A Global Conversation with Rob Buscher, Programs Director of Fleisher Art Memorial

As a film and media specialist, educator, and civil rights advocate, Rob Buscher has worked as the Programs Director of the Fleisher Art Memorial since February 2019. The Fleisher Art Memorial is one of the oldest nonprofit community art schools in the country, with more than 20,000 participants signing up every year for their classes, tuition-free classes, workshops, community-based programs and exhibitions. Before starting at Fleisher, Buscher served as the director of the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival, where he became internationally recognized for his work. Using his background in film, Buscher now oversees Fleisher’s arts education programs for children and adults as well as their community work, including residencies in local public schools and community spaces.


Can you share some information about the history of Fleisher Art Memorial and about Samuel Fleisher in general?

The Fleisher Art Memorial was founded in 1898 by the namesake, Samuel Fleisher. Sam was the son of German immigrants from a Jewish community who sought a life here in the United States. His parents owned a yarn factory in the Fabric Row, which is located just a few blocks from here near 4thStreet. The building that the factory was in no longer stands, but as Sam was coming into adulthood, he felt that it was important to try and enrich the quality of factory workers’ lives. So, he opened up a free community art school, which at the time was called the Graphic Sketch Club, and this was opened freely to all of the factory workers and their children. So, the idea was to really enrich the quality of their lives and give them something to look forward to at the end of the day. They could come here and work on art in a non-competitive environment and, in fact, many of them did become very talented artists and were eventually able to leave the factory to pursue that as a career. 

How has this mission stayed alive today?

In Sam Fleisher’s will, he bequeathed a large estate to basically have the Fleisher School opened in perpetuity to immigrants, children of immigrants, and specifically African Americans. Very early on in his running of the school, they had integrated classrooms, and it was rare to see this kind of integrated learning environment even in Philadelphia, particularly in a fine arts setting. There was really nowhere else that African Americans at that time period could get the same quality of arts education. 

In a lot of ways, this neighborhood in South Philadelphia has been a gateway community, and it’s really a place where new immigrant communities have come throughout history on their way to becoming American. Our main service areas are South Philadelphia, east of Broad Street, so that’s the 19147-19148 ZIP Codes. We’ve also increasingly been serving west of Broad Street as well. In those neighborhoods, you have this incredible influx of Southeast Asian and Latin communities, and we’ve created strategies to start incorporating those communities in more holistic ways throughout the many programs that we do. We’ve included bilingual offerings and made it known when our teaching artists speak another language. We’ve brought community partnerships into various schools that have a predominantly Spanish-speaking community, or other Southeast Asian communities. This is how, over the last decade, Fleisher has been gradually diversifying its student population to reflect the true diversity of the South Philadelphia neighborhoods we serve. 

What’s your favorite aspect of this new role that you’re taking on?

There’s a lot to learn, and it’s exciting and also daunting to know that there’s so much you don’t know when you are walking into an institution that has its way of organizing itself, particularly one as old and as respected as Fleisher. At the same time, I think it gives a great amount of ability to plug-in different communities into the resources that exist here already; that that was one of my main motivations for taking on this role. The communities that need the most support right now in Philadelphia are the Southeast Asian communities, who are almost exclusively here as refugees or the descendants of refugees related to the Vietnam War, and also the other conflicts the U.S. was involved in in Laos and Cambodia. When you really get down to it, art doesn’t  have a large place in the lives of these refugee communities. But it should because art is an important part of the way that people experience their culture because it lets people do more than just survive, and living without this can lead to isolation, depression, and other mental illnesses. A big part of what I do is looking at the different kinds of programs we offer currently, figuring out how we can best integrate the Southeast Asian communities into those, and opening up spaces here at Fleisher so that these communities feel welcomed and like this is a place where they can also exist, as well as also doing some programs with them offsite. 

When did you come to Philadelphia?

I came to Philadelphia at the end of 2010, so I’ve been here for just about a decade now. Before coming to Philadelphia, I was born and raised in Connecticut about an hour north of New York City. I went to college abroad in the United Kingdom, where I lived for about five and a half years. In between, I studied abroad in Japan at the Temple University Japan campus, and then I returned to the UK and decided to pursue a master’s degree in Japanese studies, which I did at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. I was then able to travel back to Japan for a second time to live there and conduct research for my master’s thesis. 

On the heels of completing my graduate degree, I also became involved in film curation. Throughout the 2009- 2010 year, I worked on establishing Zipangu Fest, which was the UK’s first Japanese film festival specifically dedicated to showing perspectives on Japanese culture outside of the dominant narrative portrayed by the British media and press. The British press consistently used words like “weird,” “bizarre” and “strange” to contextualize Japanese culture in a way that was decidedly derogatory. As someone of Japanese American background who was raised in an interracial family in the U.S., it was an interesting lesson in how European culture views itself and how these dynamics of race and racism were playing out in a different environment than I was raised in. 

Moving here to Philadelphia, I started working for the Greater Philadelphia Film Office in film administration, where I helped to bring Hollywood studios to do location shoots here in the city. I did that for about a year and a half and it was an incredible journey in a short period of time. I went from being a complete outsider in the film industry to working with the biggest Hollywood studios. But at the same time, it wasn’t a place where I wanted to spend my career because I came from a community perspective. 

Ultimately, over the course of seven or so years, I’ve had the privilege of working with the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival to really explore what diasporic film looks like from an Asian American perspective. Where it used to be a small city festival, it’s now become one of the largest on the east coast out of any Asian American/Pacific Islander film festival. And this has helped to bridge the divides I saw when I moved here of how Asian Americans were very much seen as outsiders. I think that started to change. It’s far from perfect, but it’s something that I think we are going to continue to work on. I’m trying to continue the work I’ve started with the film festival here, in the context of Fleisher, with the many programs and resources that are available and at our disposal here. I hope to create that kind of dialogue and more of this pipeline for Asian American community members to become more integrated in the larger mainstream arts institutions. 

Do you see Philadelphia as an international city? What do you think attracts multinational firms and people from all over the world to Philadelphia?

Philly has always been an international city. Consider how international it was at the time of the Revolution; when the United States declared independence, Philadelphia was a center of commerce as well as a center of culture and political and artistic thought. Technologies like photography and cinematography were invented, and certainly perfected, here. It’s only a fairly recent timeline that we see Philadelphia falling from its position as an international city, or as the international city, because New York’s business sector continued to grow and Washington DC became the political hub. 

And certainly in terms of demographics, we are a majority minority city. We have a 44% African American population, 13% Latino community, and 7% Asian American and Pacific Islander. People have been here for many generations in most cases, but we also have a huge group of immigrants and their descendants that are now part of our community, and I think that’s going to continue to expand the kind of diversity of Philadelphia. Even in a time period when the United States as a country has pulled out of the UNESCO World Heritage agreements, Philadelphia is still a member as a city. We’re also a sanctuary city and that’s a politically important statement to make to the international community during this time period.

I think one of the challenges that is facing Philadelphia, and really most cities in the world, is the eradication of public space. There needs to be public spaces where people can interact with a low or no monetary entry barrier in order for our society to really function. We just need to be spending more time talking face to face, even if we don’t always agree. And Fleisher Art Memorial is already cultivating an environment for artists and communities to coexist. In the coming years we are going to be even more intentional about how we open up our space to the public, how we invite communities in, and how we help to cultivate these kinds of partnerships together to strengthen the communities that are here in Philadelphia. For example, although most adult programs are tuition bearing, we also have tuition assistance that anyone can apply for. The whole intent of this is to bridge the socio-economic gap and bring people from different backgrounds into the same room to collaborate and create art. I hope that other institutions can also acknowledge this as an issue and contribute to the solution.


Interview conducted by Amelia Winger on behalf of Global Philadelphia Association