It was on a drive from St. Louis, Missouri that Darnell and Naomi Chambers, with only $2,000 in their pockets, decided they needed to create their own art space. A space that would welcome children and adults alike in a community that hosts an 80-percent black population, and is distanced from the galleries of Downtown Pittsburgh.
The art scene in Pittsburgh is dominated by creators of all race, gender, class, and sexuality. However, many of these artists and curators, those considered “alternative,” have found that it’s not so much the work they do that deviates them from the mainstream, but a lack of funds and traditional workspaces for them to occupy.
The creators that inhabit these spaces are often found without the money to afford larger, more traditional galleries and studios, giving them their “alternative” label, even if they don’t choose it themselves.
Derek Peel is one of those artists. Having a background in sculptures, they work with materials like garbage, car scraps, and wires.
“I think [art trends] come in waves, you know?” Peel says. “It’s hard to tell what’s going to be mainstream tomorrow. I don’t necessarily see what I do as ‘alternative,’ it’s just what I do [right now].”
Currently, Peel is working on a project for their art collective, Public, that includes an interesting use of baby strollers as trash bins. This work was inspired by a group of masked individuals who would push around the baby carriages and collect the garbage.
Public does gallery shows without gallery locations — having some shows in basements, punk venues, and even the ballroom of a Lithuanian Social Club.
“A lot of galleries can be booked up two years in advance, so a great way around that was for us to just find [alternative] spaces that would be ready quicker,” Peel says. “Plus, it’s always fun to show in a ‘non-art’ space.”
Emma Vescio, an independent curator, is no stranger to using non-art spaces for art purposes. As the owner of Lucky Cloud, she has also found a creative way around booking with traditional galleries.
Using a small cabinet area above her closet that, according to Vescio, is about “five-feet-by-four-feet” big, Vescio hosts small, private shows.
“It’s literally a very small gallery,” Vescio said. “I live in a one-room apartment, though, so it’s not the most accessible [place]. It’s mostly for friends and to take photos of the work to put online.”
Vescio puts together shows that are geared toward queer, conceptual art that focus on the marginalization that non-binary and queer women artists feel in the current political climate.
“I feel like it has been a race throughout history for people of color and women [to be seen],” Vescio says.
Tara Coleman, another local curator, has also worked to lift the voices of women by only putting women artists in shows.
“I love doing all-women shows,” Coleman says. “That’s something that I’ll probably continue to do for the most part.”
At the start of Coleman’s career, she worked primarily with men in a project about graffiti art. While Coleman understands that the legality of working with her on a show about something that, especially at the time, could’ve gotten artists arrested, the rude comments and treatment she received is what led her to her now all-woman shows.
As a curator, Coleman says the support felt by artists in the community could be stronger, citing the lack of grants for curatorial work in Pittsburgh.
“In terms of financial support [for curators], that’s something that I really, really want to institute,” Coleman says. “But it’s really a matter of finding a way to institute that, finding funding pools… there are curatorial residencies in other cities, but nothing like that exists in Pittsburgh.”
Economics drives the success of any business in Pittsburgh, but for artists, curators, and their spaces, it’s the divide between major and minor successes.
Anna Nelson, an independent curator and artist, is a CMU grad and says that their schooling didn’t quite prepare them for the economy of the Pittsburgh art scene.
“I feel like the program in art school mostly prepares you to move to a larger city and working as an artist there, and then making money selling your work,” Nelson says. “Which, in the context of Pittsburgh… you’re not going to be making oil paintings for $20,000 because there’s not the buying audience for that.”
After graduating and realizing that the art scene in Pittsburgh has a bit of a way to go before such a buying audience exists, Nelson got more into art administration, putting together shows, and curatorial work.
“Right now we have a lot of people who don’t have excess money to be investing in art,” Nelson says. “And if that’s the audience that you are making art for, it’s kind of an uphill battle.”
Curators and artists who don’t have the economic status to display their work in large galleries or create work that has value to investors, need spaces to work in. That’s where small, independent, DIY studios come in.
Darnell and Naomi Chambers are the directors and founders of FlowerHouse, a community art studio in Wilkinsburg. FlowerHouse acts as a space for workshops, galleries, and a safe place for neighborhood kids to express themselves through works like photography, screen printing, painting, and more.
“We just wanted to make a space for a community that needed it,” Darnell said. “There aren’t a lot of resources here… and a lot of people aren’t able to access [those resources]. So we wanted to do a free art program.”
FlowerHouse is an intimate studio, one that is small in size, congregation, and funds.
“We pay for a lot of our stuff out of pocket,” Darnell said. “And then everything else in our space is either donated or just given to us.”
In a 52-page report released by the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council in May 2018, of the $351,993,256 worth of public and private art grants, 86 percent went to White, non-Hispanic art organizations and 14 percent went to ALAANA (Asian, Latinx, African, Arab, and Native-American) organizations.
“Until you sort of build up a name for yourself outside of Pittsburgh, it feels like they try to ignore you,” Naomi says. “That’s starting to change, but small spaces like [ours] are necessary for emerging artists.”
The Do-It-Yourself trend in art spaces doesn’t stop at FlowerHouse, Christina Lee is a co-director at PULLPROOF Studio, a silkscreen printing studio on Penn Avenue in Garfield.
PULLPROOF acts as a coworking space for artists in screenprinting, one that you can rent out on either a month-by-month plan or 3-month plan.
“We also exhibit work during First Friday every month,” Lee says. “We’re a little bit flexible, too, so you can use our space for design work, or drawing, or anything else, really.”
First Friday is an event hosted on Penn Avenue that allows studios and galleries to present shows to the general public for free on, you guessed it, the first Friday of the month.
Alternative art spaces like PULLPROOF and FlowerHouse have popped up all over the city, and their willingness and success in hosting artists and shows of every variety is indicative of the need for more spaces like them.
“I wouldn’t say that there is a ‘mainstream’ or ‘alternative’ art scene in Pittsburgh,” Nelson says. “There’s not really two scenes, here. I think that what happens often is that smaller spaces and the work that artists are doing before they ‘make it’ just get erased.”