Artists surprised to be locked out of building | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Artists surprised to be locked out of building

"It's just a tempest in a teapot," mayor says

Like roughly 30 other area artists, sculptor Ben Acree was glad to accept rent-free studio space in downtown Braddock's Ohringer Building earlier this year.

Now, he just wants to get his stuff back out.

The "Ohringer Project" was the brainchild of Braddock's mayor, John Fetterman, who signed a two-year lease for the building in January, 2006. Fetterman hoped to help revitalize the neighborhood by allowing artists to use the building for free. And Acree, a 24-year-old Bloomfield artist trying to finish a grad school project, took the offer in July.

"I was grateful to have this space," he says. "It was a godsend for me."

But on Oct. 5, Fetterman e-mailed the artists that the building's owner, Brandywine Realty, was losing money on the property. Brandywine had been paying utility bills on the structure, and Fetterman notified artists that the company was seeking an additional $3,500 a month to keep the building open.

"[A]t this juncture they have regrettably decided to mothball the building if they cannot recoup this amount," Fetterman's e-mail read. "Collectively you will need to work together and come up with a plan for how rent will be divided and collected."

Otherwise, he added, "this email -- very sadly -- also has to serve as a 60-day notice of vacation of the Ohringer Building."

Artists saw little chance of avoiding eviction. "The price went from free to about $3,500 to rent the building," says 26-year-old Olivia Ciummo, also of Bloomfield, who has been using the building's art space for four months. "We're artists; we don't make money."

Still, the artists figured, at least they had nearly two months to find other arrangements.

"Everyone was banking on having 60 days to get everything done," Acree says.

But on Nov. 5, nearly one month before he thought he would be evicted, Acree says he found a "Keep Out" sign posted on the front door.

"They changed the locks on us," says Acree. News of the changed locks circulated quickly. Some artists worried about their belongings; others panicked about missing deadlines on projects.

"We were freaking out," says Ciummo. "We weren't sure what they were doing."

"They could have told us they were going to change the locks," says Elina Malkin, 25, of Bloomfield. "All of us artists are up in the air about why it happened."

Both Fetterman and Brandywine agree the building closed for financial reasons. But accounts of the decision's timing have varied.

According to Fetterman, Brandywine was losing $30,000-$35,000 per year on the building. Fetterman wouldn't say what he was paying in rent, but "it was far below what it costs to keep the building open.

"I understand management's position," he says. "I don't expect them to eat $30,000."

But when first contacted by City Paper, Fetterman originally said he did expect the building to stay open until the end of November.

The building closed early, he said, because of "the conduct of a couple of artists" who had "inappropriate things in the building.

"That's what triggered [Brandywine's] draconian response," he said.

Fetterman wouldn't describe the "inappropriate things," though he did say "it wasn't a bomb or anything like that."

Brandywine "should have given us more notice," he added.

But Brandywine Vice President John Katz said the company did notify Fetterman -- in August -- about the building's closure. The mayor "was provided at least three months' notice that we were going to be closing the building on Oct. 31," Katz says.

Katz wouldn't respond to Fetterman's claim that inappropriate items caused the Nov. 5 lockout. He did say, "We've had no problems with the artists."

"The artists really aren't our tenants," Katz adds. Fetterman himself holds the lease, and Katz says the controversy "looks like a communication problem between the mayor and the artists."

The lockout "wasn't a surprise," Katz says.

Indeed, when CP notified Fetterman of Katz's timeline, Fetterman said, "I'll agree to that."

Why e-mail the artists that they had 60 days, then?

"I was holding out until the bitter end in hopes that there would be some kind of white knight that would extend our stay for a few more months," he says. "I didn't realize it was going to be such a hard-and-fast thing."

Neither did the artists.

Sam Pace, 35, of Bloomfield, who used the building, says the mayor told him that he had problems with one artist having a motorcycle in the building, and with other artists using mattresses in their rooms.

"There were no specific lines drawn about what you could or couldn't have in there," he says. "If the mayor didn't want anyone to sleep there, he didn't say that.

"There was never any shred of organization," continues Pace, who is a member of the band Centipede E'est. "They managed this really poorly."

Pace and Ciummo say they were only given between one and two hours on Nov. 8 to move their equipment out. "That really pissed me off," Pace says. "It was a joke."

"They could have given us a week, and we would have been out," says Malkin.

"There could have just been better communication," Acree adds. "I would have complied with anything."

As it stands, Acree and some other artists still have work and supplies inside the building. They'll get another chance to remove their belongings on Nov. 17.

Former tenants also gripe that when they came to collect their belongings, Brandywine and the mayor asked for photo identification. Previously, occupants of the building had come and gone with "no record of anyone being there," as Ciummo puts it.

"Why do you need to know who I am now?" asks Ciummo.

Fetterman says they were checking IDs "to make sure no one's items were stolen. It's for the artists' protection." He acknowledges, though, that "I can't say I have exact knowledge of everybody in there."

Fetterman says he will accept blame for the confusion, but contends the whole situation is being "overblown" by the artists.

"There are no bad guys in this scenario," he says. "It's just a tempest in a teapot.

"I understand their frustrations. But it was nearly two years of free art space. They just had to move out quickly at the end. That's not a bad track record."

click to enlarge The free space enjoyed by local artists at the Ohringer Building in Braddock has come to an abrupt end.
The free space enjoyed by local artists at the Ohringer Building in Braddock has come to an abrupt end.

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