When Rocío Cabello and Renny Molenaar opened Imperfect Gallery in 2012, they wanted to bring art to the Germantown community. Ten years later, they have done just that—and a heck of a lot more.
By Ethan Young '23
A wooden sign with golden letters beckons visitors as they walk down Germantown Avenue: Imperfect Gallery, a seeming oasis of art in the center of bustling Germantown.
Inside the gallery, you’ll find Rocío Cabello and Renny Molenaar, co-directors of Imperfect Gallery hanging their next show, connecting with community leaders, or dancing at one of their Friday night events. Cabello and Molenaar founded the gallery back in 2012, in what Molenaar describes as a neighborhood “trying to rise from the ashes.” In a time when Germantown lacked bars, coffee shops, and places to socialize, Cabello and Molenaar stepped in to fill the cultural void.
Since the gallery opened, Cabello and Molenaar, both artists, have grown into their strengths when it comes to managing the day-to-day operations of the gallery. Cabello is in charge of all the administrative work while Molenaar serves as the artistic director. They of course do a lot of the work together, too – on top of raising two kids.
It’s the events that bring as much life to the Imperfect Gallery as the art. Cabello and Molenaar host weekly Friday Afro-Cuban Rumba nights, artist talks, movie screenings, and more. They are happy to let outside groups use their space, too, for anything ranging from shooting a music video to fundraising for a community organization.
As Cabello and Molenaar speak, it’s clear the gallery is their labor of love, and rightfully so. Earthquake spoke with them to learn more about their story, their gallery, and the community of artists, social changemakers, and Philadelphia residents who have rallied around them. (The interview has been condensed and edited.)
Can you tell me about the current exhibition on show at the gallery?
Renny Molenaar: This is our tenth Germantown Show, which is an exhibition we do annually to stay engaged with the community and get the temperature on what they are feeling and doing.
The annual shows are always non-curated, non-judged, and non-juried, with the only limitation being size for the sake of fitting all of the art. The goal of these shows is to show that art can be dynamic and passionate and relevant. Last year and this year, we have suggested a political theme as a unifying idea but not necessarily as a topic.
This year, the show is called Hands Off, and it is an effort to bring in artists in solidarity with women's rights. We brought in 84 separate artists who responded to an open invitation to submit their work – and it didn’t necessarily need to relate to the topic. Artists could also participate in solidarity. Another point is to show that all of this art can exist in what otherwise can feel like a very scattered world. With 84 different artists you are going to have very different kinds of art, but if given the space, they can coexist and that is a sort of radical idea.
On the opening day of the show, a lot of the artists were here and they were enamored with the idea that we are this group of people all together. And obviously they expressed themselves in different ways but they have this opportunity to meet other artists and talk to them about their artwork.
How are pieces selected?
RM: We like to think of ourselves as tastemakers and facilitators more than curators. I’m interested in the grit and passion and capacity of artists that we show. I am enamored with hard work, with good technique and even with good bad technique. I love experimentation and radical thinking, I love people pushing the boundaries and tradition at the same time. At the bottom line, we love heart.
I don’t ever ask artists their religion or their politics or their sex. None of that is my business. I am interested in their art, in their integrity, in their passion. When an artist has a political stance, we facilitate it because we are anti-censorship. And this is the same if an artist leans to the left or the right. That’s why we love this country, because we have freedom of speech and the right to an opinion.
Tell me a little bit about the importance of having a space like Imperfect Gallery in Germantown. How do you connect with the larger community?
Rocío Cabello: I think it is a lot easier for us to connect with the community because we live and have lived in the Germantown community and were already connected to the neighborhood way before we had the gallery. You network and meet your neighbors, you know. We were a part of the community garden around the corner. When we decided to open the gallery, it just made sense to do it here. We knew that there were a lot of creatives in the Germantown neighborhood but we didn’t know how to meet them.
At the time, there were no places where we could gather in the area. If people wanted to see artwork, they would go downtown because all of the galleries are concentrated there. We felt this isolation as artists in this community, so we filled that void with the gallery. And it was clear that other artists felt that similar isolation, too, because as soon as we opened the gallery, artists started coming out of the woodwork everywhere like spiders.
When we started the gallery, we noticed that there were a lot of people in this neighborhood who didn’t know what a gallery was and they were very intimidated. Sometimes we could see the hesitation of people as they were passing by and they would always ask, “May we come in?” and we would always respond, “That’s why we are here.”
RM: When we opened, there were no coffee shops in Germantown, no bars that were friendly. There were no opportunities to socialize among artists, which is especially important when you want to have different conversations and arguments about what is happening in the world.
So having a brick and mortar space on Germantown Avenue has been magic and it totally connects us. By being a part of the Germantown community we are connected to it.
Can you describe some of the events the gallery hosts?
RM: On Friday nights we do African-Cuban drumming, which we call Rumbas. On Fridays, it is this wild scene with the lights off and these drums and sticks and bells. This is all with the attitude that we are not entertaining you but instead facilitating a space in which these artists can grow their efforts.
RC: We also try to do artist talks for every show. Since most of our shows are solo exhibitions, we often have the artists come and speak about their work, how they work, why they work, whatever they want to share. We also present poetry and do screenings.
We really love how diverse the community is that comes together for these events. This neighborhood, unfortunately, has a lot of remnants of segregation that used to exist. To this day, still, there are a lot of events and activities where you can tell that there is a white gathering and that there is a black gathering. We try very hard not to do that. The crowds are always different and we never know what to expect.
How did the pandemic effect you? What did it pandemic teach you?
RC: The pandemic almost took us out, but we were stronger than COVID!
RM: We are such a tiny, miniscule, microscopic operation that we were able to take the blow. We were also lucky personally, and we were able to make it through.
We had to close the gallery [temporarily]. Our business is predicated on the idea of bringing people together – that is in our mission statement – and during the pandemic we could not do that. We also weren’t interested in doing an online gallery, which worked well for some people, but we weren’t into it because we are driven by being able to bring people into this space.
In some ways, after eight years of the gallery and really being in a grind, it was sort of a relief to be able to take a breath while we were shut down. And we were able to fundraise to have enough money to pay the rent and the insurance and other essentials. Since we are such a small operation, we were also able to eliminate all of our programming expenses as well. Since we have reopened, it has been slow going, because up until a few months ago, people were terribly paranoid.
RC: Honestly, it is the community that has kept us alive because after we closed our doors, we did not really have any way to hold on to the space. We didn’t have the money to pay the rent and our first emergency happened when we learned that the government couldn’t help us because we were too small of a business. And then when the second round of funding came for small businesses, we once again were too small.
We ended up sending out an online fundraising campaign to all on our mailing list and this ended up paying for all the rent for the whole year that we were closed. So basically, it’s our own community that held us up when we really couldn’t do anything.
When we first reopened last year, we began by doing art outside because people still did not want to come inside. We made these wooden prisms that were seven feet tall and put artwork on them and put them out in the street or in the nearby parks. We then began doing events in the street, too. So in many ways, the pandemic brought a lot of bad things but it also opened a lot of new doors [for us].
As we look toward the future, what message do you have?
RM: I am an eternal optimist. Even politically, whatever happens, I think that we are going to come out of it for the better. I think that what is happening with our youth is phenomenal. I also think that people are now having conversations that they weren’t having before that were very much needed. I think that it is a good day coming in.
RC: Ultimately, we believe in humanity, and sometimes ugly things need to hapen to wake up everyone and get them to notice things. We need to be determined, we need to be united, and we need to find ways to connect as humans.
The 10th Annual Germantown Show, Hands Off!! is on display now through November 5th. To learn more about Imperfact Gallery, you can visit their website.
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