Art for All: Da Vinci Art Alliance

The evolution of a beloved South Philly art hub from its proud immigrant roots, to fellowships and programming today for the whole city.

As it approaches its 100th anniversary, the Da Vinci Art Alliance (DVAA) is a model of creativity, evolving beyond its founders’ dreams while staying true to its core: uniting people through art.

DVAA began in 1931, at a time of anti-immigration sentiment when migrants were barred from participating in the city’s major art institutions, a group of 16 Italian immigrants formed a club of artists and artisans. Painters, bricklayers, woodworkers, violin makers, cabinet makers and others who had brought their skills from Europe, these immigrants helped build the city.

“Our founders were craftspeople. These men started their own club very much in the tradition of South Philadelphia, meeting in homes and studios. Then in the 50s they opened it up to women.” said Sam Connors, DVAA’s executive director.

The Building on Catharine Street

In 1966, the Alliance purchased a three-story building on Catharine Street. They intentionally bought a building “across the street from Fleisher (Art Memorial) where most of the founding members were taking classes or teaching. They always wanted to have that relationship; sharing exhibition space and community. A lot of what we do today is inspired by that idea,” Sam said.

Sam Connors’ Background

At the age of 17, Sam relocated to Philadelphia to pursue a degree in fashion design at Moore College of Art and Design. They shared how everything came together:

“By the time I made it to my junior year, I was triple majoring…and the thing I liked least was fashion design! I left there for the Tyler School of Art and finished with my degree in Fiber and Material Studies and Art History. In 2015, I began as an apprentice for Dianne Koppisch Hricko, a dye artisan printmaker.

“I also worked for her husband, Richard Hricko, and helped him with his printmaking process, as well as applying to shows, researching opportunities, and writing grants. I slowly started picking up more clients until I was full-time as a kind of artist’s business manager.”

In parallel with their career, Sam was deeply involved in community organizing, advocating for organizations such as CADBI, OccupyICE, and the Harm Reduction Coalition. Their engagement in these groups enhanced their skills in organizing and direct action. Crucially, this experience laid the groundwork for Sam’s understanding and appreciation of DVAA’s unique mission for inclusive artistic engagement.

Sam first encountered the DVAA in 2017 at a friend’s pop-up event, and immediately saw the value of such an vital support for local art communities. They soon became a key member of the exhibitions committee and later co-chaired it. In 2021, Sam, alongside Bryant Girsch, were appointed as co-executive directors. When Bryant’s art career took off, Sam assumed the role of executive director at Da Vinci Alliance.

Reassessing the Status and Setting New Priorities

Sam quickly identified key priorities for Da Vinci. They and Bryant embarked on the task of creating a formal business plan and financial structure. They also redefined the organization’s goals, including ADA accessibility (slated for 2027), and shifting away from a rental-based model for the gallery space.

Membership fees were also simplified. “We changed to a sliding scale membership based on declared need. That made it a lot more accessible and equitable for people. That’s very important to us.”

A Caring Community

At Da Vinci, the focus extends beyond art to community engagement, which they’ve made a requirement for fellowship and project shows. “A lot of our artists are doing politically motivated work,” Sam said, “They’re talking about the infrastructure of the city and (aspects of) the world that are unjust. So we’re hiring people like that…that are rooted in justice principles. We’ve always tried to represent marginalized communities. It’s just inherent in the type of work (that we show), but we’re pushing it a little further.”

An Explosion of Programming and Outreach

Da Vinci’s programming is bustling with activity, too much to cover entirely here. But Sam gave us some highlights:

“We’ve got three galleries, with two rotating monthly and the third-floor space serving as a ‘flex space’ for pop-ups and special events. We host four quarterly member exhibitions, three curated and one open to all members. Everyone’s guaranteed a spot in at least one show yearly, fostering experimentation and thematic cohesion.

“Our fellowship program, launched in 2018, now offers four tracks and includes a residency component. With the third floor renovated into separate spaces, we can support 10 artists annually with month-long studio residencies, providing 24-hour access and comprehensive support. Our programming coordinator assists with everything from navigating galleries to building websites, fostering a yearlong cohort for professional development and community building.”

And a Festival (all month long!)

During the month of April, Da Vinci partnered with over 50 organizations across the city for the “Everyday Futures Fest,” a free event featuring sustainability-centered art workshops and events including frame-making, sustainable photography, and a build-your-own-Mummer-suit workshop with Golden Sunrise (Fancy division). Community Block Party on Sunday April 21st, featured 30+ vendors, resource tables, and food pop-ups along the 7oo block of Catharine Street from 12 to 5pm. Mark your calendar for next year! Follow the fun at

Exciting roster of public programming plus a FREE grassroots gallery featuring monthly exhibitions. Program fees vary, depending on hours, materials, and membership status. Artist Members range in age, discipline, and experience; all levels welcome to become a member which includes many perks and discounts. Annual membership fee is $295, with a sliding scale option based on the honor system. Learn more at, follow @davinciartalliance on Facebook, Instagram & YouTube.

704 Catharine Street (Bela Vista). Gallery open Thursdays thru Sundays, 11am to 6pm. ♿ℹ️ ADA: DVAA is in a historic rowhome with 5 steps to the first floor, and 14 steps to the second floor where there gender-neutral bathroom is located. (An effort is currently underway to achieve ADA accessible compliance by 2027.)

This article is a summary of a recent interview with Sam Connors, DVAA’s executive director, for Philly Artblog. Get the whole story in Pete Sparker’s excellent article, originally published March 5, 2024.  Pete Sparber lives, paints, draws and writes about art in Philadelphia. He holds an MFA from Cornell, a martial arts black belt, and recently ended a career as a senior business executive.

ArtBlog is an independent online arts publication spotlighting artists whose work is often disregarded by the art Establishment and mainstream media in general. Follow @PhillyArtBlog on Facebook & Instagram | 

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Artblog's mission is to create and foster dialog about art, power, value and truth, in order to promote a better future for all. Our independent online arts publication focuses on marginalized artists—BIPOC, LGBTQ artists and women—whose art traditionally has been shunned by the mainstream media. Our inclusive writing and editorial teams embrace our mission and work collaboratively to steer the discussion. Our program is online and in the community.

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