Art Collector and Go-Big Developer Hopes to Turn Warehouse District into a Cultural Hub
For nearly thirty years, the five-story George Worthington building—a T-shaped red-brick structure hidden behind the St. Clair Avenue and West 6th Street strip—sat inactive. From the 1980s though the millennium, office buildings were sparsely populated, or housed low-income artists as illegal squatters (the Bradley Building being one of them). A few art galleries came and went. The district was SPACES’s first home. But while warehouses as artist hives have sprung up routinely in neglected, marginalized, dirt-cheap neighborhoods, the idea that an upscale neighborhood other than University Circle could be artist-friendly, particularly on a warehouse scale, remains new.
Today, Neil Viny aims to be one of its propagators.
On a bright day in September, Viny, president of The Dalad Group, walked the Worthington building he’s controlled since the 1980s with a team of artists, designers, and his wife, Amy. “There were no windows here,” he says, pointing to the interior view of a courtyard, “only brick walls.” Since late 2013, when his new Worthington Yards project received $5 million in historic tax credits, Viny’s Dalad Group spearheaded a singular renovation project full of relevant undertones to the city’s art sphere: Viny decorated the five-story complex’s halls and open space entirely with local art. And for the big pieces? A fully-operational gallery, prepped for the frequent showing.
“We want to create a special place,” Viny said, walking around the site in a dress shirt, white with blue pin stripes, tucked into slacks. “If we can provoke thought—or emotion—that leads to conversation, gets people interested in gallery talks, then hopefully we build community, and that’s what we’re trying to accomplish.”
To do this he’s partnered with Liz Maugans, the 50-year-old soon-to-be-former director of Zygote who is stepping down from her two-decade role to head Worthington’s gallery (called YARDS Project Space) come January, and curate its quarterly shows. And the Maugans-Viny duo seemed bound to exist long before Viny’s build. Ever since the developer began sponsoring a poster project for PechaKucha Cleveland’s quarterly speaker series in 2013—produced through Zygote—a partnership between the two has been in the works.
Viny’s foray into art collecting and promotion isn’t any off-chance, light-bulb-lit idea for Dalad’s $30-million project. Before meeting, both he and his wife had darkrooms, and in Viny’s twenties, he began collecting photography. His office today boasts around fifty prints. Although Viny denies that he was an aspiring artist himself—he accepts the term hobbyist—his recent project is undeniably an homage to the title: more than two dozen artists supplied more than fifty works of art to Worthington, from Russian takes on East Cleveland to indoor sculptures built by MFA students at Ohio State University. Even his son Jeremy, a graduate student in design at The University of Washington, built all of the benches in the elevator lobbies.
The result is a two-fold shock: local artists have a hungry buyer downtown with a heart set on shaping the Warehouse District à la Gordon Square. The other is generational. “The gallery,” according to Liz, “hopes to build a market for entry-level millennials to buy art.”
As a Petri dish of encouragement, Viny pursued a gallery under a multi-faceted belief that the more millennials trust and feel comfortable with a gallerist or art consultant, the greater the trajectory towards the cha-ching of in-house acrylics. (Artnet lists “trust” as one of the top grabbing points for millennial buyers). It’s also why he and Maugans are orchestrating artist meet-and-greets in the gallery, and evening trips to area studios. To Maugans, who worked part-time as a bartender in the Warehouse District when she was a 25-year-old budding printmaker, Viny’s philosophy was directly in line with her take on the industry.
“When you get to see someone’s practice and their process,” she said, “it’s almost an instant sell.” She added, “To be an artist who loves promoting other artists? That’s like the icing on the cake for me.”
And in the years Worthington’s been in the works, Viny’s Rolodex has been increasing tenfold. For one example, to fill a large white wall in the fifth-floor elevator lobby, he tapped the mind of Bruce Checefsky, a photographer and film maker born near Scranton, Pennsylanvia. Checefsky, knowing the stakes, didn’t opt for a safe piece: he repurposed a desktop scanner to “scan” a series of red zinnias grown Monet-style in his backyard in Tremont. The result—an 11-by-18-foot mural print hazy with digital noise—turned out, for Checefsky, not only a big sell, but a new realm of possibility.
“I’d been doing this for six, seven, eight years,” he said, standing in front of Red Zinnias. “But this was the first time I’d ever done it on this scale. I mean, Neil just liked my work, and said, ‘Let’s try and blow this up into a mural.’” Checefsky laughs. “So we did.”
“I think it works really well,” Viny added. “When the elevator doors open, you feel like you’re entering a surreal environment, partially of the digital era and partially pre-historic.”
Even though Worthington is not alone in trying to build up the Warehouse District as an art hub—Harris Stanton Gallery and Shaheen Gallery are both a block away—the five-story complex seems to occupy a special place in Cleveland’s apartment boom. All 98 one- and two-bedroom suites are fitted with black-framed 10- or 12-foot windows, wrought-iron balconies, Kohler-style bathrooms complimented with red brick and chalk-white pillars. Its model suites are straight out of Dwell: natural-aura ceiling lights, chrome-plated washers and dryers. Below, in one of two courtyards, a half pergola opens with stone seating. “The east courtyard gives you a commanding view of the city,” Viny said. “The west courtyard, with the pergola, walkways, Corten steel dividers and landscaping, creates a geometry that hopefully makes for its own attractive view.”
At the end of the Worthington tour in September, as buzz saws hummed against the loud beep of cranes, Viny’s mood was hopeful. By the end of the year, he aims to have most, if not all, of the 98 residences filled (two artists and art buyers so far). Maugans is already busy filling out 2018’s calendar with “emerging and underrepresented artists.” And who knows? It’s possible that Viny’s predilection for boosting nearby artists could spark the curiosities of other developers. An approach he admits is still very much “an experiment.”
“Sometimes you do something and the marketplace starts to adopt it as a new standard,” Viny says.