Eight floors, 25 years and hundreds of artists
By Bucky Ignatius
When stone carver Karen Heyl began looking for studio space large enough and affordable enough to meet her needs in 1991, she found it in a vacant warehouse at the corner of Pendleton and Dandridge streets in Over-the-Rhine.
There, in the once-proud eight-story building, she designed her own studio.
“It made me feel professional,” she said.
It also made her a pioneer – the first artist to move into what would become the Pendleton Art Center. Today, 25 years later, she still calls the Pendleton her creative home.
Designed and built by the Krohn & Fechheimer Co., the building began life in 1909 as a shoe factory. After three decades in that role and 40 years as a warehouse for Shillito’s department stores, it was abandoned in 1982.
A serendipitous phone call
In 1988, in part through a fortunate coincidence, its third “career” began.
Friends Jim Verdin and Jim Gould decided to buy the derelict building, even though they had no real plan for it.
Both Verdin Bell Co. and Gould were headquartered in the Pendleton neighborhood, and both had been active in developing properties in the area. At the same time, Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center had commissioned New York sculptor Donald Lipski for an exhibition, in collaboration with Verdin Bell, that would open in December 1991.
Titled “The Bells,” the installation consisted of four mechanized sculptures with more than a hundred bells, large and small, that played an ethereal 30-minute composition by film composer Brad Fiedel.
In preparation, Verdin took Lipski on a tour of the company’s plants and then up the street to the newly acquired warehouse building. Lipski remarked on what wonderful studio space it could make for installation artists like himself.
When the men returned to the office, Verdin got a call from his banker, who wanted to know his plans for the building. Verdin said they were thinking of using it for art studios, and the rest is history.
Duct tape and dancers
Heyl, the first tenant, claimed space on the ground floor – a fitting move for a stone carver whose raw material consisted of multi-ton blocks of stone.
More artists followed. Ceramic artists Terri Kern and Joyce Clancy moved in on the fifth floor. Fabric artist Terrie Mangat set up shop on the eighth, and the news was out.
Each of the eight floors was open, and artists staked out their studios with tape or painted lines. The building began to fill with creative energy.
Within a year, Cincinnati Ballet dancers were practicing on the seventh floor, the Woman’s Art Club leased a large area on the fifth. Sometime in late 1991 or early 1992, tenants agreed to stage a common open house, and by 1993, these events became relatively regular, scheduled on the last Friday of the month and advertised as “Final Friday.”
Artistic oasis for artists and patrons
By the mid-1990s, the building was filling quickly. Studios of roughly uniform size, about 400 square feet each, were framed with side walls between the larger spaces already leased. By 1996, 63 spaces were occupied. Most tenants were two-dimensional visual artists – painters and printmakers, along with other drawing media. But a number of ceramic artists, sculptors, photographers, designers and fabric artists also moved in. Everybody’s News, an alternative newspaper, had its offices there. TODT, a secretive artist collective, occupied the entire third floor behind locked doors, finally holding an open house of its own after its large sculpture installation opened at the CAC in 1995.
By the turn of the century, 98 studios were leased, and more than 80 percent were working studios. Final Fridays were popular, with crowds of 1,000-plus visitors and as many as 130 artists showing work each month. To meet the demand for studio space, three adjacent buildings were developed, adding another 24 studios. The art center was flying high.
Surviving, thriving, and evolving
Then, in April 2001, civil unrest broke out in and around Over-the-Rhine following the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager who was fleeing from police. Businesses downtown and in Over-the-Rhine suffered, and Final Friday attendance fell dramatically.
Some artists left, but others were eager to move in. Gradually, the crowds began to return as well.
In recent years, Over-the-Rhine development has brought more fine arts patrons downtown, both to live and shop. The Pendleton’s vibrant community of artists and reasonable cost of studio space proved a strong draw.
“Being around like-minded people who get me, challenge me and educate me has helped take my work to places it never would have gone,” said painter Eileen McConkey.
The most noticeable changes in recent years include the reconfiguring of studio space and the move toward more spaces serving as galleries.
As original tenants gave up some of the large studios, those spaces were converted to single studios. At the same time, about half of leased spaces now serve as galleries showing work created in home studios or elsewhere.
Currently, the warehouse building has 115 spaces, with nearly 180 artists showing work there. Including guest artists, and spaces in the adjacent Annex Studios, Studios@510, and Cafe Studios, upward of 220 artists show work on the campus.
Looking back on the evolution of the Pendleton Art Center, Jim Verdin is proud to have brought something of such lasting value to Cincinnati, to the Pendleton neighborhood and to the community of creative artists there.
“The arts center has made a real change to the economy of the neighborhood and has paved the way for fine arts to flourish in Over-the-Rhine,” he said.
“It’s been great to see so many artists become successful professionals and spread that success throughout the country.”
The Pendleton Art Center is celebrating its 25th anniversary by hosting a silent auction of works by artists with galleries or studios throughout its campus.
Silent auction items will be on display at the Eighth Floor Gallery during the PAC’s regular Final Friday event on Friday, Sept. 30. Bidding ends at 9 p.m. Auction proceeds benefit the artists.
Final Friday, a longstanding tradition at the PAC, begins at 6 p.m. and features food and music as well as the chance to explore the art and meet the artists who created it.