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Farewell, Modern Formations. What’s next?

Ashley Jean Hickey, Fern Impression, 2015, acrylic on birch panel. Exhibited at Modern Formations' final show, "THE LAST EXHIBITION A Retrospective of ModernFormations"

For 15 years, Modern Formations gallery was an anchor of the Garfield gallery strip – an impressive run. But a few weeks ago the gallery announced it would be closing its doors for good. On Friday, November 6, during the Unblurred gallery crawl, it held its final opening.

In every way, the event was classic Modern Formations. The crazy purple walls, the crush of the crowd, the dusty frames. The mixed bag of small works from serious artists (Meghan Herwig, Andy Kehoe, John Morris and Ashley Jean Hickey were all stand-outs for me), pop paintings, works made from trash and other found objects, and works hovering distressingly between imitation and homage. I was happy to finally have the chance to see one of Ross Hardy’s recent chair sculptures in person.

I had expected to find a scene of mourning. Instead, the tone of the night was philosophical and warm with gratitude.  I had one question for visitors: with Modern Formations closing, what’s next for Pittsburgh art?

Zack Lee, artist and Radiant Hall studio assistant

Lee responded, “Vastly different things.” He had just returned form an epic cross-country road trip and his attitude was thoughtful.  He elaborated: “Pittsburgh is bigger than Modern Formations. The closing is having an effect on how everybody feels; there’s a void and it’ll be filled. I don’t know whether what’s coming is better or worse. It will push Pittsburgh forward.”

Arush Kalra, a heart valve designer

Lee’s friend was more melancholic. “This is so sad. It’s likely that the rent will go higher on Penn Avenue and more corporate structures will get in here. You’ll get chain stores.” For example? “McDonalds. You’ll see that happen.” I suggested that maybe Chipotle was more likely.

Fred Seifried, scenester and photographer

“I don’t like it closing at all.” There was a long silence. “Back in my day we used to hang out in really crappy places like Shadyside. Now Shadyside has jumped the tracks. Houses in Garfield are going up in price. But Pittsburgh still has lots of crappy neighborhoods, so we’re safe!” He predicted Penn Hills would be next, with its handy access to public transportation and good housing stock.

D. S. Kinsell, artist and founder, BOOM Concepts

Kinsell was ready to pick up the torch. When I asked him what was on the horizon for the Pittsburgh gallery scene, he pointed to the surviving Penn Ave spaces. “BOOM Concepts, Assemble, Bunker.” He hopes to continue building on the commercial foundation Modern Formations built over the years, and his plans sounded like the right formula to me. “What’s next: to support artists with a great career path, to sell art, and to support more diverse artists in terms of identity.”

Jeffrey Jarzynka, creative strategist

Jarzynka was mildly optimistic. He had considered opening his own gallery at some point in the past, an idea which was still nagging at him. “I’m excited to see what’s next. The scene would be blossoming regardless of whether Modern Formations stayed open or closed.” He considered the history. “Modern Formations was an entry level place for some very important artists. It was great on many levels.”

A few days ago a friend ran an informal Facebook contest to find Pittsburgh’s new motto. One of my faves was: “Pittsburgh: Are we Portland yet?” This struck me as exactly right. The population decline has reversed, younger people are moving to the city, Pittsburgh is gradually getting richer and Penn Ave is getting a make-over. But when will we get the cultural economy to match? When will all those Cultural Trust art crawlers finally become serious, engaged collectors? When will our cadre of talented itinerant curators inspire a new generation of gallerists and dealers? How will we support the other parts of the cultural machine – the critics, the residencies, the lecture series – that are so necessary for our growth? Will we ever find ways of doing diversity and inclusivity right? While new spaces open, old ones close – one step forward, one step back. Hardly a a simple path of progress.

It’s both my nature and my vocation to pause and say, “But what about…?” Skepticism is my default setting. Still, when I survey the scene and see the optimism and energy driving the waves of creative people from door to door on Penn Ave, I feel a growing faith in reincarnation. Modern Formations is gone, but not dead. Its spirit is alive, all around us. It’ll be back some day, a new incarnation bigger and better – and, we hope, more lucrative – than ever before.

Alexandra Oliver completed her PhD in art history at the University of Pittsburgh. Follow her on Twitter @aolivex or on Instagram.

1 Comment on Farewell, Modern Formations. What’s next?

  1. As the curator and owner of Modernformations. I wanted to say thank you for your kind words about the gallery. The response to my closing has been overwhelming and I am humbled and grateful for all the positive comments. It is truly amazing to see that Modernformations meant so many different things to so many people. I could have never predicted that when I began this journey 15 years ago.

    Closing has been a difficult decision, one that I did not come to lightly. When I started the gallery I knew it would be a labor of love, and I accepted that. I was never in it for the money, only for the love of art and community. But after 15 years, including 3 years of construction, keeping the gallery open was no longer sustainable. I have also come to the belief that I was meant to move forward in a different direction in my career, I decided that I wanted to devote all of my time to that new path.

    With that being said, I feel the voices of those most important to what Moderformations stood for and what it came to represent are lost here – the artists and other community members who helped propel the gallery’s success, the ones that have seen Modernformations through the years. Their voices would have contributed greatly to any conversation about the space, its meaning and the implications of the gallery’s closing for the Garfield community, and the Pittsburgh arts scene at-large.

    Modernformations wasn’t just a gallery; it was a community, and I would have loved to have connected you with some of the artists and people that made up a part of that community to highlight their perspectives and to be a part of this very worthwhile discussion – for it is my deepest and most since wish (as you said) that the spirit of Moderformations remains alive and well on Penn Avenue. Sincerely, Jennifer Hedges

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