Photo courtesy of Felice Cleveland
A young girl stands inside The Walls, which are portable and collapsible canvas walls the Mattress Factory uses for educational purposes.

By Alyse Horn

It takes truly creative minds to see something in nothing.

Take Barbara Luderowski, founder and co-director of the Mattress Factory art museum, 500 Sampsonia Way.

When she first moved to the Northside in the 1970s, she bought a condemned house on Monterey Street.

“I don’t walk into houses and see crap,” Luderowski said in a 2009 interview with Pittsburgh Quarterly.” I see what I want to make out of them.”

The same goes for the world-renowned art museum she founded 35 years ago.

Before it was the Mattress Factory, it was a mattress factory.

The abandoned Sterns & Foster mattress warehouse caught Luderowski’s eye in the mid-1970s when it went up for sale.

The building was located along the walk Luderowski would make between her Monterey Street house and Sampsonia Way studio.

Luderowski said she tried to get several other people to purchase the warehouse with her, but no one accepted the offer.

“There it was in the middle of the neighborhood, somebody had to do something with it,” Luderowski said.

It wasn’t easy to obtain, but her persistence in purchasing the warehouse paid off.

She lived in the building and also had a studio there. Luderowski said a co-op ended up forming in which people from all over the city would come together during the week and take turns making each other vegetarian dishes.

At the same time, Luderowski, friends and some Carnegie Mellon University students and instructors were constructing exhibits on the upper floor.

Co-director Michael Olijnyk was one of the CMU students involved, and as he puts it, “[I was a guest] who came to dinner and never really left.”

The Mattress Factory became a legal non-profit in 1977.

Over the years the museum has grown, acquiring nine non-contributing properties and converting them into galleries, artist residences and program spaces.

Luderowski said she could have chosen to “build a big lump in the neighborhood,” but instead she preferred to build around it.

“I chose to live here because I love the individuality,” Luderowski said. “[The Northside] has a bad reputation in peoples minds… this encourages people to come find us and move from gallery to gallery on foot.”

The Mattress Factory draws over 75,000 people to the Northside annually, with 49 percent from western Pennsylvania, 45 percent across the country and six percent from around the world.

With world-renowned recognition come artists from all over the globe.

Olijnyk, who has been with the museum since 1978, said that some artists have traveled from Japan, China, Cuba, Taiwan and Eastern Europe to show their work at the museum.

While the foreign artists are in Pittsburgh, they stay in artist residencies that the museum owns, just a few blocks away from the Mattress Factory.

Luderowski and Olijnyk said the museum has worked with over 600 artists since it was founded.

“The hardest thing to do is take down a piece, but the most exciting time is starting one again,” Olijnyk said. “We’re about the process and the partnership with the artists, we work through the ideas and the possibilities [of the exhibit].”

What’s unique at the Mattress Factory is that it has changed the game in showcasing exhibitions.

It was the first museum in the United States to focus its collecting on installation art, which means the work is created for the space it will be presented in.

A lot of work goes into creating installation pieces, and a lot of work the artists cannot do themselves. Olijnyk said the Mattress Factory hires local carpenters, plasterers or metalworkers to help build whatever the artist requires.

Olijnyk said when possible, all materials and equipment are obtained from Pittsburgh-area businesses.

In 2007, CMU Center for Economic Development did a study on the impact that the Mattress Factory has on the community. The conclusion was that the museum “makes important contributions to local workforce development, neighborhood redevelopment, cultural tourism, artists entrepreneurship and economic growth.”

According to the study, the museum has helped boost the economy in Allegheny County by $2.8 to $3.2 million through spending by the museum, its employees and visitors.

The Education Department at the Mattress Factory serves more than 17,000 people a year through programs such as Installation Labs, Teacher Professional Development, Family Day, ArtLabs and Factory 14s.

Luderowski said these programs are more about creative problem solving, and are meant to help the children in the neighborhood realize that they have the ability to change the environment they’re in.

“We’re not making artists, but community activists,” Luderowski said. “We are making them aware of what community [they would like to have], and creating it.”

The CMU Economic Impact Survey said that while art helps kids develop creative talents, emerging research also shows that “direct instruction, as well as arts-integrated subject instruction, can lead to increases in academic achievement,” including math and reading.

The Mattress Factory has worked with numerous schools to help students improve academically.

One outreach project is called, “The Space I’m In.” The museum website states, “This project creates connections between our memories, sensory understanding and physical spaces.”

The project is a series of interactive projects that are portable and adjustable to different situations. Instead of students traveling to the Mattress Factory, it can come to them.

The Walls are four light-colored portable and collapsible canvas walls, including inflatable balls of various sizes. A plethora of images, including student’s work, can be projected on the three-dimensional space to alter the experience of the space.

Olijnyk said one school that was lacking in math scores used The Walls to help the children improve their grades by using rulers and protractors to create images that were then uploaded onto a computer and projected on The Walls.

Olijnyk said as a result, the children’s math scores went up.

The Mattress Factory has recently added a new after school program called Afternoons @ the Factory.

It has taken a lot of time, energy and funding to create the environment the Mattress Factory radiates, but it has grown into something that influences and helps better the community.

“[Art] to me, in its own microcosmic way, is to contribute to the social world because no one understands what it’s like in the other guy’s shoes,” Luderowski said. “Whether it’s politics, whatever conflict it is, the lack of ability to bow to the idea that the other guy might be right [hurts human relations].”

Luderowski said art is a basic kind of thing we all need, because it involves critical thinking, dialogue and acceptance of a point of view.

“Art is not about art, art is about life,” Luderowski said.