Radiant Hall creates co-working spaces for artists in need of studio space

Sculptural painter Ryan Lammie grew up in Pittsburgh and went to school at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, living there from 2007-2012. During that time he saw the Borough’s rapid development, and the gentrification that came with it. “It was a pretty shocking experience,” he says.

A year after graduating he made the decision to move back to Pittsburgh. “It just wasn’t worth it to maintain three different jobs and not even have a studio just to make it in New York,” he explains. “Knowing of Pittsburgh’s industrial past and growing up in the North Hills (the northern suburbs of Pittsburgh), I knew the kind of infrastructure we had here, and all the vacant old buildings would be easier to get a studio set up.”

Having been away so long, he says he really didn’t know anyone in Pittsburgh at that point. He happened to meet artist Jonathan Chamberlain, who was working at one of the downtown galleries at the time, and asked him what Pittsburgh artists really want and need. “They need a place to make their work and the resources and infrastructure to do that in an affordable way,” was the response. So Lammie set off to find a space for them to do just that.

The first Radiant Hall opened in Lawrenceville in an old Polish social hall with 22-foot ceilings and almost floor-to-ceiling glass block windows.

“Before I even knew the price I said I would take it,” he laughs. 1,600 square feet of space for $800 ended up being a pretty nice deal, so he and Chamberlain moved in, using it as studio space and an opportunity to focus on their own practices.

It was still way more space than either of them needed, so they invited a few more friends in, bringing the total up to six artists in the shared space. At their first open studio event, about 75 people came through – all the proof Lammie needed to know he was on to something.

There were additional spaces available throughout the building and they were able to bring the total number of artists up to 24, filling up every available space in the building.

“We basically came together and asked, ‘What do we have to do to make this work?’ Right now we lease the space long-term and run a very lean model that’s sustainable.”

The Lawrenceville location opened in 2012. Within a couple of years, Lammie started thinking about ways to expand the model and take it to other locations.

“In Pittsburgh it seems like a lot of artists feel siloed,” Lammie says. “The have attic or basement studios and they don’t have a community they can go to, that they’re a part of, that’s constantly there. That’s something we were able to develop in Lawrenceville, that sense of community. They all have their own spaces but there are no locked doors and we all share resources. That forces people to communicate and talk to each other.”

There may be a mainstream stereotype of artists as reclusive individuals, but the result of more social interaction between them shows that it is actually quite beneficial to their practice.

“A lot of artists actually have a record of improvement from being here,” Lammie says. “There are some who have gone from working freelance to creating 80 percent of their income. We’ve noticed through that support system, having this direct pool of people you can recommend when jobs do come up, it becomes a much faster, more immediate process, because they’re basically all in the same space.”

Lammie started to seriously pursue other opportunities to create creative hubs in neighborhoods that needed them by developing relationships with other organizations that didn’t have any kind of expertise or knowledge in doing so.

He says they decided, “Let’s create this model and demonstrate that we can not only sustain it, but replicate it in other neighborhoods and use that as a leverage point for other organizations and politicians so they can get behind it and support it.”

The first phase, Lammie explains, is to build up these artist communities by working with developers and foundations to lease spaces in different neighborhoods. The second phase is to acquire buildings to transition the artists into, so the spaces aren’t something temporary or unsecured, but something permanent Radiant Hall actually owns.

Radiant Hall now operates four locations: the original Lawrenceville site; Susquehanna, inside a former factory in Homewood; NOVA Place, located inside the $100 million renovation of the Allegheny Center in Northside; and the soon-to-open Collective Works, inside the Energy Innovation Center in the Lower Hill District.

Each of the locations features a mix of artist and residency studios and exhibition space. Each location ranges from seven to 30 studio spaces, most of which are already full. The newest location inside the Energy Information Center will also have a co-working space for small arts organizations and serve as the central hub of Radiant Hall’s operations, which now has a team of 10 different people plus a board of directors with nine members.

These are all part of phase one. Radiant Hall’s next move will be to acquire a building as part of phase two.

The goal, Lammie says, is to have 88 occupied studios once the Energy Information Center comes online this February, with a three-year goal of 150 studios.

“There’s definitely a pretty big need,” he says. “A lot of artists are working out of their homes and now that there is this option, a lot of artists are choosing to be part of that, wanting to be a part of a community.”

It’s important to the Radiant Hall team that the studio space is affordable and accessible to artists, whether they’re bartending six days a week or full-time artists cranking out work. They decided that $250 per month is a reasonable amount of money – not more than a person’s monthly rent, but not so cheap that the space it isn’t taken seriously. That money gets artists 200 square feet of studio space with shared worktables and facilities, with utilities and supplies included.

The 200 square feet can also be split into a shared studio, or artists can apply for a double studio if they need more space. However, as Lammie notes, “A lot of artists just need a small 200 square foot space, so we provide that. We fill that void.” Everything is month-to-month, so artists are not discouraged from applying for residencies and are not penalized for life events that might require them to leave.

If an artist has been in a studio for more than six months but then leaves and comes back, they can skip ahead on the waitlist so they know they have something to come back to if they leave, and they feel safe applying for residencies and other opportunities.

A Studio Director, who is also a working artist with his or her own studio inside the building, runs each location. As compensation they receive two full studios plus a monthly stipend. They are there to make sure all the artists in the building are healthy, safe, and getting along.

“There’s an adjustment period,” Lammie says. “Not all artists are super excited about the communal studio environment until they move in and get used to it. Once they move in and have the time to adjust, they appreciate being around other artists. A lot of the artists are starting to realize by being more social and being in a communal environment, it forces them to open themselves up to other opportunities. They love feeling like they’re part of a community.”

Once all four locations are operating in full swing, Radiant Hall will work to connect these four smaller communities to create one large one.

“Radiant Hall is about creating a community of artists; bringing a lot of the artists who have been in the dark for a long time out into the world where they can grow and interact.”