architects is collaborating with Frida Escobedo, the design architect behind the transformation of Harlem’s National Black Theatre, on Ray’s first New York City property within the building. Leong Leong, meanwhile, has spent the past three years on the venture’s first property in Philadelphia’s Olde Kensington neighborhood.

This winter, Ray Philly welcomed its first residents. Located on the area’s main thoroughfare N. American Street, the building is unrecognizable from the vacant lots that occupied the site five years ago. Today, installations by Rashid Johnson and local artists Michelle Lopez and Marian Bailey occupy its lobby. A ground-floor coworking lounge, flexible makerspace, and rentable private studios are accompanied by pop-ups, community programming, and a soon-to-open indie art bookstore. The neighborhood, located near Fishtown, mirrors the recent redevelopment of Brooklyn’s Gowanus as an industry-turned-arts hub. The design-focused Wexler Gallery recently expanded to a former pretzel factory a few blocks away, and the nonprofit ceramic arts center The Clay Studio set up shop in a 34,000-square-foot space just down the street, after operating out of two adjoined row houses for 48 of its first 50 years. 

At the center is Ray founder Dasha Zhukova. Eagle-eyed readers will recognize her name as the founder of the erstwhile Garage magazine and Moscow’s Garage Museum, which ceased operations in 2022 amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. With her roles as a trustee of institutions like LACMA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and her extensive network of fellow power players in New York City’s arts and culture spheres, a neighborhood removed from Philadelphia’s Center City seemed an unlikely next frontier for the well-heeled founder and art collector.

What’s more, the nearby area of Kensington—located a few stops away from Olde Kensington on the city’s SEPTA transit system—has become a de facto capital of America’s addiction crisis. Ray itself is off the beaten path of many of the universities whose art and design programs employ the city’s artists as adjunct or faculty members. But “Ray is not just for artists,” Zhukova says, assured that Ray’s charming corner of South Kensington is where it’s meant to be.

Below, Zhukova speaks with Surface about the project and what its location can offer the community.

With Garage Museum and Garage magazine both having closed, what made you want to switch your focus to artist spaces?

Ray was founded to address the need for more spaces that make art and culture accessible through daily experience. I had seen in my work at Garage the ability of art and architecture to inspire people on a daily basis and thought it was missing in the most important location, their homes. Ray is not just for artists. Living with art and thoughtful design is beneficial for everyone. We’ve been thrilled with the feedback we’ve received on the building and are proud of how it fits respectfully and contextually into the fabric of South/Olde Kensington. 

Deliberately infusing visual culture into the fabric of buildings can enhance the tenants’ lives and contribute significantly to the essence of the neighborhood. This added value not only benefits communities but also sets thoughtful developments apart.

Why did you choose Philly, and why in Olde Kensington? Ray’s pocket of the neighborhood is charming, but it’s a far commute to many of the city’s major institutions for arts education and teaching, like the University of Pennsylvania, and Drexel University.

Philadelphia was once known as the Workshop of the World. South/Olde Kensington has for a long time, and continues to be, a flourishing pocket of the maker and art scene here. Ray Philly is a stone’s throw away from The Clay Studio’s new state-of-the-art ceramic facility, a 4,000-square-foot makerspace called NextFab, and dozens of artist studios, offices, and galleries in the Crane Arts building, whose brick facade and studio spaces were an inspiration for Ray Philly. Our project aims to reflect and be an addition to the existing architecture and culture of the neighborhood, which is changing quickly. We intend to be a positive part of the change. Philly is a lovable and livable place. It has a lot of heart, history, and personality!

At Ray Philly, we have our own studio spaces as well, one of which we are converting into a project space called Studio 105. Located in one of the building’s six ground-floor artist studios, Studio 105 is a place for our residents, artist studio members, and the larger community to see art, and attend a workshop, talk, or local vendor pop-up. The space will act as a platform for local artists and curators to participate in global dialogues and for global artists to share new perspectives here at home. We are excited to be partnering with local curatorial collective Ulises to kick off our debut season of exhibition programming in the spring and summer. Ulises will also open a bookshop and project space dedicated to artists’ books and independent art publications that explores the relationship between publics and publications in an adjacent artist studio.

Kensington is facing significant challenges right now. Are there initiatives or plans in mind to give back to this community?

One of our artist studio members is South Kensington Community Partners (SKCP), a place-based nonprofit located in Old/South Kensington (OSK) with programs serving OSK and the surrounding neighborhoods of Eastern North Philadelphia. SKCP’s core programs include the City of Philadelphia’s Neighborhood Advisory Committee Program. Through its office located in Studio 107 at Ray Philly and through its outreach, the NAC connects residents to resources and services especially around housing security and utility assistance, planning, and quality of life issues. The NAC distributes information and organizes timely info briefings and activities.

We will also be offering artist-led public programming in Studio 105 once our exhibition program launches later this year. Again, change is coming to South Kensington and we aim to be a positive example of what new development can mean for a neighborhood.


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