Photo by Erika Fleegle
Neu Kirche in East Deutschtown has kept the former church’s charm.
By Erika Fleegle
Pittsburgh has a penchant for resurrecting churches.
After closures left many area churches vacant, savvy business owners have turned their hallowed halls into concert venues, reception halls, and breweries. Now, it’s East Deutschtown’s turn to stake a claim to a former site of worship.
Enter Neu Kirche Contemporary Art Center. Stepping through its wooden doors, into its spacious corridors, and among its intricate stained-glass windows, visitors will get the chance to see the collision of the potential of rising contemporary artists with the old-world charm of one of the neighborhood’s oldest structures.
Neu Kirche, which is German for “new church,” is under the guidance of Executive Director Lee Parker. After moving her family from her native New Zealand to attend a fellowship exchange program at Carnegie Mellon University in 2012, Parker noticed the lack of art in the Northside communities. She began looking for a potential community-centered arts venue in 2013 and, since August of last year, has been working together with her staff and local artists through the Northside Leadership Conference and the Community Alliance of Spring Garden East Deutschtown to transform the space into what it is today.
“It’s German-built,” Parker chuckled. “It’s made to last!”
The church’s lower level, where visitors enter, is open and airy; the perfect space for installations. Upon ascending the stairs, visitors are met with the actual “church”. The pews are still intact, warm-toned stained glass windows draw the eye upward to the ceiling, and the shape of which is a replica of the bottom of the ships that German immigrants would use to migrate stateside.
The former First Immanuel Evangelical Church has been in that particular spot for the past 125 years, surviving the construction of I-279 that essentially split the Northside in half.
As of right now, there are no plans to alter the architecture, Parker said.
“We’re looking to restore, not destroy.”
So far, the Northside, with its museums and connections to artists past and present, has been a good resource for Neu Kirche’s resident artists, furthering its mission of promoting creative inquiry, engaging with the community, and making art accessible to the community.
“I wanted to be on the Northside because of all the cultural institutions here,” she said. “It seemed like a good fit for us for partnering and giving residency artists resources.”
In addition to the church, Neu Kirche owns each building on either side of the church and has plans to renovate the Madison Avenue space into a residency house. Beginning Sept. 27, New Zealand-based artist Fiona Edmonson will be the first artist to take up a three-month residency there.
“The idea,” Parker noted, “is to create a northern hemisphere presence for New Zealand artists, particularly women, who don’t otherwise have that exposure.”
Artist residencies are also open to the artist’s families. Studio programs and exhibition and event spaces are also available to promote contemporary art in all its forms.
Parker and her team are looking to draw in the public most of all with a range of cultural events and commissioned installations. On Aug. 27, Pittsburgh’s Office of Public Art will be hosting a biking tour through the city that will end in Northside, culminating with a look at Neu Kirche’s commissioned sculptures.
The tour will be followed up by a “grand-opening” of sorts Aug. 29. From 12-9:30 p.m., the center and its surrounding properties will be open to the public, marking the end of the spring and summer public art initiatives, and celebrating and promoting upcoming innovative projects.
Throughout the day, walking tours of this year’s initiatives, Fallow Grounds (resident artists create sculptures in East Deutschtown’s vacant lots) and Neu City (an urban gardening initiative) will be conducted, as well as local artist Tom Sarver’s Art Olympics, which brings together artists in teams that, in a performance-art style, compete against one another to create sculptures out of junk. Refreshments, food trucks, yoga classes and musical entertainment will be available to the public at this free event.
“It’s really satisfying, I think,” Parker said. “When these things gel together, great art happens. People are starting to get excited. The potential is so great. We’re lucky to be here.”
Executive Director Lee Parker.