The Plain Dealer / By Grant Segall / January 5, 2017

Christina Vassallo runs Spaces, a nonprofit group helping artists create. On Jan. 14 and 15, Spaces will celebrate its new home: the ground floor of the old Van Rooy Coffee building on Detroit and West 29th in the rising Hingetown neighborhood.

Cleveland creds: moved here in 2014

Currently lives: Tremont

Age: 36

Schooling: bachelor’s and master’s degrees from New York University

Family: single

Favorite locally owned restaurants: Juke Box, Empress Taytu, the Spotted Owl

What’s Spaces all about?

Christina: We are an artist-driven organization. Fifty percent of our board members have to be artists or creative professionals.

We are the only nonprofit organization in the state that solely displays newly commissioned work. We support the artists in the creation, sometimes more than a year out. They get production support, a material fee, an honorary fee and staff and volunteers to help them.

We had an artist who needed a ton of salt, so we put him in touch with the Cargill mine. We make the impossible happen.

We ask artists to respond to issues. When the Republican National Convention came to town, we devoted programming to the political process. Another program was about developing the true narrative of Cleveland rather than the one Cleveland presented to the RNC.

We’re also working to meet people where they are. We recently launched a project with the county juvenile detention center. Every month, we go in with an artist or an arts organization to work with kids to make artwork for other organizations.

Where are your exhibitors from?

Christina: We have a good mix of local, national and international artists from Croatia, South Africa, Germany… We bring in artists that live and make art here for up to three months. It’s really important for local artists to be part of an international dialogue.

That number of applicants we get has been up the past few years. Artists are attracted to the post-industrial city and to the organization.

Do your exhibits travel?

Christina: Now more than ever. “Capitalism Works For Me!”– a 20-foot sign by Steve Lambert, where you could vote True of False — has been to Times Square and more than 20 cities.

Money?

Christina: Our budget hovers around $500,000. We get federal funding, Cuyahoga Arts funding, earned income, fund-raiser events.

I launched our capital campaign. The goal is $3.5 million. That includes $2.5 million for our new space and $1 million for reserves. We’ve raised $2 million.

Tell us about your new building.

Christina: It was built in 1895 as the Imperial Steel Building, which manufactured stoves. Then there was a manufacturer of pins to go into plane engines. It was Van Rooy Coffee for quite some time, then Recovery Resources.

We have about 9,300 usable square feet. There’s this huge storefront window you can see in. The hope is that pedestrians will peek and watch people making art.

The old building on the Superior Viaduct was extremely expensive to keep up, and we were isolated.

How do you like Hingetown?

Christina: Every time I walk out the door here, I’m greeted by two, three people I know. We’re near another contemporary art org [the Cleveland Museum of Art at Transformer Station]. They’re going to bolster our visitorship, and we’ll do the same for them. They do Ohio City Stages in the summer, and the Sunday market is here. There’s the Cleveland Collection gallery on Detroit. The Music Settlement will offer classes here.

This is definitely a node of activity. It’s walkable, and a name like Hingetown sticks.

Was it hard for you to give up your native New York for Cleveland?

Christina: It felt like time to be somewhere different. I hadn’t gone anywhere else, even for school. I miss people and things about New York City but not the city itself.

When I came to Cleveland, I didn’t know a soul. I walked into a very privileged position at Spaces, which is beloved in this city, so people were immediately warm and welcoming and curious about what I might bring.

Outsiders are always impressed by how regular people can make things happen here. No one’s going to tell you no if you have a good idea. There’s a lot of support.

In my first week here, I was having lunch with the interim director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, Fred Bidwell, and coffee with the director of MOCA [Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland]. They reached out to me. They were welcoming me. I want to be in a city where there’s that level of communication and collaboration.

Is art big here?

Christina: A very active portion of our city is deeply concerned with art. There’s a lot of energy here. There’s a lot going on. You can’t get to all the events happening in one night.

I wish, though, that artists were more connected with each other. There are a lot of conversations in artists’ studios on West 78th and at the Tower Press building, but often no dialog between those groups.

Where do you live?

Christina: I live in Tremont. It’s an easy commute to Hingetown by bike, 10 minutes. I do it the whole year. I really, really love the skyline from Abbey Road.

In your spare time, where do you hang out?

Christina: I spend a lot of time cycling on the towpath. I have an inflatable kayak I use in the Cuyahoga. The nature here is stunning. The great lake is like an ocean.

Blackbird Fly seems to stock clothes made for my body type. Pinky’s is a shop in Tremont. I like the Tremont Farmers’ Market, of course.

What else do you like about the town?

Christina: Everything here is easily accessible. Cleveland feels really comfortable.

When friends or artists come, they’re surprised that there’s a fantastic, thriving community here. With the RNC and the Cavs and the Indians, we’ve been on everyone’s mind. Cleveland’s on fire right now.

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