Bunker Projects is an experimental gallery and live/work space for artists to engage the community

Artists Jessie Rommelt, Abagail Beddall, and Cecilia Ebitz all graduated from Penn State University in 2011. The three friends decided to head over to Pittsburgh afterwards, the closest city with an active arts scene that also seemed affordable.

“We went on the hunt looking for a performance gallery space,” Rommelt says. “We didn’t know what that would look like. What we ended up finding was a burned-out apartment building and we thought we [could] make [it] even more than what we [had imagined].”

This was the beginning of Bunker Projects, a live-in artist residency program and experimental gallery “devoted to building a living laboratory for artists in Pittsburgh.”

The second-floor space in a former apartment building is located on Penn Avenue in the well-known Penn Avenue Arts District. There is also a music venue downstairs.

With the help of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation, a community and economic development organization, as well as their own sweat equity and fundraising efforts, the Bunker Projects space was completed after a year and a half, though they were hosting shows the whole time they were working on it.

“In the very beginning we had no electricity, heat, or anything,” Rommelt says. “We did shows with artists that made sense [in that space with those limitations].”

The first show held at the Bunker Projects was Incarnate in April 2013, featuring artist Annalisa Barron using reclaimed materials from the demolition phase of Bunker’s site renovation in a stop-motion animated film that followed a life-sized marionette and examined man’s relationship to materials.

With each phase of renovation a new artist was brought in with site-specific installations and performances. Finally, in May 2014, Bunker Projects hosted their first live-in resident.

Bunker Projects can host two resident artists at a time living and working in the space for three to four months. Right now the cost to the artists is $300 per month plus utilities (it will go up to $400 in 2015), which gives them a third-floor bedroom with kitchen and bathroom access, a studio, and access to the Bunker Projects’ galleries to exhibit their work and interact with the community.

Residents pursue self-directed projects while creating a point of access to the community through their work. “Residents are expected to have open studio hours,” Rommelt says. “On the days the galleries are open they need to welcome people into their studios.”

This openness with the community is the cornerstone of the Bunker Projects’ mission to create an open dialogue and engage/interact with the public in new and unexpected ways.

“The artist becomes an access point for temporary artists in our neighborhood and in Pittsburgh,” says Rommelt. Part of the qualification process to be a resident artist demands that “they are open to our community and to exchange.”

Once their residency is completed, the artists then display the work they created during their residency in a gallery exhibit or performance piece. Rommelt says they try to schedule openings to coincide with the monthly Unblurred: First Fridays on Penn gallery crawl event since there is so much traffic on those nights.

Residency applications are accepted on a rolling basis. Artists can apply to open calls for art and residencies on the Bunker Projects website. All work done during the residencies is self-directed by the artists; to apply, the artists must give the Bunker Projects team a sense of what they plan to work on during their time there though, Rommelt says, “it’s a loose thing…basically [we would like to see] a sample of what might be coming.”

Currently the Bunker Projects is coordinating the Performance Art Festival on August 30, which will take place simultaneously in their upstairs galleries and in the music venue downstairs. There are 20 performance artists and collectives from all over the Midwest and East Coast coming in for the free, all-ages show from 4-11 p.m. Part of the intention in hosting this festival is to foster a better understanding of what “performance art” actually is.

In addition to that, Bunker Projects is going through the process of receiving 501c3 nonprofit status, and is now accepting applications for 2015 residencies.