The Lightbox Film Center needs a new home

The Lightbox Film Center needs a new home

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Normally around this time, Jesse Pires would be scheduling the Lightbox Film Center’s next year of programs. 

But the chief curator’s 2020 vision is still a little foggy. 

Last month, iconic nonprofit International House Philadelphia announced its decision to sell its building at 37th and Chestnut streets and revamp the organization’s focus. The upcoming move raises questions for the Lightbox Film Center, the nonprofit’s trademark arts program with a long history of screening films highlighting the LGBTQ community.   

Throughout June, the theater will run Queering the Lens, a series highlighting films made by queer artists like Barbara Hammer, Marlon Riggs and Su Friedrich. The series begins June 13 with the premiere of “Queer Genius,” a film following four queer artists as they struggle with family, gender and sexuality.

“Often, marginalized groups that are making [films], they’re becoming radicalized at various periods, they’re really at the forefront of pushing a larger conversation forward,” said Pires, who has worked at Lightbox for 16 years. “So for me, it’s really exciting to dig back and find work that has strong resonance to a contemporary moment.”

The upcoming series commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. In showing LGBTQ films, the program aims to bring a community emphasis and facilitate discussions, said Sarah Christy, Lightbox’s managing director.

“[LGBTQ media] is certainly a consistent line of our programming and really reflects our overall mission of providing a platform for works that otherwise would not be shown and have not historically been screened as much as they should,” she added. 

The arts program shows an LGBTQ-focused film about once every other month, Pires said. From April 26-27, the theater held the Hot Bits Queer XXX Film Festival, a sex-positive LGBTQ series. 

In 2014, the theater hosted Free to Love: The Cinema of the Sexual Revolution, a series that explored how sex and sexuality were entering both mainstream and underground films. The event included works by queer filmmakers Jack Smith and Pat Rocco. 

Pires hopes Lightbox Film Center’s LGBTQ media representation will prevail. 

“I hope that it doesn’t slip away because I think that would be a tremendous loss,” Pires said. “It certainly is my goal to continue Lightbox, and I think we’re all working on that goal to make sure it continues onward.” 

“It’s not going to be an exact replica of what we have now, but close to what we have now, so our members and the audience can continue to rely on it as a source of really strong, unique cinema programming,” he added. 

While Lightbox has been “a key part” of International House, a new home for the project could be a more logical fit, said International House president and CEO Josh Sevin. Selling the nonprofit’s building means the arts initiative has the opportunity to find a host organization better aligned with its mission, he said.   

International House and Lightbox staff are “in conversation” with other arts organizations in the city to find the project a new venue and operator, Sevin added.

International House Philadelphia, which was founded more than 110 years ago, was created to ease the housing discrimination international students experienced in the city. It expanded to add an array of international and cultural programming, including the arts program.  

Lightbox Film Center was originally known as The Neighborhood Film/Video Project. It was established in the 1970s and moved into International House in 1979. 

In 1992, the program spurred the Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema before buckling down on year-round film programming in the latter half of the decade. It was rebranded as Lightbox Film Center in 2017. 

Sevin said he envisions International House transitioning into a new type of multicultural hub once it vacates its University City location. The need for the organization’s specialized housing services has decreased as local universities have increased such offerings, he said. 

Sevin’s vision includes a center where internationally focused organizations and nonprofits can coexist and collaborate on intercultural endeavors like immigration services, international education and global business and civic engagement.

International House will maintain full operation through December, Sevin said, in part to help the center through its transition. He added he is “optimistic” the arts program will find a new parent organization and hopes “it continues to be a place for both cinephiles and people who are just looking at art as a window onto the challenge and provoke that as Philadelphia changes.” 

Meanwhile, the staff at Lightbox Film Center is filled with a sense of “cautious optimism” that the progam’s mission will continue.

“There’s certainly a tremendous amount of support in the community,” Pires said. “We’re really hoping that all that kind of goodwill and support translates into a new home and finding a way to keep pushing forward.” 

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