PAR Projects is building a home for arts education and programming in Cincinnati’s Northside

Things don’t always work out the way you plan, but they do tend to work out the way they’re supposed to.

Jonathan Sears is the co-founder of Professional Artistic Research (PAR) Projects, though he is the only founding member who remains with the organization.

PAR Projects started in 2010 under the name Northside House, which was to be a gallery space with a community focus. Just days after opening, they were quite suddenly and unceremoniously kicked out of their original space and lacked the capital to pursue legal action to reclaim their rights to it. When this happened, the Northside community of Cincinnati rallied around them, offering them a number of spaces to host the full year’s worth of programming they had planned.

“The community stepped up and started offering us space. They really saved the show,” says Sears, Executive Director of PAR Projects. The open arms treatment Sears received cemented his and PAR Proejcts’ relationship with Northside. “Since then we’ve been curating shows around Cincinnati but with a focus on Northside, Just seeing how the community stepped in when all that crazy stuff happened…they told us they want us here, so we should respect that. Usually when people are down on their luck it’s like, ‘Sorry about your luck.’ But we were fielding phone calls daily: ‘Hey I got this space, let’s do your April programming here.'”

Things don’t always work out the way you plan, but they do tend to work out the way they’re supposed to.

Northside House became PAR Projects and, at the request of the Northside community, the gallery with a community focus became a community-focused organization with a gallery component. And they’re staying in Northside.

“Northside is one of the most economically and racially diverse neighborhoods [in Cincinnati],” Sears says. “There is a strong acceptance of the LGBTQ community, there are upper class people and lower class people, there are Appalachians. There is every single kind of mix here and everybody gels. It’s one of the more upcoming communities in Cincinnati. It’s not false; it’s not gentrification – this has been happening over the span of 20 years instead of three years.”

He says it is also a neighborhood where many artists congregate and feel comfortable, but there was never any kind of central arts hub or strong gallery presence that was open to the community. “It kind of felt like a natural fit,” he says. “It’s good to be in a place where people actually want you to be and you have room to grow.”

PAR Projects recently purchased the parcel of land at 1622 Hoffner St. in Northside, which had sat vacant for 20 years prior. The land, which included an 80-year-old Amish-built barn, will be the site of PAR Projects’ education and gallery space – made entirely of shipping containers.

After being kicked out of Northside House, the project was reduced to two U-Haul trucks in the parking lot across from the gallery. “That started this idea of temporary spaces,” Sears explains. Eventually they discovered that shipping containers could be upcycled as building materials and as stand-alone units for businesses and gathering spaces, still (even now) very much a new concept in America. “That opened our eyes to what can happen when you keep things mobile.”

They started with temporary pop-up shows in different communities that had vacant spaces the community wanted to activate. They transformed abandoned warehouses into event spaces, and transformed an abandoned piece of land into an edible garden with a sculpture park.

“It’s really organically building,” Sears says. “I wouldn’t have thought any of this would have happened but you do what you’re supposed to do.”
Things don’t always work out the way you plan, but they do tend to work out the way they’re supposed to.

The site on Hoffner St. will eventually have 12 shipping containers retrofitted into 2,000 square feet of usable space for arts education and programming. They already have the first two shipping containers, one of which became the Makers Mobile, their mobile outreach center that serves as an art gallery and education space which has allowed them to bring a gallery to communities and work with groups like Lighthouse Youth Services on educational programming.

“That was more rewarding than I would have thought,” Sears says. “We were dealing with teenagers who just needed their eyes opened to the arts.”

For Sears, this is a cornerstone of what PAR Projects is all about. He remembers being a sophomore in high school and his parents told him he needed to either figure out how to make a living with his art or go to military school. This led him to a career in graphic design and he ended up teaching graphic design at the university level. But, he says, “It didn’t feel right.”

With the educational component of PAR Projects, Sears wants to teach people usable life skills in the arts in a way that is accessible, financially and otherwise. “The long-term goal is and always has been to teach practical arts – graphic design, video production, editing. We will offer courses boiled down to the community level so people can actually access them and form a career center of sorts. We’ll teach them things people are actually interested in learning and can have as life skills.”

The shipping container project, the first of its kind in Cincinnati, will be completed in phases. First, though, they will stabilize the historic barn on the site that has fallen into disrepair over the last 20 years of neglect. “With that has opened a new stream of programming we didn’t think we would be doing. The building is half indoors and half outdoors, and Playhouse in the Park is already interested in doing yearly programming.”

Things don’t always work out the way you plan, but they do tend to work out the way they’re supposed to.

After that they will construct an outdoor movie theatre, projecting onto the back of two shipping containers, to create an access point for the community and get people accustomed to visiting the space. They hope to have that finished by the end of October. Going into winter they’ll be forming the final committees for their programming, running another fundraising campaign, and beginning the first phase of build-out with five shipping containers creating a horseshoe-shaped courtyard.

Beyond the programming, the Hoffner site will have space for community fundraisers (which will be offered pro bono), and PAR Projects will still have a strong gallery presence with the goal of bringing in national artists. As far as the art component, anything goes. “It’s really about having conversations and surprising people, and having consistently strong shows. Every successful thing we’ve done has been a major collaboration. We worked with the Symphony, we worked with communities across the river [in northern Kentucky]. It’s really power in numbers, applying creativity to different projects to make them special.”