From clothesline to online

Rittenhouse Square Fine Art Show, the oldest of its kind, goes virtual

For years, this was the scene at the annual Rittenhouse Square Fine Arts Festival, the oldest of its kind in the nation which will pivot to a virtual show this year in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. | Image courtesy: RSFAA

This year’s Rittenhouse Square Fine Art Show, the oldest outdoor art show in the nation, will look a little different as it has transformed into a virtual event running June 5-7.

The Rittenhouse Square Fine Arts Association announced its plans to continue the 93-year streak of annually sharing original fine art by showcasing the artwork of professional artists online, allowing art patrons the experience of virtually visiting the show while social-distancing. 

The Rittenhouse Square Fine Art Show: June 2020 Virtual Edition will feature the work of 142 jury-selected professional artists from all over the U.S. and Canada. All work will be available for purchase directly from the artists. Special artists’ appearances, such as art technique demonstrations and art studio tours, will occur virtually throughout the event.

The show began its history in 1928 by a handful of local art students exhibiting art on clotheslines in Rittenhouse Square. The popularity of the “Clothesline Show” grew, and the show became an annual Philadelphia destination for tens of thousands of patrons who appreciate and collect fine art.

Art patrons can experience the show June 5-7, by visiting the RSFAS website –, Facebook and Instagram pages.

PW recently caught up with Sandra Sedmak Engel, professional artist and RSFAA Board of Directors chair, to talk a little more about the show and the changes for this year’s event.

The 93rd Rittenhouse Square Fine Art Show will be unlike any other. What challenges have you faced in moving it to a virtual format this year?

Yes, the “Rittenhouse Square Fine Art Show: June 2020 Virtual Edition” will be different in the sense that we won’t physically be in Rittenhouse Square, but the exceptionally high quality of artists remains the same. 

Our greatest challenge was making the heartbreaking decision to cancel the June 2020 outdoor show. We extended our hope as long as we could, but it became clear that a large gathering in early June was not going to be safe because of the pandemic. 

Our Board of Directors was unanimous in the decision to make the show an online event. As much as we believe that there’s no better place than Rittenhouse Square in Philly for a fine art show, we also realize that this transformation allows us to transcend place, and we truly believe this gives us the ability to expand our impact by sharing art and bringing opportunities to our artists in new ways. 

“Every piece of art you see at our show is an original – one of a kind. That maintains a standard of excellence that patrons can rely on.”

– Sandra Sedmak Engel, professional artist and chair of RSFAA Board of Directors chair

The Rittenhouse Square Fine Art Association Board is composed of professional artists who run the show in its entirety. We switched gears and went from outdoors to online – which is an understated simplification. We’re a hard-working team, and basically took on recreating our entire June event in less than a few months. Many shows around the country have just cancelled or postponed their events. We felt strongly that we needed to persevere, for our artists as well as our devoted patrons.  

What tips do you have for people who want to attend the virtual show this year, given both browsing and buying will be a little different? 

The Rittenhouse Square Fine Art Show website (rittenhousesquareart.com) is the hub for the virtual show. We’ve set it up so that people can check out the exhibiting artists by name or by medium. We’re showcasing the artists at work in their studios, as well as their available artwork for purchase. Each artist’s profile includes a brief description of their approach to their work, in their own words. Art patrons get a more intimate look into our artist’s studios, and their process. 

Then it’s as simple as contacting the artist for a purchase, through our website. The RSFAS is promoting the artists and making the introductions; there’s no commission collected, or fee involved. It’s all for the artists and the art patrons! 

We’re also scheduling art demonstrations and studio tours on Facebook Live and Zoom throughout the weekend event, June 5-7. More information about these attractions are available on the RSFAS website, Facebook and Instagram.

With efforts to keep the arts in the city of Philadelphia afloat, the Rittenhouse Square Fine Arts Association is doing its part – virtually, this year. | Image courtesy: RSFAA

What’s behind the success of the RSFAS? How did it grow from a few local art students displaying their work on a clothesline to an event that attracts tens of thousands of people every year?

It’s such an interesting history. The Rittenhouse Square Fine Art Show is the oldest outdoor art show in the country. The RSFAS tradition of artistic excellence began in 1928 with a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts named Dorothy Blodgett, who’d been inspired by the street exhibits of Paris. She and her artist friends spread the idea among other art schools and won the support of governmental and cultural authorities to hang the first show-and they hung on clotheslines! Hence, “From Clothesline to Online.” 

When I think of the show today, I believe the main reason it has grown exponentially and continues to retain such a high profile is that the RSFAS is a show of original artwork exclusively. Every piece of art you see at our show is an original – one of a kind. That maintains a standard of excellence that patrons can rely on. 

Talk a little about how the show has, over the years, impacted the fine art scene in Philadelphia and the effect it has had on local artists and businesses.

Philadelphia is a city of well-established art appreciation, and our engagement with the city community is one of the things we’re most proud of. We have great partnerships with Philadelphia Parks and Rec, the Friends of Rittenhouse Square, the Farmers Market, 22 Gallery, and all the surrounding businesses that benefit from the influx of patrons twice a year for our shows in June and September. We have expanded our Community Outreach Program, offering no-cost exhibition space at our shows to local art organizations who support communities in need, such as Portside Art Center, and Project Home.

In addition, at every show, we select fine art students and give them the opportunity to showcase their artwork and learn among professional artists. So patrons get a first look at emerging local artists’ work.

And I always want to recognize our art-loving, Philly-proud volunteers. Their enthusiasm and dedication helps make every show a success!

What does the future hold – post pandemic – for both the RSFAS and the Rittenhouse Square Fine Art Association? Do you anticipate any lasting changes as a result of the coronavirus and the social lockdown?

I think we all wish we knew what the future holds. The Rittenhouse Square Fine Art Show in June has been adapted in a way that allows us to share our artwork with people at this unimaginable and stressful time, and at a time when art can really bring joy to our lives.  

Our hope is that we’ll be able to enjoy the Rittenhouse Square Fine Art Show outdoors again in September. We’ll be following the guidelines for making it a safe and rewarding experience for everyone. But in the meantime, we’re adapting to keep our show alive! After all, we are 93 years strong!

    • Eugene Zenyatta was raised on old-time Memphis 'rasslin' and strongly prefers the company of dogs to people. His greatest heartbreak came in the 2010 Breeders' Cup Classic.