HOW RADIANT HALL IS CHANGING THE WAY ARTISTS ARE SUPPORTED IN PITTSBURGH

NOT CARVED IN STONE

Inside Radiant Hall’s artist studios in Lawrenceville, I found much of what I expected to find in photographer Ben Filio’s workspace. Old 35 mm cameras arranged on a shelf, a large computer screen, and dozens of Polaroid photos—Filio’s effort to photograph every state park in Pennsylvania—pinned to the wall. I also found the unexpected: an elegant area rug with a motorcycle parked on it, missing a seat and other essential parts.

“Don’t worry,” Filio said, “I drained the gas out.”

Let’s begin with what Radiant Hall is not: an art gallery, training institute, or school. It’s not limited to a single facility, the building on Lawrenceville’s Plummer Street where RADIANT HALL is carved in stone above the front door of a former Polish social hall, rumored to have once housed a bar called the Blood Bucket.

Radiant Hall is affordable, safe, and flexible studio space available to artists of nearly any discipline, for which members pay between $135 and $500 per month. Radiant Hall is also the name of the non-profit organization—led by Executive Director Ryan Lammie, and his staff of six—that now serves sixty-five artists in three locations across the city.

Nicole Ryan at Radiant Hall Lawrenceville Studio
Above: Nicole Ryan (right) talks with a visitor at a Lawrenceville Open Studio. Top Photo: Inside Oreen Cohen’s Homewood Studio. Photos by Christopher Sprowls/Radiant Hall

Now with a waiting list of interested artists, Radiant Hall is beyond capacity and trying to keep pace with a growing need for affordable studio space in Pittsburgh’s burgeoning art community. It’s the same need Lammie recognized when he returned to his native Pittsburgh in 2012, with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the Pratt Institute in New York City and an awareness that the city had changed since he left five years earlier.

“A lot of what I saw in Brooklyn was happening here,” Lammie said of the upscale business districts, high rents, and sales prices becoming more common throughout numerous Pittsburgh neighborhoods. As rents increase, he added, “Artists are being displaced from their studios, and people are being displaced from homes and businesses.”

Of that growing art scene, Radiant Hall board member William Kofmehl III said that Pittsburgh produces what he believes to be “some of the most talented and commercially viable artists in the international arena.” As an artist represented by Lombard-Freid Projects in New York City, Kofmehl has participated in art fairs in Hong Kong, Switzerland, London, Paris, and throughout the United States.

Pittsburgh produces “some of the most talented and commercially viable artists in the international arena.”

Radiant Hall’s five-year anniversary last October marked a triumph over the many challenges that can befall nascent organizations, and was celebrated in style with a deejayed party and curated gallery show of members’ work at the Framehouse and Jask Gallery. The event raised $15,000, but Radiant Hall was back to work the next day, welcoming the first of more than 500 visitors who would attend semi-annual Open Studio events during the next three weekends.

Radiant Hall’s next five years will bring a new set of a challenges—long-term financial sustainability, transitioning from leasing studio space to owning it, and co-evolving with Pittsburgh’s changing markets and demographics. All of this will require nimble navigation to stay true to its core principles and the needs of its growing membership.

ADAPTIVE AND SUSTAINABLE GROWTH

Radiant Hall’s pursuit of financial solvency is not atypical for a Pittsburgh startup. After receiving its non-profit status, initial grants totaling $60,000 from The Heinz Endowments and The Buhl Foundation supported the organization’s expansion into the neighborhoods of Homewood and the North Side. Subsequent grants from Buhl, The Pittsburgh Foundation, and The Opportunity Fund led to a 3-year/$200,000 grant awarded jointly between The Heinz Endowments and the Hillman Foundation. Radiant Hall has complemented grant funding by hosting fundraisers, seeking individual and corporate support, and not adding Lammie to the organization’s payroll until early 2017, five years after its inception.

As the executive director of the Lawrenceville Corporation, Radiant Hall’s board president Matthew Galluzzo knows how to manage the growth of organizations and neighborhoods. Galluzzo said that a primary goal of Radiant Hall’s recently completed eighteen-month stabilization and capacity-building process is to double the number of available studio spaces to 150. That undertaking “will be done incrementally, by balancing our rental portfolio with an ownership model,” he said. This means purchasing buildings to complement the long-term leases the organization holds for its current facilities, with the goal of finding a 50/50 balance between the two.

Artists and visitors at Radiant Hall Open Studio in Homewood
Inside the Homewood Open Studio. Photo by Christopher Sprowls/Radiant Hall

While property ownership will provide the kind of security that Lammie was concerned about from the beginning—permanently affordable space for Radiant Hall’s artists—it also draws in another longtime concern: gentrification.

Upon returning to Pittsburgh, Lammie’s awareness that even some middle-income people could no longer afford to live in neighborhoods like Lawrenceville created a conundrum: how to address the displacement of artists, knowing the role artists play in the gentrification cycle of cities, and that the cause of artist displacement is the same for everyone else—rising real estate values.

Radiant Hall’s first location in Lawrenceville, nestled into a residential street, became the model for expanding to other locations, and a strategy for minimizing its impacts on neighborhoods. “We didn’t want storefronts in gentrifying neighborhoods advertising that a bunch of artists have moved in,” Lammie said.

This thinking informed where Radiant Hall chose to expand. The Homewood studio was established in a former industrial building at the end of the mostly residential Susquehanna Street; the NOVA Place studio on Pittsburgh’s Northside was opened in a 1960s-era shopping mall, formerly Allegheny Center, that’s being converted into office and event space.

With those studios secured by long-term leases, I asked Galluzzo about neighborhoods that would appeal to Radiant Hall as property owners. “We asked ourselves what a real estate strategy would look like,” he said. “We aspire to have a regional footprint, and need to look at what our members want. That might mean walkable places or good public transit.” As for the potentially gentrifying effects of that decision, he said, “What contributes to a place taking off? What kind of building has that effect? There’s an authenticity to spaces like Blackbird Lofts or the Ice House, but it will come down to understanding local markets and neighborhood dynamics.”

HOMEWOOD AND ENTREPRENEURSHIP

Attracting new artists and supporting current ones has remained Lammie’s primary focus. His pursuits as a sculptor and painter may often have to yield to running Radiant Hall, but they keep him connected to members’ needs.

Radiant Hall’s Homewood studio is in a former Westinghouse manufacturing facility, now called 7800 Susquehanna. On the fourth floor is where Nisha Blackwell, an artist and studio director, runs Knotzland, a company she founded that makes bowties from reclaimed fabrics. Surrounded by sewing machines and bolts of cloth, Blackwell moved into the Homewood studio not far from where she grew up, and without it she would still be working from home. “Ryan was overly welcoming from the start, and has gone above and beyond accommodating Knotzland ever since,” she said.

Blackwell began sewing bowties as gifts, wanting “to make something timeless,” but soon found “creativity embedded in all sectors of the economy.” Now as a “creative entrepreneur,” timelessness is about more than fashion; in fact, “It’s everything,” she said. Knotzland embodies many of the social, economic and physical principals as Radiant Hall, especially economic and environmental sustainability.

Blackwell now employs five seamstresses. They mostly work from home, which Blackwell said allows them to pursue their passion for sewing, while enabling them to work other jobs. But when in the studio, they have the opportunity to learn the business side of entrepreneurship.

Nisha Blackwell with guests at Radiant Hall Open Studio in Homewood
Artist and studio director Nisha Blackwell entertains visitors during Homewood Open Studio. Photo by Christopher Sprowls/Radiant Hall

“Fashion and textiles are some of the most environmentally destructive industries,” Blackwell said. “There are now nine seasons in the fashion world. As each one passes, tons and tons of material ends up in landfills.” From the 10 million tons of it discarded each year, Knotzland uses as much as it can in its “up-cycling” business model, much of which Blackwell acquires from local suppliers, like the Pittsburgh Opera.

Radiant Hall members occupy two floors of the 100,000 square foot building that has been under renovation since 2015, after being acquired by Bridgeway Capital. While similar buildings elsewhere are going the way of luxury lofts and or high-tech offices, the overhaul of 7800 Susquehanna is part of a major workforce development initiative that appealed to Lammie. The project, led by Ma’at Construction Group, achieved 85% minority contractor participation and is now home to mission-driven organizations such as Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh, the Trade Institute of Pittsburgh, and the Homewood Business Center.

It’s Knotzland and Radiant Hall that best evoke the city’s timeless tradition of small-scale, innovative, and homegrown creativity that sustained it for so long.

As two creative entrepreneurs, it seems fitting that Blackwell’s space is adjacent to Lammie’s, and it’s here—in this corner of this building in this neighborhood—that the essence of Radiant Hall is most potent. The narrative of Pittsburgh’s image-makeover and leader in the innovation economy—weighted by the presence of tech-giants like Google, and futuristic industries like robotics and autonomous vehicles—rarely includes the kinds of entrepreneurship found in Knotzland or Radiant Hall. Companies like Uber may have a legitimate place alongside industrial-corporate giants throughout Pittsburgh’s history, but it’s Knotzland and Radiant Hall that best evoke the city’s timeless tradition of small-scale, innovative, and homegrown creativity that sustained it for so long, be it bread making, condiments, or bowties.

Homewood Studio Artists: Ryan Lammie | Aisling Quigley | Oreen Cohen | Kimberlyn Bloise (left) | Nisha Blackwell | Blaine Siegel (left)

NOVA PLACE AND ARTISTS’ SAFETY

Across town on the city’s North Shore is Radiant Hall’s NOVA Place studio, where I found three members painting on a weekday afternoon. Kathy Mazur and Kim McAninch are pursing art as second careers; while Meg Dooley is fulfilling a lifelong dream.

As one of Radiant Hall’s newest members, Kim McAninch’s space is surrounded by glass and looks out upon NOVA’s promenade. But she sees it the other way around—the public can look in on her and her work, and her studio can serve as a pseudo-storefront to showcase her paintings day and night.

McAninch also made a leap from a prior career, in “surface pattern design,” the kind of art found on dishes, fabric, and wallpaper. She began painting full-time five years ago, and her intense drive to sell paintings was evident—until recently, she was selling four dozen paintings each year, but sales have slowed a bit. “So, I’m trying this,” McAninch said brightly, opening her arms to her studio. Radiant has been a good experience so far, she said, especially being around other artists. “This is new for me, but I’m becoming comfortable very quickly.”

NOVA Place Studio Photo Gallery: Njaimeh Njie | Brianna Martray | Crystal Latimer | Kim McAninch | Lisa Ash | Chelsea Long | Kathy Mazur (second from right)

“Mazur retired early as a web designer and began experimenting with spray paint in her garage. “I knew I needed to find a new space,” she said, after feeling the effects of the fumes. Mazur laughed when she told me this, unaware that she hit upon one of Radiant’s core principles: artists’ safety.

Lammie said that artists may not recognize unsafe working environments, or how dangerous the art-making process can be. Some artists “are desperate enough for space that they accept unsafe working environments,” he said. Fumes and a lack of ventilation, as well overall building integrity, are common issues artists face. Radiant Hall’s facilities follow all of the life safety and other code requirements needed to legally occupy a space.

Accepted as one of eight emerging artists at the 2017 Three Rivers Arts Festival, Mazur sold two-thirds of her work, needing to resupply her tent with new pieces, twice. Soon after, Mazur sold her three largest paintings at an art show in Indiana, PA. “Buyers are now asking me to produce work,” she added.

The move to Radiant Hall encouraged Mazur to experiment with acrylics; and more recently, she’s taken classes in oil painting taught by McAninch.

Wearing a Colman’s Dry Mustard apron, Meg Dooley, a retired television producer, showed me her canvases that, she said, “are not precious.” They measure about four square feet and are saturated with vivid colors applied with brushes or stamped with tools like flyswatters. What are they all about? “Quantum cosmology,” Dooley said. “I’m interested in entropy, and sixty-five is too late to start a career as a physicist.” With titles like Foliar Solar System and Migratory Bird Brain(storm), Dooley uses her new found curiosity to inspire her lifelong artistic inclinations.

Meg Dooley at Radiant Hall NOVA Place Studio
Meg Dooley working in NOVA Place Studio. Photo by Christopher Sprowls/Radiant Hall

LAWRENCEVILLE AND BEYOND THE STUDIO

Radiant Hall’s mission statement—To create and preserve studio environments for working artists—hits the major notes of availability and affordability, it but doesn’t capture all the small ways that the organization supports its members. One-on-one sessions with visiting artists, curators, and critics; access to professional photography; and bi-monthly happy hours are membership perks.

One-on-one sessions with visiting artists, curators, and critics; access to professional photography; and bi-monthly happy hours are membership perks.

Susanna Weyandt and Ian Brill share a large space on the top floor of the Lawrenceville studio. As a visual artist, Weyandt’s space is filled with recent paintings that overwhelmed her apartment before she moved into Radiant Hall. “I lived with them all the time,” Weyandt lamented with a smile. “When you look at something all the time, you don’t see it anymore. I needed to be able to get away from them.” For Weyandt, the greater value of Radiant Hall is being around other artists, which to her “feels like a community.”

Brill was more direct when I asked him why he was there, saying, “This place has a crane!” Indeed it does. A winch with a heavy-duty yellow hook hung from a cable in front of a large door that opened three floors above an alley. Does he use it? “All the time,” Weyandt said.

Brill’s best-known work involves large scale installations such as the Vault, a tunnel of translucent plastic panels infused with ever-changing lighting effects. Recently, the Vault spanned the entire dance floor of Spirit, a bar and music hall five blocks away. Beyond the studio’s ample floor space, where he can construct his work and store supplies, Brill said that the Radiant Hall organization is just as important. “They have our backs,” he said.

“Radiant Hall is about having a community at your fingertips.”

Weyandt said that the Open Houses in each of the three facilities have introduced her to clients, and Radiant Hall has helped her identify grants to support her work. Brill added that the organization enables members to attend the Mattress Factory’s major fundraiser, the Urban Garden Party, for free.

Lawrenceville Studio Artists: Ben Filio (middle) | Dafna Rehavia | Seth LeDonne | Rhona Chang

The common theme of “community” was cited by many Radiant Hall members as something they value, including studio director Blaine Siegel. While members use their spaces in different ways, Siegel said that the ideal member has a regular presence. “Radiant Hall is about having a community at your fingertips that can provide instant feedback, share materials, and encourage you to try out new things,” he said.

Siegel and three other studio directors—Seth Clark, Ramon Riley, and Nisha Blackwell—are paid a part-time salary and receive two full studio spaces at no cost. They organize tours for prospective artists; conduct outreach to art programs; resolve occasional conflicts between members; and serve as liaisons between artists and the staff, all while pursuing their own professional artistic endeavors.

Blaine Siegal at Radiant Hall Homewood Studio
Artist and studio director Blaine Siegel at the Radiant Hall Homewood Studio.  Photo by Christopher Sprowls/Radiant Hall

Siegel is, in many ways, the type of artist for whom Radiant Hall was created. A Pittsburgh native who left the city and returned in 2010, Siegel was unable to find space in Pittsburgh for more than a year, until he secured a spot in the Mine Safety Building in the Point Breeze neighborhood. It served him well for three years, until “the building was sold and I got priced out,” he said. Lammie had just opened the Homewood studio, less than a mile from the Mine Safety Building, and offered Siegel a studio director job.

When asked if anything was lacking within Radiant Hall, Siegel and other members noted a need for a gallery space dedicated to members. “I would love to see a gallery that could exhibit a two-person show,” Siegel said. “If each show ran for six weeks, it would guarantee every member the opportunity to exhibit their work every two years.”

“The problem won’t be solved by one organization trying to do everything, but by many organizations collaborating.”

Lammie understands that desire and its underlying problem, saying, “I can think of six or seven galleries that have closed in the last few years.” He believes there’s a better solution that involves other professional organizations and private gallery owners. “The problem won’t be solved by one organization trying to do everything, but by many organizations collaborating,” he said.

To that end, Lammie launched a new venture earlier this year called G1|CW (Gallery One|Collective Works), a co-working office space and 700-square-foot art gallery. “It’s an experiment,” he said of the small building that, like the original Radiant Hall location in Lawrenceville, is tucked away on a residential street in Bloomfield. During a recent trip to Chicago, Lammie attended several gallery shows in small, discreet locations, in which he found the inspiration for G1|CW.

“Those small spaces worked very well and were well attended,” he said. Many of the recently closed galleries Lammie spoke of were situated in business districts where storefront rents are rising, and his hope is that spaces like Gallery One can create the kind of “ecosystem” that he believes is needed to support the talent harnessed within the walls of Radiant Hall’s studios.

Gallery One is already booked through the spring of 2019.

More information about all Radiant Hall artists can be found here.