NATIONAL LAUNCHING PAD, “WHY NOT?”: Abattoir Takes the Long View

Gwenn Thomas, Moments of Place II, 2013-14, C print_ aluminum frame, 18 x 25 inches.

Rose Burlingham and Lisa Kurzner met in 2018, while working on the inaugural FRONT International Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art. Both had careers with museums and art nonprofits, and had founded and operated their own curatorial practices—the former in New York, the latter in Cleveland. At the end of the triennial, Burlingham moved to Northeast Ohio, and discussed with Kurzner their wish to collaborate on an exhibit. It was conceived as a popup or other temporary happening.

Less than three years later, Burlingham and Kurzner are owners and curators of the gallery Abattoir, which opened its first exhibition in June—after having rescheduled their April 15 debut due to the coronavirus shutdown.

“It’s hard opening during a pandemic, and realizing you can’t familiarize face-to-face,” Kurzner said.

However, the gallerists took the delay in stride—and not just because every other gallery was forced to make the same concession to public health.

Burlingham and Kurzner have learned to take a long view of their enterprises. In 2005, Burlingham established Living Room, a “mobile gallery” which eschewed a permanent studio address and instead hosted exhibits in temporary venues around New York City. Kurzner is founder and principal of Kurzner Arts, a curating and arts advising operation. For eleven years, she also worked with the Cleveland Museum of Art as a researcher and curator of photography and contemporary art.

Founding Abattoir, Burlingham and Kurzner had always planned on a deliberate, farsighted venture. Burlingham says she hopes to help younger people buy their first pieces of fine art, and set them on a path of lifelong collecting.

“It’s a long-range project. That’s why we weren’t futzed opening during the pandemic,” Burlingham said.

Speaking of younger, first-time buyers, Kurzner said, “This is the generation we’re hoping to talk to and get interested in collecting art.”

Building a millennial client base was always conceived as an ongoing effort. Even the gallery’s location serves this end. It lives in the Clark-Fulton neighborhood, a hub for Cleveland’s Puerto Rican community adjacent to both Ohio City and Tremont. It is located in the Hildebrandt Building, a complex which began its life as a meat processing plant for the Hildebrandt Provisions Company. (Hence Abattoir’s name, the French word for “slaughterhouse.”) The gallery has many artistic neighbors in the building, including Aliberti Art Tile, Bette Drake Studio, Finko Creative, and Svona Studio. The facility also houses specialty vendors offering yarn, honey products, and yoga classes, and locally-famous brands like Rising Star Coffee and Campbell’s Sweets Factory.

Like 78th Street Studios or Transformer Station, Abattoir embraces its industrial setting. At the end of the Hildebrandt’s courtyard, visitors can enter the gallery by climbing a short flight of stairs, or stepping up onto a short loading dock opening into Abattoir’s main hall. In that hall, across from the door to the gallery proper, is a small sitting alcove. Hanging over it is Erykah Townsend’s mixed-media painting Courage the Cowardly Dog. This piece is a visitor’s first hint of Kurzner and Burlingham’s intergenerational outreach mission—one that treats Gens. Y and Z not only as potential buyers, but as collaborators.

Townsend is a 2020 BFA graduate from the Cleveland Institute of Art. And she is just one of the many young and emerging artists Abattoir has made the deliberate decision to display. Abattoir’s inaugural exhibit paired Hildur Ásgeirsdóttir Jónsson—an established Icelandic-American textile artist formerly represented by the William Busta Gallery—with Kaveri Raina, a Brooklyn-based painter who graduated from the Maryland Institute of Fine Art in 2011.

The second exhibit, running August 1 to September 5, will pair Shawn Powell and Lauren Yaeger, who received degrees in 2008 and 2009, respectively. Yeager, a veteran of FRONT, creates garden-like environments of vertically-oriented found objects. Powell creates trompe l’oeil paintings the size and shape of beach towels, complete with accessories like sunglasses and socks.

Exhibits planned later in the year will explore photography and three-dimensional art. Gwenn Thomas fills her photographic frame with the geometric outlines of doors and windows. Where a color-field painting might create the illusion of pure hue, Thomas’ photos can create the appearance of pure frame, or pure space. Jason Michael Murphy, a 2012 MFA from Columbia University, makes unique sculpture-painting hybrids from found materials dipped in Sherwin-Williams house paint. Kurzner says that around the November election, the gallery will feature photography by Sheila Pree Bright. Bright has explored such timely subjects as young Americans’ relationships to their country, and recent clashes around the nation’s largest Confederate monument at Stone Mountain, Georgia.

Abattoir is renovating a spare room in the Hildebrandt, where Burlingham and Kurzner plan on one day hosting education sessions and community performances. Burlingham sees this kind of outreach as a way to “advocate” for the art she and Kurzner display. “If young people understand the concepts behind the art, they’ll be receptive,” she said. Abattoir also plans on residency-like opportunities for artists to travel to Cleveland and make work on site

Abattoir’s curators are confident that their space—and others in Northeast Ohio—can provide a launching pad for ascendant artists.

“Why shouldn’t Cleveland be a place to announce an artist to the national stage? Why not?” said Kurzner.