Wide Open SPACES: A New Director, and a Brave New World
Christina Vassallo arrives in Cleveland at an exciting time. Hired by SPACES as the organization’s new Director, the thirty-three year old comes at a moment in the city’s evolution that just might be a turning point. Back home in Brooklyn, New York where Vassallo has headed the prestigious Flux Factory artists’ space for the past three and a half years, word on the street (actually, in the January issue of Fortune Magazine) is that, ironically for Vassallo, Cleveland may be the new Brooklyn, due to the presence of three emerging hip communities on our city’s near west side. That does sound hopeful, and so maybe Vassallo’s move here will be like a really long ride around the Brooklyn block.
Or maybe not. The Tremont/Ohio City/Gordon Square triad might be something like Brooklyn, but without the subway or most of the people — and of course minus Manhattan; so not really.
In any case, you don’t hear Vassallo complaining. Suitably for a young woman raised in Hackensack (within sight of the Manhattan skyline), who has lived in Brooklyn for eleven years, she doesn’t have a car. She plans to ride her bicycle the mile or so commute to work from her new Tremont digs.
Apart from her administrative training and experience, there are other reasons why Vassallo may be a good fit at the always improvisational, fluidly creative Cleveland organization. Starting in 2003 she curated shows out of her apartment, “in a kitchen in Queens,” as she puts it. Her curatorial “platform” Random Number emerged on the scene in 2007, organizing several exciting shows and projects. These included an exhibit of new Norwegian art “Darkness Descending,” mounted at Lafayette College and a Manhattan “chashama” non-profit art site. Reviewed in the New York Times, that show inspired brief controversy when the chashama location displayed a life-size sculpture of a child suckling a goat in a window facing the street.
Less angst-ey perhaps but no less concerned with social issues, “The Golden Door” which Vassallo organized for the Jersey City Art Museum, presented a full-sized miniature golf course, illustrating the hoops and hurdles that face immigrants coming to the United States. Also on her watch at Flux, the celebrated residency program there has attracted a number of remarkable artists, including Weiteke Heldens, the 2013 recipient of the Dutch Royal Award for Painting.
Asked why she decided to make the switchover from Flux Factory to SPACES Vassallo says, “I knew I wanted the job as soon as I heard about it. SPACES seems very “Fluxy,” very comfortable that way. The people are extremely dedicated, and of course SPACES has been a big influence on Flux. I learned a lot about the Cleveland organization when I was applying for grants at my old job. [Like SPACES, Flux Factory has a significant artist residency program.] It just seems like a good time to make a move of this kind. The Board is so well-connected, it’s going to be great to work with them. I’m excited to get to know the art scene here and the not-for-profit world.”
There are some pretty big differences between the organizations, too. SPACES is about twice the size of Flux Factory in terms of its annual budget, which this past year hovered above half a million dollars. And it’s been around a lot longer. SPACES is extraordinary in many ways, not the least of which is its mere survival. It’s been going strong since 1978 – sixteen years longer than Flux Factory.
The most significant thing about the timing of Vassallo’s appearance here is the fact that SPACES has recently sold its building, which a previous incarnation of the Board had hoped would provide financial stability far into the future. With money from the sale [$418,000 ] in its pockets, the gallery will continue to rent the suite it currently occupies, at least for this year and with an option to continue for two more. But the idea is to get away from the doldrums that SPACES has experienced at the present locale, in the margins of Ohio City, to shake things up and land somewhere, just a little closer to where the street life is. [SPACES development director Martha Loughridge confirms that the organization is in conversation and doing due diligence with a new landlord, but at press time couldn't say more than that].
Maybe that’s where Vassallo’s Brooklyn career comes into the picture. Her experience with an organization that exists just as much on the street as in the mind may help to guide the new Cleveland art exiles through the local wilderness. In Brooklyn the broader culture of art is everywhere, tucked into the life-textures and tastes of a world’s crop of fresh MFAs, with ranks of older artists serried close behind. In Cleveland that big city-sense of imminent contact and connection tends to fade by the time you reach the sidewalk at the gallery doorstep. Perhaps we could learn something.
Vassallo has a small brown dog, who looks something like a lion and a lot like a walnut. Truman has charmed visitors at Flux Factory for the last several seasons, becoming that gallery’s unofficial mascot. Hopefully he will find Cleveland and SPACES to his liking. Hopefully, so will Vassallo, who brings both big-city expertise and a fresh sense of place to a job that has always been all about change.