New East Deutschtown art space offers open critiques, creative outlet

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Photo courtesy of Lee Parker

Guest host Jen Delos Reyes, a visiting professor at Carnegie Mellon University, talks to a group of artists during the first open critique at Neu Kirche in East Deutschtown Feb. 20.

By Aaron Dobler

Neu Kirche Contemporary Art Center in East Deutschtown held its first open critique Feb. 20, wherein artists of all levels met to provide each other with constructive feedback and support. The event was guest-hosted by Jen Delos Reyes, a visiting professor at Carnegie Mellon University.

“Since this was the inaugural meeting of the group critique session,” Reyes said, “I wanted the takeaway to be a strengthened sense of open communication and dialogue. The conversation topics ranged from ‘how do you measure success as an artist’ to ‘how do you build community?’ ”

She used “speed ideation” to get attendees thinking and talking freely about themselves as artists. The artists were divided into pairs and took turns answering questions and listening to each other’s responses. After a brief discussion of the topic, new partners were selected.

“It enabled everyone to speak to everyone who was there,” said Sarah Keeling, center manager at Neu Kirche. “It broke the ice and enabled conversation after the event so that everyone felt comfortable around each other and they were able to talk about their practice.”

While the critique will be a regular event at Neu Kirche, the guest hosts are given the flexibility to design unique critique sessions that match their own experiences with the community’s needs. For Reyes, this meant open philosophical engagement as opposed to analyzing a few specific pieces.

“Because this open critique was more conversation-based, nobody showed any work,” said Oreen Cohen, a sculpture and installation artist who attended the critique. “I actually felt that this was more helpful.” Cohen is also Neu Kirche’s first long-term studio artist.

Neu Kirche is a relative newcomer to the Northside, and the open critiques are just one of the ways in which they are hoping to make a positive impact on the local community.

And for Neu Kirche, community and art are inseparable.

One example of this is their collaboration with the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh’s Food City Fellows project. By helping to maintain a garden on Tripoli Street and contributing site sculptures to the space, the act of community-building becomes an art form and East Deutschtown becomes a more vibrant and creative place to live.

Another example is their unique artist-in-residency program that encourages its participants to bring their families to live with them. Artists in the program are given work and exhibition space that keeps them in constant contact with other artists and the community.

Even the building itself is a creative project.

The staff is currently hard at work renovating the former Methodist church that stands at the corner of Tripoli Street and Madison Avenue. The construction projects include an event space, a gallery space and an open kitchen area.

“We’ll be officially open in September,” said Lee Parker, executive director of Neu Kirche, “but there will be events along the way as we progress, and as the construction projects are completed we will be making the space available.”

Parker’s own artistic practice specializes in long-term, immersive projects, which makes her an ideal candidate to spearhead the effort to bridge art and community.

When the renovations are completed, Neu Kirche Contemporary Art Center will take its place alongside The Andy Warhol Museum, the Mattress Factory and the New Hazlett Theater in helping to revitalize the Northside through the arts.

The former-church building was built in 1889 as an expansion project of a congregation that had worshipped in the neighborhood since 1782. In 2010, the Community Alliance of Spring Garden/East Deutschtown purchased the church from the New Hope United Methodist Church, and the building became the temporary home of City View Church and Steel City Improv.

In 2014, the building was sold to Neu Kirche, and they have been hard at work renovating it into a facility that honors its history as a community center.

“It’s a really special, intimate space that’s perfect for community gatherings,” said Parker, “and the community has spent a lot of time in that church. It used to be the center for community engagement. We want it to remain that way.”

Parker credits Mark Fatla, executive director of the Northside Leadership Conference, with matching them up with the perfect building for their vision.

“He knew it was the right choice for us based on our criteria and pointed us in the right direction,” she said.

Parker added: “We wanted to focus on the Northside particularly because of all of the other cultural centers there. We wanted to be a part of that environment, and we also wanted to be in a neighborhood that needed assistance, and East Deutschtown is an area that is really ripe for renewal. We believe in creative place-making, so we were particularly looking for a building that had historic significance and could impact the neighborhood physically as well as through programming. It checked all the boxes.”

“It had been a propitious time for the building to take on a new use,” Fatla said.

By the time Neu Kirche had purchased the building, the Methodist church had consolidated with its sister church on North Avenue, the improv comedy troupe had found a new space to rehearse and City View Church was in the process of relocating.

Fatla added: “They (Neu Kirche) are entitled to all of the credit. It’s their energy and vision. Our principle function here was matching their concept with the right space.”

The critiques are open to the public, and attendees are encouraged to bring one to three pieces of work to get feedback from their peers and a guest critic. Details of future critiques and other events at Neu Kirche can be found on their calendar of events.

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