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Pittsburgh, Brooklyn, and Art

Communities grow and thrive where art is present, and that’s one of the many reasons why we are honored to support Radiant Hall—an organization that provides a collective space for artists. One of our writers, Sierra S., recently took a walk with Ryan Lammie, Founder and Executive Director of Radiant Hall. She picked his brain about the role, impact, and future of art in Pittsburgh.

Finding Radiant Hall's Lawrenceville location proved more difficult that I had originally imagined. Considering the name of the artist collective, I was expecting an eye-catching building, something akin to Randyland, that would stick out among the beige and brown siding that typically lines Pittsburgh streets. However, situated neatly on the corner of Plummer and 45th streets, the former Polish meeting hall neatly blends in, a looming brick building with “Radiant Hall” etched in concrete above the large double-door entrance.

Executive Director Ryan Lammie meets me outside with a bearded smile and leads me through the doors. Despite the building's subdued facade, the studio spaces live up to the Radiant Hall name. Flooded with light, both natural and artificial, and popping with color, each artist’s studio shows distinction in style and medium. Throughout my tour of Radiant Hall’s spaces, I see breathtaking arts in all forms, from photography and sculptures, to watercolor and acrylic paintings, to textiles and ceramics.

At Radiant Hall, Lammie tells me, “We try not to define art.”

After living in Brooklyn and attending the Pratt Institute there—majoring first in painting, then digital media, and eventually switching back to painting—Lammie experienced firsthand the rapidly rising rents throughout New York City, something that eventually prompted him to create Radiant Hall.

“It was a crisis,” he says. “You have these…Renaissance periods where a lot of creatives are being forced out of Manhattan, and now they’re moving to [Harlem, Williamsburg, and different parts of Brooklyn].”

As we make the 20 minute drive from Lawrenceville to Homewood to visit Radiant Hall’s Susquehanna space, Lammie details the artist movement through several New York City neighborhoods, beginning in the Lower East Side, moving through the Meatpacking District, and on to Harlem and Williamsburg. In each area, artists would move into studio spaces, cleaning up warehouses and turning them into trendy galleries, attracting crowds with a more disposable income to move in. As wealthier and wealthier people moved into a given neighborhood though, landlords began either raising rent to the point where artists could no longer afford to stay, or evicting artists and demolishing warehouses to build apartment buildings and condominiums. The most famous example of this—the 5 Pointz Building in Queens, a former graffiti mecca—was first whitewashed to erase all traces of its world-famous street art and then demolished.

“[Artists] all have their own interests,” says Lammie, “So even though there are a hundred of them, there wasn’t really a collective, organized voice to prevent something like that from happening.”

After his graduation, the western Pennsylvania native eventually found his way back home, settling into a too-large studio in Lawrenceville in 2012. When he moved back, he began noticing similarities between his college town and his after-graduation space in Brooklyn. “There are parts of Lawrenceville that remind me of Brooklyn,” Lammie says. “But there’s an issue with people in Lawrenceville comparing Lawrenceville to Brooklyn. Lawrenceville people don’t like that,” he smiles grimly.

Pittsburgh, made up of many diverse neighborhoods, bears resembling marks to many cities across the country, but no city can truly match up to the Steel City’s distinct charms. In that, Lammie recognized an opportunity. When Lammie found the oversized studio space, he invited several fellow artists to use the space with him, thus beginning what would eventually become Radiant Hall.

“We had these five or six artists that were really motivated and wanted to invest in their studio practice and we all just worked out of the same space,” says Lammie. “And the cool thing was that the building that we were in had additional spaces...that we could also rent.” Over time, more artists moved in, and Radiant Hall added the movable white walls that currently divide the studio spaces, eventually filling the building with nearly 30 artists.

“That’s when we realized we need to make an organizational change and turn it into the nonprofit, whose mission was to essentially create and provide this type of affordable and safe artist space,” he says.

From Lawrenceville, Radiant Hall expanded to Homewood and the North Side for a total of three spaces housing nearly 70 artists. Lammie tells me that they have an unofficial goal of 150 artists. And as for the location of the spaces, Lammie explains that they look for buildings near already-established communities of artists.

“We didn’t want to move into a community just to move into it,” he adds. “We really identified communities of artists that already existed and that needed this type of system.” For instance, the Susquehanna space in Homewood—which currently houses Lammie’s own work—was near a community of 55 artists who were facing a rent hike similar to what occurred in New York City. Radiant Hall’s mission is to create studio space for artists, but the nonprofit also seeks to keep artists within their respective communities to preserve the local culture. So in Homewood, Lammie found a building nearby and negotiated a 14-year lease in order to provide these artists with some much-needed stability.

"Being able to invite the community into the studios and have them talk with the artists that live in the neighborhood where they also live…it creates different types of connections and relationships that build on the creative cultural fabric of the area."

- Ryan Lammie

Due to both the affordability and the homegrown culture of Pittsburgh, compared to cities like New York, Miami, and San Francisco, people in the arts community are beginning to flock here. Now, says Lammie, because Pittsburgh artists don’t necessarily have to focus all of their energies on gallery openings and sales, like they would elsewhere, they can create art that reflects their ideas and opinions.

“Most artists create from conflict. They have something to say and they need to say it,” says Lammie.

However, because there are so few galleries in Pittsburgh in which local artists can exhibit their work, it could become difficult for an artist’s name to spread. That’s where Radiant Hall comes in. Through the Open Studio events, which occur every spring and fall, members of the general public are invited into the studio spaces to meet the artists and learn more about their techniques and their creations.

"Being able to invite the community into the studios and have them talk with the artists that live in the neighborhood where they also live…it creates different types of connections and relationships that build on the creative cultural fabric of the area," Lammie explains.

And as Pittsburgh’s art community thrives, it can, in turn, create change within the Pittsburgh community overall. “It’s really important for people to challenge themselves and to challenge the everyday, and art really allows for that space to say, ‘Why am I offended by this,’ or ‘Why does this not align with my own personal view.’ And I think when you have a place that doesn’t have art or an intersection, you end up with a lot of people that feel like their opinion is the only way something should be,” says Lammie. “Art creates a much better space and environment for people to questions why things are.”

In addition to providing artists with safe and affordable studio spaces and educating the community, Radiant Hall also keeps an up-to-date list of all of its members, offering a brief bio of each artist, their preferred mediums, and which space they operate out of, in order to further connect individuals within the art community. “What we wanted to do was create a network of spaces…to spread the locations out so that there isn’t one location that’s known for being the artist neighborhood,” Lammie notes.

In the future, Radiant Hall plans to continue expanding and giving back to each community it calls home. As for Lammie, he’s continuing to explore his roots through his art by sculpting, painting, and photographing relics from the homes of Pittsburgh families.

“I decided at a very young age that I wanted art to be that thing I was interested in and work toward,” he says. “Art is always going to be something that’s new, it’s something you create and design based on your own personal interests, and I love the idea of just creating something and always being different every time you create something.” Just like Pittsburgh, Lammie’s work reflects the ever-changing spectrum of his personal experiences. And through Radiant Hall, he’s provided many artists with the same invaluable opportunity.


This October and November, be sure to check out Radiant Hall’s Open Studios. Keep an eye on Radiant Hall's website for more details.