The Plain Dealer | Steven Litt  |  January 20, 2019

'Wilderness years' are over at Spaces, a lively, artist-driven gallery and incubator on a roll

CLEVELAND, Ohio – The wilderness years at Spaces appear to be very much over.

The small, 41-year-old nonprofit cultural organization, whose mission is to nurture and show experimental work by emerging and mid-career contemporary visual artists in Cleveland and around the world, is showing serious signs of maturity, stability and growth.

It has a new home, a redesigned website, a bigger-than-ever budget approaching $1 million, and two hefty new programs enabling it to hand out $85,000 in grants to 15 artists this year.

On top of all that, Spaces has been mounting a steady stream of exhibitions that have reached consistently high levels of quality, pushing attendance from roughly 5,000 to 9,000 a year.

Memorable exhibits over the past two years have included “On Exile,” a 70-minute video by Wisconsin-based artist Jose Carlos Teixeira on the lives of Cleveland refugees from Syria, Sudan, Somalia and Iraq.

Julia Christensen of Oberlin College produced a mesmerizing video installation on Lake Erie ice last winter. And the immediate past suite of exhibitions included hauntingly beautiful cut-out collages by Cleveland Institute of Art faculty member Sarah Kabot, based on photographs clipped from The New York Times.

“It has been a moment of incredible activity,” said Christina Vassallo, 38, who moved to Cleveland from New York in 2014 to take over an institution with a solid history but an uncertain future.

Back then, Spaces had just lost its former director, Chris Lynn, who left after five years to take a job with American Greetings.

Spaces was also facing questions about its permanent location. In 2013, it sold its longtime home, a loft building on Superior Viaduct in Cleveland, but hadn’t yet settled on a new address.

Several years later, under Vassallo’s leadership, the nonprofit navigated the purchase of the ground floor of the Van Rooy Building in Ohio City’s Hingetown neighborhood, an up-and-coming cultural and residential district anchored by the nonprofit Transformer Station gallery, the Music Settlement’s Bop Stop venue and ICA Art Conservation.

Spaces reopened in January, 2017 at 2900 Detroit Ave. in the Van Rooy building, whose upper floor is owned by Fred and Laura Bidwell, co-founders of the Transformer Station, a project in collaboration with the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Since then, Vassallo helped Spaces raise more than $2.2 million, which enabled it to renovate its new home as a collection of crisp, white-walled gallery spaces designed by Cleveland architect John Williams, of Process Creative Studios.

Over the past year, Spaces had earned attention for a spirited 40th anniversary exhibition and for its participation in the inaugural FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art, another project of Fred Bidwell.

“This is a classic story of a transformation that can happen when an organization makes a physical move like that,” said Jennifer Coleman, senior program officer for the arts at the Gund Foundation. “It’s just been quite dramatic and lovely to see.”

The Gund Foundation donated $500,000 for the Spaces relocation and provided $75,000 in operating support last year, Coleman said.

For FRONT, Spaces organized an exhibit by Chicago artist Michael Rakowitz that explored issues raised by the death of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old Cleveland boy shot and killed by police in 2014 while playing with a plastic gun in a city park.

The project placed Spaces at the heart of the big global triennial, which sprawled over two dozen locations across Northeast Ohio.

“They stepped up tremendously,” Bidwell said. “Their participation in FRONT was a watershed moment for them.”

Over the past year, Spaces completed a five-year strategic plan that calls on the organization to evolve from its grassroots origins and hand-to-mouth finances toward greater sustainability.

Accordingly, Tom Starinsky, president of the Spaces board of trustees, wants to add members with financial expertise and to establish a reserve fund, if not an endowment, from which Spaces could draw income.

Founded in 1978, Spaces has always considered itself an alternative, “artist-driven” organization focused primarily on providing opportunities for artists not available in commercial galleries or museums.

That hasn’t changed. Half of the organization’s 20 board members are artists, and they still play an important role in guiding Spaces, Starinsky said.

But under Vassallo’s leadership, she said, the organization has grown “more intentional” about choosing artists and exhibition topics likely to resonate with Cleveland audiences, and to produce successful projects.

For the past 17 years, Spaces has supported artistic projects through four residencies a year that culminate in exhibitions. It has also hosted one writer a year.

Public engagement through community outreach programs offered at the YWCA of Greater Cleveland, Malachi Center and the Cleveland Metropolitan Housing Authority’s Lakeview Terrace apartments are also part of the mix.

So are events such as the upcoming Monster Drawing Rally on Saturday, March 30, in which 100 artists will create new works of art for sale on the spot.

“There’s more going on here than somebody passively going through here and looking at work,” Starinsky said.

The latest news is that Spaces has been chosen as one of seven local nonprofit cultural organizations to award grants to individual artists, through a program funded by Cuyahoga Arts and Culture.

Spaces is accepting applications on a rolling basis for five grants of $5,000 for Cuyahoga County artists through its “Urgent Art Fund.”

Vassallo said that projects funded under the program should be “politically, culturally and socially responsive’’ to local communities, and should result in new works that will be exhibited in unconventional locations around the county.

Artists who apply for grants will be informed within two weeks whether they win an award, an unusually quick turnaround in the cultural community, Vassallo said.

“For an artist to get responses in two weeks, it just doesn’t happen,” she said.

Spaces has also been chosen by the Andy Warhol Foundation in New York as one of 14 small, artist-focused nonprofits around the U.S. to participate in its Satellite Fund.

The program enables participating organizations to offer 10 grants of $6,000 apiece to artists for creative research and development. Applications will be available in March.

The grant program is designed to last two years, but it’s eligible for renewal as long as it feels relevant to its community, said Rachel Bers, program director for grantmaking at the Warhol Foundation.

She called the selection of Spaces as a participant in the Satellite program “an unqualified vote of confidence’’ in the organization.

“They stand out to us as a fine example of an organization that was created to serve artists, and it does so in a really forward thinking way,” Bers said.

As endorsements go, that’s about as good as it gets. And it’s one of many as Spaces heads into its fifth decade.

“There are few alternative art spaces that have lasted 40 years,” Vassallo said. “Spaces is thriving right now.”

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