Imagine living in one city your entire life, building a professional reputation, growing an organization, and then abruptly moving almost 500 miles for a job in a city you first visited for the job interview. This was a challenge that Christina Vassallo was not afraid to take head-on and run with, in particularly spectacular fashion.
Before moving to Cleveland in 2014, Christina was the Executive Director of Flux Factory in Queens, New York, a quirky artist collective where, on any given night, you might accidentally find yourself at a meatloaf-themed potluck or in the middle of a dance party. Heading SPACES in Cleveland, Ohio, a unique setting for artists to create new work, seemed like a worthwhile next step for her.
When Christina first arrived, SPACES was looking into moving into a larger home, which came with a $3.5 million capital campaign — not exactly a small undertaking. Should you ever find yourself lucky enough to be in her presence, you will find a determined, organized woman with an infectious laugh who makes her way through the toughest of situations with humor and a level head. Given that, it was no surprise that SPACES moved into the 9,300-square-foot ground floor of the Van Rooy Coffee building in 2017.
In addition to serving as a creative hub, SPACES is also a place to reflect and take action. Whether it’s taking on the Republican National Convention as a theme for artist projects or an exhibition as a reaction to immigrant policy, under Christina’s direction, SPACES has addressed sociopolitical issues in a manner that welcomes visitors to think and allows artists to thoughtfully express themselves. As the growing institution celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2018, it continues to engage artists and audiences in unique ways that traditional galleries and museums do not often attempt. With exhibitions and progressive programming, SPACES is a center for art, activity, and activism. An added bonus? The possibility of seeing Christina’s adorable furry sidekick, Truman, when visiting.
What is SPACES and what is your role there?
I’m the Executive Director of SPACES, a nonprofit organization that commissions artists to create new work. SPACES is known for selecting artists who are responsive to timely concerns and who push the limits of their practice. We help make the seemingly impossible happen.
What was the biggest change you experienced when you left Flux Factory to start your work at SPACES?
While there is a similar artistic DNA between the two organizations, the structures are completely different. Flux Factory is an art collective — a commune, really — where residents are expected to make collaborative work. At any one time, you’d have 17 artists living on-site, making decisions together, and planning a dinner salon for 100 people.
SPACES also has a residency program, but the community-driven aspect is more outward-facing, and we ask our artists to engage with Clevelanders during their artistic process, as well as with the region’s resources. When we invite artists to work with us, we ask them, “Why Cleveland, why now?”
What were the most valuable lessons and most off-base assumptions you took with you as you transitioned from Flux Factory to SPACES?
Flux Factory was my introduction to curating as a form of activism. We were constantly asking tough questions through disarming exhibitions, like when we built a city for kittens with school-aged kids as a way to discuss humane urban design. I also learned there how to create a context for artists to make new work rather than try to shoehorn existing work into a curatorial theme. It was very much about an active dialogue with artists who were equally interested in grappling with pressing issues.
An off-base assumption that I’m glad to have conquered is that you need to live in NYC if you want to have a career in the visual arts. I’ve worked with so many radical, game-changing artists who are thrilled to come to a smaller city and find the kind of support that we can give them for an ambitious, yet commercially unviable, project.
Another assumption that I used to have — which is part of an especially important conversation in the art world right now — is that nonprofits must be apolitical. You can address political issues, head-on, as long as you don’t advocate for a particular candidate. Some visitors or funders might take offense, but that is a totally different topic.
How has SPACES responded to the cultural and political climate in recent years? Do you find it a responsibility to do so?
Cultural institutions should be sites for expansive conversations. I’m interested in artists who use an aesthetic framework to mediate their own and the viewer’s understanding of the world around them. Almost every exhibition I’ve curated at SPACES and elsewhere has somehow challenged a dominant narrative.
We devoted our entire season of exhibitions to the political process when the Republican National Convention rolled into town in 2016. Roopa Vasudevan collected tweets that were geo-located to Ohio and that expressed sentiments about the presidential candidates, in order to present an accurate portrait of Ohio voters. Kate Sopko made a series of films that introduced non-Clevelanders to some of the challenges of living here by filming locals who led tours that they would have given to RNC delegates if they had the chance. We also asked Dread Scott to send one of his A Man Was Lynched By Police Yesterday flags to display, because when the federal government prescribes a consent decree for local police reform, you have to remind the world that things need to change when all eyes are on your city.
In 2017, I curated an exhibition about artists’ responses to the new administration’s immigration policy, which opened on Day 105 of Trump’s presidency. There was concern that we might alienate some visitors because it was pretty clear that all of the artists were left-leaning, so we tried to create room for alternate viewpoints through the related events. The goal was to get people talking to each other and thinking deeply about immigration in different ways, so we worked with the City Club of Cleveland (“America’s citadel of free speech”), had a panel discussion with immigration lawyers and people who help resettle refugees, and we even had an open call for border wall designs between the U.S. and Canada to get people to think about how preposterous closing the southern border actually is.
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Our next major exhibition is A Color Removed, a project by Michael Rakowitz about the right to safety. It takes the form of a city-wide intervention that attempts to remove the color orange from Cleveland by accumulating orange objects and displaying them in the SPACES galleries. We’ll host events that grapple with questions of racial equity in this super-saturated display, in an effort to affect policy, collectively redress extrajudicial force against people of color, and create solidarity for a more peaceful city. If we stop relying on the semiotics of safety, then hopefully we’ll be more responsible for ourselves and each other.
How would you define the relationship between SPACES and the local community?
SPACES has come a long way in terms of swinging our doors wide open. We have always had a devoted following, but over the last three years, we’ve grown our audience by bringing programs to people who are unable to get to us. Every month we send professional artists into the county’s juvenile detention center to teach the students an art skill. The kids then make something that they give to constituents of a local nonprofit (like silk-screened placemats for a hospital cafeteria). We also bring video art screenings to residents in assisted living facilities and work with the YWCA to develop business skills around selling wearable art.
A primary goal of our recent relocation was to increase our visitorship by moving to a more accessible location. Now that we’re on a main thoroughfare in a bustling neighborhood, we doubled our attendance. The challenge is figuring out how to more deeply engage visitors who stumble upon us. We’re now in the middle of a strategic plan, which is helping us figure out how to continue contributing to the region in a meaningful way.
As SPACES celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, what would you say have been major touchpoints in its history? What do you see or hope for its future?
Weathering economic boons and busts over 40 years is a major accomplishment. Stability is a fleeting unicorn for alternative art spaces and having had only six Executive Directors and four locations in four decades is part of our longevity.
Every time an artist makes a work here that then travels to other venues, it is a success for SPACES, and it’s been happening more and more recently. The recent relocation, of course, is redefining SPACES and has helped us better serve our artists and audience members.
The future of SPACES is dependent on our ability to advocate for our role in the larger cultural context. We’re not a museum, we’re not a commercial gallery, and we’re no longer a DIY space, but we do provide something essential that none of those kinds of structures can. The future involves having artists in decision-making roles here while focusing on our sustainability and responding to our audience’s needs.
You have now been in Cleveland for four years since moving from New York City, your hometown. What excites you most about Cleveland? Is there anything you still find challenging about having left NYC behind?
I have overwhelming enthusiasm for the people who participate in the art and music scenes here. There is a level of support, from the smaller initiatives to even the major museums, that I didn’t experience while directing an art space in NYC. And, when you go to see live music, you’re seeing your friends on stage. There are just so many incredible musicians in this city who go on tour but come back and play in your neighborhood. You’re guaranteed to bump into somebody you know wherever you go, and they’re most likely a creative genius. The flipside of that, though, is sometimes I miss the anonymity of NYC — of being able to sink into a crowd and not always have to be “on.”
As an avid cyclist, do you find Cleveland to be a bike friendly city?
Cleveland has a sophisticated network of all-purpose trails that are perfect for cycling longer distances, but city riding has a long way to go. We have all of the raw ingredients to become a forward-thinking, bike-friendly city: wide streets that were designed in deference to car culture (let’s take some of that space over for protected bike lanes) and a healing local economy (not everyone can afford a car). Cleveland wants to be bike-friendly, but the issue is that the organizations that are advocating for better infrastructure are exhausted, because they’ve been working for too long to challenge the car-centric lifestyle. They celebrate minor — or even, unsafe — “improvements” that actually seem to be designed begrudgingly by people who don’t ride bikes.
Your dog, Truman, has become a mascot of sorts for SPACES. How do you keep the fame from going to his head?
I have no control over Truman. I just try to avoid eye contact; otherwise, I’d get nothing done. He’s a B-list celebrity in Cleveland, but I think he’s largely unaware of his fame.
What has been your most spectacular professional success and failure?
A failure I recently experienced came from sitting on a committee that was designed to jumpstart racial equity for individual artist support in the county. There were a lot of passionate members who had extremely different views on how to equalize power in arts funding. The failure on my part was not clearly articulating the kinds of solutions I thought would work and not advocating enough for them, so I withdrew from the committee. Part of me regrets leaving but another part sees that staying on would have meant agreeing with recommendations that I didn’t believe in.
On a more positive note: the whole process around SPACES’ relocation — from finding the building, to raising money for the purchase, to designing it, to actually moving in and figuring out how to use the space — I would say is the lead-up to my most spectacular professional success. The move has really set the stage for the tipping point of SPACES pulling off even more impactful projects.