Art on Loan: Inside Braddock’s Art Lending Collection
Artist collective Transformazium wants you to know there is already a long history of arts and culture in Braddock that doesn’t need to be revitalized. But, if you want, you can come borrow some of it.
In 2013, Transformazium—made up of Dana Bishop-Root, Leslie Stem, and Ruthie Stringer—became the first local artists to appear in the Carnegie International since at least the 1960s. Founded in North Braddock after the members moved here from Brooklyn in 2007, the collective attends to the community’s culture through neighborly bonds, events, and activist projects, like its 2013 Carnegie International project exhibition—the Art Lending Collection (ALC) in the Braddock Carnegie Library.
The ALC is an alternative lending program where anyone with an Allegheny County library card can check out four pieces of art at one time for three weeks, then renew it like you would a book.
To start the collection, Transformazium facilitated donations from 30 Carnegie International artists, and opened with an about 110-piece collection of internationally recognized works and local donations. It’s grown to more than 160 pieces since then—picking up works and speed purely from community artists and collectors.
“We want to be intentional in terms of how the collection expands,” Bishop-Root said. The collection works to disrupt the narrative that to revitalize Braddock, you need to bring culture in, effectively erasing the arts and culture already at home there.
“A lot of it was centered around the neighborhood as producers,” Bishop-Root said. “How do you really make an arts and culture that has existed and never really gone anywhere stay present in a neighborhood?”
In navigating this question with the ALC, Marilyn Russell, CMOA’s curator of education, said, Transformazium completely disrupted the way art circulates in the world.
“You can see [Nicole Eisenman’s] work in an exhibition in New York, or you can see it in the Braddock Carnegie Library,” Russell said. “The idea of who gets to interpret art, who gets to engage with art, who gets to be the kind of gatekeepers of who experiences art and on what terms do they experience the art—Transformazium really just upended all of this stuff.”
The members of Transformazium began volunteering at the Braddock Carnegie Library seven years ago, building the Neighborhood Print Shop with the library and DipCraft Manufacturing, a local business within walking distance of the library.
At the time, people outside of the community told them Braddock was under-resourced. But, after listening to their neighbors, Transformazium didn’t agree. The library—Andrew Carnegie’s first, built 127 years ago—became a hub for Braddock’s art resources.
After meeting the collective members, International curators Daniel Baumann, Dan Byers, and Tina Kukielski began working with the print shop, and invited Transformazium to submit a project to the show, looking to link the exhibition and neighborhood.
The resulting ALC was partly inspired by Stringer’s childhood in Schenectady, New York, where her mother worked at a library with its own art lending collection. A lightly trafficked section full of reprints of old masters through Modernism, it was perfect as a secret hiding place for Stringer and her sister, not so perfect as an art resource.
“There wasn’t a feeling of newness or surprise, so when we were thinking about how an ALC here in the Braddock library would be different, we knew it would it have to be an active, expanding collection that contains multiple voices from multiple different kinds of curators,” Stringer said.
While making connections to the International artists, Transformazium used its International artist fee to renovate what would become the ALC space in the library and trained three arts and culture facilitators with help from CMOA’s education department.
The collective established the ALC facilitators as three part-time employees from the library service area to plan programs, expand the collection, and assist patrons. During the International, facilitators helped library patrons vote on pieces to be displayed in the museum’s Lobby Gallery, again connecting the museum back to Braddock.
Establishing multiple paid positions ensured future leadership and made the project partially independent from the collective, Bishop-Root said, but also asked the question of “who gets to be paid for arts and culture work, whose experience is valued.”
Now funded by Heinz Endowment Grants and shifted to two full-time positions, the facilitators, Mary Carey and Jonathan Reyes, have collected more work from community and regional artists, as well as about 25 works made by artists in prison at the State Correctional Institute-Fayette. After hearing about the ALC, inmate Richard Guy reached out to Carey to start a collection within the collection called the Prism Project.
Through check-outs and the ALC’s minimum of three workshops or resource meetings a week, about 60 pieces “circulate in one way or another” every month, Bishop-Root said.
If you lose any of the pieces—which no one has—you owe the library $100. If you damage an artwork, it only costs whatever it took to repair it. All fees are flexible, and with a set maximum replacement cost, Bishop-Root said the collection subverts how and who creates value in art.
“The market system is getting challenged,” Bishop-Root said. “Is the most valuable piece the art that gets checked out the most, in a populist win, or is it the piece that does not get borrowed?”
The artwork also acquires new meaning, Stringer said, when people discuss it and relate it to their own lives. And by sharing how they relate to a work with visitors, Carey and Reyes create an oral history that becomes part of the collection.
Having everyday access to art helps people understand what it means to make art, Russell said. The ALC, in turn, becomes part of how people make sense of the world, as they experience art day in and day out through the collection, facilitators, and art classes by North Braddock artist Edith Abeyta, funded by a Buncher Foundation grant that Russell secured.
“It’s about being part of that neighborhood,” Russell said. “You can’t just come over here [to the museum] and look at a Van Gogh and have that be relevant to you if it’s completely outside of your experience to date.”
With library collections housing acclaimed, original art from both the region and an international museum being up there with unicorns, logistics have been touch and go for the museum’s donations to the ALC. And while other artists get to walk away from a show after its close, Tranformazium’s ALC is a work—and exhibit—in progress for the indefinite future.
To have a community engaged with a project, it takes “a really slow process that you have to do structurally and not just as an afterthought,” Bishop-Root said.
But with a new curator of contemporary art, Eric Crosby, Russell’s goal is to get more of the museum’s art in the ALC to cement a reciprocal relationship between the museum, the community, and the library.
“It’s an opportunity for us to act on this goal that the museum has that we don’t just have things breeze in from somewhere else, plop down in our galleries for a couple weeks, and then disappear again just like meteors that come from somewhere and then dissipate back into the atmosphere,” Russell said.
After getting out of prison in winter 2010, Reyes reconnected with friends and family and gathered his life back up in the library. He wanted to talk about art, politics, activism, and so much more, but his friends were focused on video games, so he turned to the members of Transformazium.
Now, as a facilitator, Reyes looks to make the space work for others as it worked for him, sharing his experience with the ALC whenever someone points up and asks him a question just by stating a collection piece “isn’t art.”
“They judged it, but then you feel this vibe from them like, ‘Please help me figure out if this is art,’” Reyes said, recalling how he shows patrons how one abstract piece is really about yoga in the moonlight. “We don’t want people to come in here and feel like they can’t connect with anything. Part of my goal and ambitions is to take note of that and see how we can fill it in.”
Reyes is currently looking for a piece by a local artist that could respond to the recent stirrings of gun violence in the surrounding area, including the Wilkinsburg massacre in March.
“Everybody is so hurt by these things, but … all I could offer them is the space. I don’t have artwork that targets them.” Reyes said. “I want something local because I want it to pertain to what’s going on in Pittsburgh … it’s just hard for me to [believe] so many people are out there passionate about what’s going on in their community and there’s no art about it?”
Somebody in Braddock, Reyes said, is “putting their heart on some kind of medium, and it’s not being shown.”
Attracting people to the library’s current pieces is partly helping them get over a culture shock—making it clear that art is for them.
“They feel like it’s for upper-class or something like that because you don’t see homes that are in impoverished conditions that have artwork hanging up,” Reyes said.
After talking with Carey in the library, Tyuana Neal of Braddock, has checked out two pieces since the program started: the first, for her kitchen, because the black female subjects spoke to her heritage, and the second later on, for her bedroom, because the colors stuck out to her.
“My life is art. Everything around you is art,” Neal, 39, said. “I don’t like plain walls. I like to see different designs.”
It was the first time she had ever had art in her home, as the ALC filled a need so few consider. For Reyes, it doesn’t matter what the art does for the patron, just as long as it does something.
“If it’s just bringing you joy, that works. If it’s helping you connect to your culture and helping you get the girl, that works, too. If it is helping you impress your snobby in-laws, that works, too,” Reyes said. “That’s all I can hope for.”
And since founding Braddock’s ALC, Transformazium has been advising museums and organizations on starting their own lending collections in other neighborhoods with different needs.
“It’s not like we created something new. It’s a forum that exists in the world much like a painting, but we applied to it specific context in the way we live,” Bishop-Root said. “What makes our ALC so special is its specific to the context in which we live, so really thinking about ALC in different places is thinking how important it is that they reflect the context of where they are.”
Neighborhoods is an ongoing series that explores community arts initiatives and grassroots artist-led projects in the Pittsburgh region and beyond.