Bunker Projects is a non-profit artist residency and experimental gallery founded in 2012, that serves as a platform for emerging artists to develop their practice and create new works for exhibition. By providing an immersive live/work space alongside intimate cultural programming, we foster a spirit of innovative support, connecting artists with Pittsburgh’s active and growing arts community. The space is located at 5106 Penn Avenue. Gallery hours are Sundays 12–4pm.
5106 Penn Avenue, Upstairs
Pittsburgh, PA 15224
Any upcoming cool stuff to look out for?
Our current artists in residence Murphi Cook and Suso Phizer will be exhibiting in September and October respectively, showing new work created while in residence.
Our August exhibition is As The Fidget Spinner Turns by Cory in the Abyss and Hanski. This is one of our visiting artist exhibitions and it includes materialized meme art sculptures and neo-folk rug pieces.
We also have a gap (Get Artist Paid) meetup at Bunker where they will present their collective work as organizers and agitators of increased economic rights and autonomy for artists.
What is your mission or an artist opportunity that’s unique to Bunker Projects?
The way we approach everything is very rooted in hands-on, DIY culture and we’re also really focused on the personal relationships that develop inside art making.
We like to avoid institutional structures in general and preserve the experience of creative people just working together doing what they love. Another cool thing
we do is pair each incoming resident with a board member who works with them as their point-person or advocate. They get to know their needs and goals, and aim to connect them to other specific supporters, technicians, artists and curators in Pittsburgh to grow their active network.
What is Bunker’s take on the importance of artist-run spaces and projects today?
I think the significance of artist-run spaces is huge in all the ways that they bring power, possibility and authenticity to people through sharing and making art. An artist-run space has a really intimate appreciation and understanding of artists as makers, workers and philosophers and that uniquely informs how we operate. Sometimes it’s really hard because although we are mostly up for the challenge of operating within a capitalist framework we don’t always like it that way. Monetizing the work of emerging contemporary artists and art spaces is very difficult, particularly for those of us whose experience with art has always transcended money. But at the end of the day I see artist-led projects as a very communal enterprise that gives sanctuary to the beautiful and ephemeral moments inherent to art while making empowering spaces that can survive in the world in which we currently live.
Interview with Bunker Projects
Questions by Emily Burns / Answers by Jessica Rommelt
Who is behind Bunker Projects and who runs the different aspects of the operations?
We have a working, volunteer board currently made up of five individuals and we all contribute to running the space. We recently started pairing residents with board members based on their art, interests and skills and so far that has been a really helpful way to break up responsibilities and nurture relationships. In terms of general operations, I do a lot of the scheduling, correspondence and facility maintenance around Bunker in addition to the more creative and strategic aspects of the organization which are also very team- based.
Can you tell us more about how and why you decided to open the residency? What was the impetus to get started?
When Abbi Beddall, Ceci Ebitz and I were first opening the space we were in our early twenties, recent art school graduates just trying to figure out life as an artist for the first time. I think you see really quickly how hard earning an income, and carving out a stable life as a creator is, especially in everyday American life. For us, creating a very DIY residency space was an answer to that. If we could create a period of time for other artists that was dedicated to making ambitious new work and lead to a solo exhibition—then that would be a really nourishing and motivating experience that was empowering and hopefully propelling for young artists.
I always had an amazing network of parents, teachers, and peer artists, and I feel like I experienced a lot of different kinds of support in my young life to allow me to be able to create and form my own ideas about how my life should be. So I think in the end I wanted to build on that experience and start something from nothing with all the badass people around me.
How did you find the space and decide on the location?
Bunker is located in Garfield, an East End neighborhood of Pittsburgh, and there’s a really unique main street that’s an art and small business district. The Arts Crawl in the area is on First Fridays, which has been going on since the early 90s—so I was attending the shows at the other spaces before we opened Bunker because it was already a really cool scene, but it was also right down the street from where I lived. So win-win there!
From there we were going to community meetings and basically keeping an ear out for which of the empty buildings or storefronts were available and ungodly cheap. Eventually another gallery owner told us about the upstairs apartment above the punk/hardcore music venue, Mr Roboto Project and we went and took a look. And the rest is history!!! Just kidding, it was way more complex and dirty than that. The short story here is that for a year and a half we renovated the place, did a lot of it ourselves and worked with a new worker co-op (new at the time) called Fourth River Workers Guild to build out a very custom mixture of spaces inside the former apartment, i.e. Galleries, two studios, a kitchen, bathroom, loft storage, and two bedrooms. It was a huge learning experience doing hands-on building, but as artists we were really up for working with tools and getting dirty. And it ended up giving me foundational construction skills that I use for freelance work to this day.
What were some of the biggest challenges involved in converting
The biggest challenges were: first, having an insanely tight or barely-there budget. There were months here and there when we didn’t have any money on hand to use to progress (but we always found a way); and second, working with contractors (electric, heating/cooling etc) was kind of tough sometimes, and the city of Pittsburgh was super slow to inspect the systems. But in the end, even the tougher aspects were great lessons to learn that you just can’t absorb fully unless you are there doing it.
What is the dynamic of the group like? What are some of the challenges and benefits of working as a collaborative group?
The dynamics of the team and the team with the residents is always very real and hands-on. Having new residents every couple months always refreshes and changes things up based on what they’re making and their personalities. We operate in a pretty organic cooperative format, so periodically people’s focus rotates from more artist relations with a certain artist and then back to more marketing, or grant making work.
I think the biggest challenge with the way we work is that as of now we all have other jobs. I regularly dream about what it would be like to work as a paid team and be working on Bunker all day everyday of the week. But now we’re all volunteer and carving out time and energy can be really hard depending on what else is happening at your day job, your freelance projects or in your life in general.
How do your unique skills or perspectives as artists contribute to making the gallery and programming a reality?
I think artist-run spaces have a really clear idea about the importance of gallery space as a platform for bringing a potential public reality to art making so we both take it seriously but are also really imaginative and flexible about what a gallery space can be and how it can function and for us, it’s in tandem with the residency. But also artists are hustlers and we are willing to beg, borrow and thrift our way to getting ahold of what we need.
Can you tell us more about the project’s mission? Are you focused more on providing working space for artists, or an exhibition space, or both?
Our mission is focused on creating a platform for emerging artists to develop their practice. The way we’ve programmed our space revolves around the live/work residency and culminates in a solo exhibition. Throughout the residency artists focus on an intense period of making while also building relationships with their co-resident, our team and other art supporters in Pittsburgh. So within that framework we are always looking to grow and define new ways to support and enable artists to thrive and break new ground in their work while also getting the public invested in contemporary art as buyers, donors and collaborators.
Bunker Projects is a registered 501(C)(3) Not-For-Profit Organization. Many artist-run projects debate this decision and the pros and cons. What prompted the decision to become a not-for-profit, and how does that facilitate operating the space?
We made the move toward non-profit because we had been previously been awarded a few different project-based grants and we were obligated to use a fiscal sponsor. So, in an effort to be more direct with grant activities and become more competitive in the grant funding sphere we went for it. I would say it didn’t provide the magical credibility that you might hope, but moving forward we have some exciting plans for individual giving and some video content proposals that I hope will make it worthwhile.
You stay very busy with events, exhibitions, residencies, and artist
talks. How do you keep up with the
day-to-day operations of Bunker Projects, as well as maintain your individual studio practices?
Balance in this department is super difficult. But some of the ways we’ve dealt with it is to schedule cooldown periods for board members and interns when they’re exhibiting or writing for their own practice. So we just end up taking a step back to prioritize that aspect of our lives. I’m definitely calculating when I can give myself a studio-centric chunk of time—probably this winter. The good thing is, you are always talking about art and meeting new people so I think the excitement always has a full tank, it’s just the hours in the day that you fight.
What type of work are you interested in showing? What kinds of artists are you interesting in supporting?
At Bunker we like to show installation, queer and femme-centered work, contemporary-folk and political work, a lot of cross-disciplinary work or remixes on traditional disciplines like painting and sculpture. So clearly a wide range! Everything we show aims to be authentic, ambitious and socially relevant.
What are some the short term and long term goals for the project?
Short-term goals are to create more content, probably in the video and biopic realm. Also, refinish our gallery floors. Then, long-term goals are to slowly build a more robust budget so we can pay residents and our team. That’s so important to us and a very complicated and real challenge that we are trying to think creatively about.
In your experience, what are a few of things that the artists you have worked with really need in terms of support? Community, financial, space to work, time, etc.
I don’t think artists are really any different than any other human being in that we need financial stability, community dialogue & exchange, tools and time. I think artists need to get more organized so we can look at longer-term futures rather than a highly transient, unpredictable careers that are dependent on academia, commercial galleries and charitable foundations.
All in all, I’ve found that artists are generous, self-reliant, resourceful and very invested in their communities. These qualities are highly undervalued in our society but I’m super lucky to always be working alongside them.
Has running the space helped you and the other members in your own career endeavors as artists?
It has! You get to see a lot of approaches and pick up a lot of tips from others. It also gives you an additional motivator to meet people and discuss rhetoric and strategy with people all the time. I think somehow I can be more intense about working on behalf of others compared to myself. It just feels a bit more epic to be advancing other people’s careers.
What are some of the most rewarding aspects of running Bunker Projects?
I absolutely love collaborating with creative, ambitious people. It’s just the most thrilling thing to work in a context where people are imagining and materializing things that are totally new and often against the grain. And I am always so happy and humbled when any of the people we work with get to move on to great opportunities. It feels so important and moving to be a part of other people’s journey in life, especially when it’s in a field that can be so uncharted.
Any exciting upcoming events or projects on the horizon?
We’re starting to plan a new video series that focuses on the resident’s work in the studio and the operational side of the organization. It will probably be some sort of vlog format—it will be very DIY and hopefully super fun to watch!
Anythign else you would like to add?
Thanks Maake! Keep up the great work!