The Mattress Factory at 20: The Jewel In Pittsburgh’s Art Crown

Michael Olijnyk and Barbara Luderowski. All photos: Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh/John Charley

Since the Mattress Factory’s founding in Pittsburgh in 1977, by sculptor Barbara Luderowski (the current director), the institution has grown immensely both in size and national outreach. Today, it proudly stands as one of the stellar contemporary exhibition spaces west of the Hudson River. Throughout its existence it has championed installation art and has showcased some of the most interesting and significant site-specific works in the United States, including constructions by John Cage, Barbara Ess, Gretchen Faust, Paul Glabicki, David Ireland, Ann Hamilton, Greer Lankton, Winifred Lutz, Cady Noland, and Allan Wexler. In the fall of 1995, it mounted an extensive exhibition of site-specific works by artists from Central Europe.

Since opening its doors, the Mattress Factory has evolved from an alternative installation art space into a museum of contemporary art that has a unique and growing collection of permanent site-specific works; included in this developing collection are works by James Turrell, Bill Woodrow, Jene Highstein, Rolf Julius, Yayoi Kusama, and recently, a completed archeological and environmental garden by Winifred Lutz.

Luderowski and the Mattress Factory’s curator of exhibitions, Michael Olijnyk, welcome the impermanent nature of site-specific and environmental work and continue to remain open to a range of multiple stylistic impulses, including figurative, process, and conceptual artworks. No single theoretical text, subject, ideology, or aesthetic dominates the selection of artists for the Mattress Factory’s exhibitions. The director and curator resolutely believe that a large part of artistic practice is founded on the occupation of space and how artists engage in dialogue with it. This unique outlook affords artists opportunities to stretch their problem-solving abilities because they are encouraged to shirk traditional museum obstacles and are invited to take imaginative flight in constructing whatever they choose to tackle. Artists are given complete freedom to experiment, to try out new ideas, to employ the newest technology, and to venture into untried zones. What frequently results from their use of humble materials is a spatial and material transformation of a given architectural setting.

(For a more complete discussion of the Mattress Factory’s early development, see the article published in the November/December 1989 issue of Sculpture.)

Artist Jaroslav Hulboj at work on an installation for the Mattress Factory, 1995.

Elaine King: It’s hard to believe that the Mattress Factory is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Barbara, as the founder and director of the Mattress Factory, how would you characterize its evolution over the past two decades, during which art has gone through several transformations?

Barbara Luderowski: Slowly, continuously, but openly! As an organization we have grown organically. What I mean by this is that we have gone through a type of natural metamorphosis. When we began we had a certain attitude or point of view, but over time we have adapted our policies and organizational structure to fit where we were at a given moment. It has been an internal, real development and not a premeditated one. I often refer to it as the “three steps forward, two steps back motion.” At times, one must let go of things and reevaluate one’s direction and vision. One learns as one does and if you really learn, you grow and evolve. We have expanded our exhibition spaces and have become increasingly involved with the North Side community, especially through the Federal North Redevelopment Project.

King: I have heard that the artist is always central at the Mattress Factory. Can you elaborate on this point?

Michael Olijnyk: Once an artist is invited to produce a work at the Mattress Factory, we do everything for the artist in order for them to implement their concept. It is not just a curator-artist relationship-the entire staff becomes involved in the project from its inception to its completion. The place literally becomes a type of beehive and everyone works together. We meet with the artist, find out what is needed in terms of materials, crew, etc. There is no hierarchical method-the artist is free to ask anyone and to work with everyone. It is a spontaneous environment and interaction on all levels takes place. The opening of the show or the work is never determined until the artist lets us know when he or she thinks the piece is finished.

King: How are artists selected?

Olijnyk: First of all, we are open to manifold ideas and means of working. Generally an artist is selected based on their past performance. There is no submission of a proposal. Sometimes we seek out artists because of our familiarity with their work; sometimes artists write to us or are recommended by other people. It is always an informal, open process and this seems to work well for the Mattress Factory. Once the artist is asked to construct something at the Mattress Factory, he or she is invited to visit the site and to become acquainted with the spaces available. This often takes a few visits before the concept is turned into a concrete proposal. The planning continues even afterwards-it often becomes an evolutionary, hands-on process.

King: Do you plan theme shows?

Olijnyk: No. We don’t like theme exhibitions even though we do group shows.

Latislav Carney, Phase of Nigreda, 1995. Mixed-media installation at the Mattress Factory.

King: Contemporary art has been under fire in Congress and elsewhere, and a segment of the American population seems to be suspicious of artists and their work. How do you see an organization such as the Mattress Factory countering the negative opinion about the art of our time?

Luderowski: We basically ignore the cynicism and keep ourselves apprised of the issues and the ongoing debate. The type of artwork shown at the Mattress Factory generally stirs people and they respond positively to it. Many people have commented that they enjoy and welcome the challenge these site-specific works pose. The viewers who come here encourage others to come and see the exhibitions. The work causes the visitor to enter into a dialogue; it broadens their awareness. The Mattress Factory asks of viewers only that they are open to what is presented and that they be willing to look, listen, and attempt to digest what is presented. This, we feel, counters the negative impression of art and artists.

King: How do you secure funding for your site projects?

Luderowski: In many ways. Once an artist is selected and begins to come up with an idea after examining the space, we prepare a bottom-line budget that will evolve. This budget takes into account materials, machinery, labor, per diem, etc. This budget is always idea-driven by the artist. We provide travel money, an honorarium, and per diem. The honorarium varies depending on the complexity and time involved in producing a work.

King: How long does it generally take for a project to become a reality from the time of invitation to completion?

Olijnyk: This varies but frequently it’s about a one-year duration from selection to execution. Because the Mattress Factory encourages problem-solving and experimentation, and is not object- or time-bound, everything evolves around the artist. The success of installation art stems from a natural process of working and it cannot be hurried. Kiki Smith is currently working on a piece but the opening is yet to be determined; it will happen when Smith feels the work is resolved.

King: Do you have plans to use guest curators as you have done in the past?

Olijnyk: Yes, we think it is important to utilize the strengths and ideas of guest curators in order to expand the vision of this organization.

King: How many staff members are there currently at the Mattress Factory?

Luderowski: It varies, but currently an estimated 12 people are working here in varying capacities.

King: The addition of a storefront space has allowed artists greater opportunities and it appears to be a user-friendly place to visit.

Luderowski: Yes, viewers are more comfortable with that space than with a traditional museum, perhaps because it is particularly integrated into the residential quality of this neighborhood. It once was a grocery store and its storefront facade is not threatening.

Rolf Julius, Red, 1996. Mixed-media sound installation at the Mattress Factory.

King: You started out as an alternative space for three-dimensional, installation-type, site-specific works. Do you see the Mattress Factory evolving into a museum of contemporary art and perhaps expanding its programming to include other mediums such as video, computer, and electronic art?

Luderowski: We are a museum of contemporary art because we show the art of our time and gradually we have acquired a collection of site-specific works from past undertakings. Regarding programming, we are not going to shift our direction away from installation art and try to be a museum of everything with special rooms for this and that kind of art. Artists bring to this place manifold mediums ranging from rocks to computers. Installation work encompasses all mediums in divergent ways.

King: Does the Mattress Factory plan to expand its permanent collection?

Luderowski: The Mattress Factory has gradually been building a permanent collection in a natural, casual manner. The Turrell works were initially made as temporal site-specific works but they eventually became part of our permanent collection. Our new Capital Campaign will include an acquisition fund. Regardless of the economic availability because of the very nature of site work, it is critical to be selective about what becomes part of an enduring collection. Space is a very real issue.

Olijnyk: The development of a permanent collection is important for an organization as time goes on. It becomes an important draw for audiences; it provides another dimension to a place by having something on exhibit all of the time. Collections also provide a perspective about the arts, artists’ ideas, technology, and social change. A viewer sees a permanent piece very differently from a newly installed one. Visitors have the opportunity to witness that juxtaposition between the old and new in a fresh way.

King: How do you see the Mattress Factory within the larger contemporary art context throughout the United States and perhaps parts of Europe?

Olijnyk: Because we are open to a wide range of ideas and artistic expressions within the realm of installation work, and because we continuously seek out new work by strong and innovative artists, the Mattress Factory is engaged in the global art dialogue both in the United States and in Europe. Our exhibition of Central European artists showcased works from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Poland. If an artist’s work is good, it doesn’t matter where he or she lives-the United States, Europe, South America, Africa, or here, in Pittsburgh.

King: Can you comment about how Pittsburgh has evolved over the past decade as a cultural center and how the Mattress Factory fits within its larger cultural structure?

Luderowski: There is no doubt that Pittsburgh has essentially changed over the past 20 years. Fortunately, it has become a more cosmopolitan urban center. It has more texture. What I mean is that its population has become more diverse and more demanding for better food, entertainment, and art. Pittsburgh, however, needs more serious art and more opportunities for younger, emerging artists to show their work and to be taken seriously. Places such as the Mattress Factory neither have large endowments nor wealthy patrons. In general the arts do not have a healthy political presence here when it comes to funding and policy. Planners do not recognize the arts when it comes to promoting the city’s image; sports, technology, medicine, and the low cost of living are what get promoted. There is no power base to the arts in Pittsburgh. Organizations such as the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, the Dance Alloy, and others need to work together as a group and begin making their importance felt to the powers that be here.

King: These problems are not unique to Pittsburgh. Perhaps this arts community can learn something from places like Seattle, Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francisco where artists and arts organizations have created events and a presence that draws people to those centers. What is the Mattress Factory’s relationship to other arts organizations in Pittsburgh and perhaps within a 100-mile radius? Also, given your proximity to the Andy Warhol Museum, are there any joint ventures or programs being planned?

Luderowski: We are user-friendly to all the arts organizations in Pittsburgh and try to be supportive of their programs. A continual effort is made on our behalf to attend their exhibitions and programs. The addition of the Andy Warhol Museum has enriched Pittsburgh’s cultural environment and also the Mattress Factory holds a close affinity with the Warhol Museum because it is our North Side neighbor. It shares our high standards and a similar audience. We have spoken of perhaps collaborating on some projects with the Warhol Museum and creating a cultural environment of the arts on the North Side in order to enrich the art networks. Widening a cultural audience base is critical to our survival.

Andre Walker, Untitled, 1996. Steel, fabric, vinyl, paint, and photographs, 8 ft. high. Exhibited at the Mattress Factory.

King: Who do you envision the audience of the Mattress Factory to be?

Luderowski: An estimated 22,000 people annually visit the Mattress Factory. It is a young crowd-usually students and adults under 40. Only recently have we begun to evaluate our demographics. Outside of Pittsburgh our audience is generally our professional colleagues who pass through Pittsburgh for one reason or another. School groups and museum tour groups comprise another percentage of our audience. Teachers and the public school system use our facilities. Several schools in Pittsburgh are attempting to integrate the Mattress Factory into their arts curricula.

King: Do you have an active education and docent program?

Luderowski: Yes. We have approximately 20 officially trained docents who are largely students and young professionals. Our education and docent tours are not lecture programs but are interactive with the work being presented. Docents encourage the viewers to think and engage in a dialogue while experiencing a work of art. In 1995 we also created a Web site, with an interactive multimedia catalogue that acts as a type of educational core, <>. Here people can witness both the working process and finished product for the installations that have been constructed at the Mattress Factory over a 20-year history. Documentation is especially relevant for site-specific works that are integrated into the architecture. We are also currently creating an interactive CD-ROM that marries the Web site content with more sound and video. In addition, the Mattress Factory was selected by the Benton Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts as one of the only two Open Studio sites in Pennsylvania to be a “public access point.” Members in the community can freely use computers connected to the Internet, and receive assistance in learning how to browse the Web, with a particular emphasis on accessing arts and cultural resources, locally and internationally, on the Internet.

Olijnyk: Another way we educate our audience is by providing excellent work. We are not interested in trends or fashionable ideological theories. Our shows are not populist for the sake of popularity and they do not aim to draw audiences for admission charges. Our artists and their work invite curiosity-they create works that afford viewers opportunities to exercise their brains. It is a special atmosphere where viewers can find the unexpected. A sense of renewed consciousness and excitement is begotten from the unknown element that often exists in the site-specific works on view at the Mattress Factory.

King: How does the Mattress Factory relate to its diverse locale?

Luderowski: This North Side neighborhood has always been important to the Mattress Factory. The Mattress Factory is an integral part of this community and is dedicated to community stabilization. Much of our staff lives in this community. When we expanded our exhibition spaces to the 1414 Monterey Building, this also sent a signal to the people in the neighborhood that we were committed to the neighborhood’s well-being.

King: What is the Mattress Factory’s role in the Federal North Redevelopment Project?

Luderowski: In 1986 members of the community realized further community stabilization was needed on the North Side. Thus the community sought a method to attract viable enterprises to revitalize the various commercial spaces within the neighborhood with the hope of restoring a useful vitality to this area. In 1986, the Mattress Factory acquired four deteriorating properties and converted them to exhibition spaces and low- to moderate-income residences available for rental. In the fall of 1991, major renovations of the Mattress Factory’s main building were completed, including the transformation of several vacant lots adjacent to the parking area and the site-specific garden by Winifred Lutz that remains in progress. This community-oriented thinking led to the creation of the Federal North Redevelopment Project (FNRP). In 1994, representatives of the North Side community, the Office of the Mayor, the Mattress Factory, Allegheny General Hospital, and the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh entered into a partnership to revitalize the business district at the intersection of Federal Street and North Avenue on the North Side. The Mattress Factory is a city-appointed development partner in the FNRP that will transform an “adult” theater and 11 additional properties. The Mattress Factory is a vital guiding force in this redevelopment, which will become known as the Garden Square North, in the hope that this revitalization will enable residents, visitors, and patrons to intermingle in a stimulating environment. It will have pedestrian-friendly landscapes, storefronts, cafes, and performance events at the Garden Theater. Plans by the FNRP are underway to create on-the-job experience for the community at large in the theater arts, historic preservation, business, financial development, and restaurant work. Educational institutions such as the Community College of Allegheny County and the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild/Bidwell Training Center will benefit greatly from the expanded opportunities for students and neighborhood residents.

King: This sounds ambitious and wonderful. It is an extraordinary plan for producing an urban environment that is conducive to substantial growth and strengthening a community’s foundation. On a different note, let’s talk about the federal government’s reduction of National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) support. Do you sense this has begun to impact on your economic support beyond NEA dollars?

Luderowski: Definitely. An economic leveling has already begun and is being felt. Where we could previously apply to the NEA under several granting programs, we can now only apply to one category annually. Although the financial support from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts (PCA) grants has not been cut, increasingly more arts organizations are dependent on the PCA and this will put an additional strain on its budgets.

King: How strong is your granting support from foundations and corporations?

Luderowski: Overall, very good. The city of Pittsburgh needs to begin supporting the arts, as do large corporations. Unlike some of the traditional cultural institutions, the Mattress Factory comes closer to being an avant-garde, experimental space and not all foundations are receptive to our type of programming.

King: Can you give me a preview of which artists will be constructing works during the coming season?

Olijnyk: Some of the artists who will be exhibiting are Consuelo Castañeda and Quisqueya Henriquez (Cuban artists who live in Miami), David Blatherwick (from Canada), and Lynn Cazabon (from the United States).

Elaine King teaches critical theory and art history at Carnegie Mellon University.