The Plain Dealer / By Steven Litt / December 15, 2016

CLEVELAND, Ohio – To step inside the new home of Spaces gallery in the freshly renovated ground floor of the Van Rooy Building at 2900 Detroit Ave. is to enter a classic white space typical of urban contemporary art venues around the world.

With high ceilings, a rough-and-ready concrete floor and track lighting that produces a warm, even glow, the nonprofit gallery looks ready for action in the fourth location in its 38-year history.

Most important, Spaces is poised to gain higher visibility across Northeast Ohio and to boost the Hingetown neighborhood on the near West Side as a place where the arts are spurring an urban renaissance.

It all begins in one month.

On the weekend of Saturday, Jan. 14, and Sunday, Jan. 15, Spaces will celebrate its new location with a special progressive dinner for VIPs and donors at three locations in the surrounding neighborhood.

Time to party
From 8 p.m. to midnight, performances and installations will be staged in everything from bathrooms to offices, a kitchen, an artist’s lounge and, of course, the new galleries. And on Sunday, the 15th, Spaces will hold free tours of its new, 9,300-square-foot home, led by gallery director Christina Vassallo and architect John Williams of Process Creative Studios, which designed the renovation.

After that, a formal schedule of exhibitions begins with an opening on Friday, Jan. 27, with shows including “Havens,” a project by Philadelphia-based Imani Roach that will explore the Jim Crow-era travel guides for blacks known as the Negro Motorist Green Book.

“I am totally enthusiastic,” Vassallo said Monday, describing her emotions about the latest incarnation of Spaces and the shows it will soon display.

Vassallo, the former director of Flux Factory, a nonprofit gallery in the New York City borough of Queens devoted to emerging artists, joined Spaces in 2014 specifically to help it find a new home that would grow its potential.

Reason to relocate
“I really moved here to do this,” she said of leading Spaces through a transition to its new home. “It has a pretty huge resonance to me.”

As she spoke, Vassallo sat at the head of a long worktable amid a brick-lined meeting room in the front of the Van Rooy Building, just off Detroit Avenue.

She called the room, which will be used for meetings and classes including monthly art therapy studios for residents of the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority’s nearby Lakeview Terrace Apartments, the “Mistake Lab.”

The quirky name is meant to encourage experimentation without fear of failure – something very much in the spirit of Spaces.

Rather than function like a smaller version of the Cleveland Museum of Art or the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, Spaces focuses on experimental and non-commercial work by emerging and midcareer artists from across the country and around the world.

Since 1978, Spaces has exhibited work by more than 9,000 artists, according to a description on the website of Cuyahoga Arts and Culture, the county art-funding agency.

Staying power
And while Spaces has never attracted a huge audience, it has garnered steady support from donors and foundations, enabling it to survive longer than many other nonprofit, artist-run galleries founded in the 1960s and ’70s that have since folded.

Originally launched at 1375 Euclid Ave. in the One Playhouse Square Building, Spaces moved in 1984 to the Bradley Building in the Warehouse District, and then moved again in 1990 to its immediate past home, a three-story brick loft building at 2220 Superior Viaduct.

A $126,000 grant from the New York-based Andy Warhol Foundation helped Spaces close a $400,000 deal to buy the Superior Viaduct building, and for a time, Spaces augmented its budget with income from renting the upper floors in the building.

But construction of the multistory Stonebridge apartments on the south side of Superior Viaduct in 2007 reduced the gallery’s visibility and the availability of street parking, and eroded its attachment to its building.

Spaces sold the building in 2013 but remained in place while leasing from the new owner as it sought a new home.

After Vassallo became director in 2014, Spaces explored moving several blocks west to Hingetown, where a dense node of activity is coalescing around the intersection of West 29th Street and Detroit Avenue.

Anchors in the area include the nonprofit Transformer Station gallery at 1460 West 29th St., established in 2013 by collectors and philanthropists Fred and Laura Bidwell and the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Neighborhood allure
Other magnets include the Ohio City Firehouse and the Striebinger Block, redeveloped by entrepreneurs Graham Veysey and Marika Shioiri-Clark; and the Bop Stop music venue at 2920 Detroit Ave., acquired as a satellite of University Circle-based Music Settlement in 2014.

Vassallo and Spaces at first considered leasing the long-dormant Steelman Building on the southeast corner of Detroit Avenue and West 29th Street, just north of the Ohio City Firehouse and east of the Streibinger Block building.

But a deal with developer Michael Chesler fell through, and the Steelman Building is now being converted into Saucy Brew Works, an “artisan pizza brewery.” “It was tough,” Vassallo said of losing the building. “That was really public — having to walk away from that project.”

But she said that Spaces remained focused on Hingetown, so named because of its pivotal location between the heart of Ohio City to the south, and the Gordon Square Arts District, further west along Detroit Avenue.

No fewer than half a dozen community development corporations tried to woo Spaces to other parts of town, but Hingetown remained the goal, Vassallo said.

Bidwells to the rescue
The search for a new home reached a happy conclusion last year when Fred and Laura Bidwell, who bought the Van Rooy Building, offered the first floor to Spaces. “We were always a near West Side organization, so it felt just right,” Vassallo said.

The Bidwells helped make the $2.5 million purchase and renovation of the ground-floor space possible by donating $150,000 to the gallery and offering a below-market mortgage. The gallery in effect acquired a stake in the limited liability corporation that owns the building, giving it ownership of the ground floor. The Bidwells plan to lease the middle floor and to live on the upper level.

Vassallo said the gallery has raised $2 million for the project, or about 80 percent of the acquisition and construction costs. Williams said that the actual cost of construction for the renovation was about $750,000. In addition to the money needed for the project, Spaces plans to raise another $1 million for cash reserves and an endowment.

And, based on its proximity to the Transformer Station, the Bop Stop and other nearby attractions, Vassallo thinks Spaces will easily triple its previous annual average attendance of 5,500 after operations begin in Hingetown.

“By sheer virtue of its accessibility and visibility, we will be able to serve artists and our non-artist audience better,” she said.

“It is so cool that you can come to Transformer Station to see a world-class, museum-level exhibition and then come to Spaces to see something that is really focused on the creative process.”

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