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Tonight for First Friday: a new gallery opening

Tonight for First Friday: a new gallery opening by Ron Rollins for Dayton Daily News, September 4, 2009

There wasn’t supposed to be an art gallery in the Excelsior Building. There weren’t supposed to be several large, cheerfully weird installation pieces on display there.

For that matter, there wasn’t supposed to be a busy studio space there, either. And there really wasn’t supposed to be anything like “the Pit,” where dancers and artists alike have found a unique new spot to work their magic.

You could call the Excelsior Dayton’s accidental new art space. And in a season full of dour stories about the economy’s affect on the arts, this time the news is a little different.

It’s good, for a change.

That’s thanks to the vision of several people, who all agreed to make the most of the downturn, rather than carp about it.

First among them is Tom Tornatore, who bought and redeveloped the huge old factory building at 207 E. Sixth St., next door to Jay’s, and started redeveloping it into condos. “We had pre-sold a half dozen, and then whammo — the financing for that kind of housing just went away.”

About then, painter/entrepreneur Mike Elsass, owner of the Color of Energy Gallery, and Dr. Mike Ervin, the brains and brawn behind the re-creation of the Oregon District into the new Oregon Arts District, approached Tornatore with an idea: Invite artists into the empty Excelsior to keep it alive until the economy recovered.

It worked. Last spring, Elsass moved his studio into the second floor, where he now creates his large acrylic-on-rusted-steel abstracts. He brought in a dozen other young painters to create what they dubbed “Summer Space,” and invited the public in for events.

Down in the first-floor “Pit,” as Elsass calls it, he does live painting events and got the local SMAG dance troupe to perform.

The newest addition: Space 11 on the third floor, where seven young sculptors, most of them with Wright State connections — Landon Crowell, Ryan McCullough, Bradley Cahill, Michael Goodson, Sadie Edwards, Gregory Clem and Ian Breidenbach — have launched a huge gallery unlike anything else in town.

It’s for abstract installation works too big to show anywhere else. The 7,000 square feet available on each floor of the Excelsior is perfect for pieces that call for lumber, concrete, wiring, balloons, ladders — or, in one case, a dozen TV sets placed together in a circle.

Space 11 opens tonight for First Friday, Sept. 4, and the exhibition, “Show 1: Satellite” will be open next Friday and Saturday and Sept. 18 and 19 from noon to 8 p.m.

“There is an audience here for large-scale works, and a lot of people are making them,” McCullough said, “but until now there’s never been a place to show them.”

Said Cahill: “It’s been the little bit missing in Dayton” and its growing arts scene.

“We’d like to see installations move to the forefront of the burgeoning arts scene,” Crowell said. “We’d like to see this become something of a magnet” for other artists, and they’ve already got the next few shows in the works — including artists from Chicago and elsewhere. “We’re going to keep the shows going,” and they see the space having potential for filmmaking, as well.

All three artists believe what they’re doing in Space 11, and the Excelsior, are part of a larger creative movement brewing in Dayton that seems about to reach some sort of important peak.

“Stuff is bubbling, that’s a good word for it,” Crowell said. “It feels to me as though an air bubble is moving up through water and you have that surface tension, right before it breaks through. I feel like something is going to break.”

Agrees McCullough, “Different groups of artists are becoming galvanized.”

Tornatore is pleased to see what’s happening in his building, but he knows it’s temporary. Eventually, he’ll likely have to build those condos to pay the bills, and even though the artists are paying a little bit to use the space, it’s not quite enough to cover his costs.

Still, Elsass and the others are grateful to him for what’s happened so far on his watch, and with his sufferance, and are happy to ride this out. “When we have to move, we’ll go squat in another empty building,” he says with a laugh, paintbrush in hand. “We’re getting good at this.”