ALMA|LEWIS, an art space in the East End, opened its doors in the fall of 2021 and was formally incorporated by its founder Kilolo Luckett five years ago. But in many ways, it is the concrete expression of an idea Luckett has nursed for decades.
An art historian and curator with two decades of art administration under her belt in Pittsburgh, Luckett has crafted a very specific mission for the nonprofit that embodies her belief that the role of artists, art historians and curators is to always ask questions.
“Alma | Lewis is an experimental contemporary art platform for critical thinking, constructive dialogue and creative expression dedicated to Black culture,” Luckett says.
The exceptionally well-designed art space occupies 2,200 square feet on the second floor of the X Factory, a warehouse on Lynn Way in Point Breeze that caters to nonprofits, ambitious startups and businesses specializing in light industrial manufacturing.
The art space combines the names of early 20th-century painter Alma Thomas, who has been cited as a “godmother of abstract painting,” and painter Norman Lewis, the winner of the top art prize at the 1955 Carnegie International.
“Norman Lewis was the first African American to win the big prize,” Luckett says. “Teenie Harris took pictures of the winning art for the Courier, but there’s no evidence Lewis himself ever came to Pittsburgh to accept the award.”
Luckett never learned about these African American trailblazers during her formative years in Mississippi and in Harrisburg, and only stumbled across their names while doing independent research in college and grad school. She doesn’t want another generation of students to exit school without recognizing the achievements of great artists whose contributions are often overlooked because of the color of their skin.
To that end, ALMA|LEWIS was designed as a multi-faceted art space that highlights, celebrates and interrogates contemporary Black art and artists. It consists of a spacious exhibition gallery that prioritizes both emerging and mid-career artists.
ALMA|LEWIS also offers three-month residencies for visiting artists that include a $15,000 honorarium and a $3,000 stipend for food, transportation and supplies.
A fully equipped private work studio next to the gallery is also included, along with a one-room apartment several blocks away. Resident artists can also attend classes at partnering institutions such as The Frick Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh Center for Arts and Media and Community Forge for free.
Artists are expected to work on their projects full-time, but they’re not expected to present work “for sale” so the gallery can get a cut when their residencies end.
“With the resident artists, we say their process is the product,” Luckett says. “It’s not about making work to show people at the end.”
The ALMA|LEWIS Black Archive, as it has been dubbed, features books, articles and ephemera relating to Black art and art history. Hundreds of books cataloged and arranged on shelves that run the length of the conference room contain both academic, popular, rare and out-of-print books that are available to scholars and researchers. Not all of the books can circulate, but those interested in a non-circulating book can set up shop at the conference table.
Luckett initially raised $250,000 in small and large donations from people she knew to get ALMA|LEWIS off the ground and into what can only be described as a dream space. Last year, the Hillman Foundation and the Heinz Endowments made $150,000 grants for “operational and capacity growing” costs.
“Whenever you walk in this space, you are free,” Luckett says. “All of the programming that we do from our gallery shows to resident artists to the Black Archives is to help [visitors] become unencumbered.”
Dear readers: I hope you’re enjoying the change of pace in my weekly column in NEXTpittsburgh as much as I am. I’m also co-hosting a new podcast with my friend and fellow journalist Natalie Bencivenga. “In Other News” is now streaming on our website, YouTube, plus Spotify, Apple and Google Podcasts.
On Tuesday, Feb. 21, ALMA|LEWIS is hosting a free open house and artist talk with the studio’s new artist-in-residence, Yaw Owusu. Read more about the event here.
Tony Norman’s column is underwritten by The Pittsburgh Foundation as part of its efforts to support writers and commentators who cover communities of color that historically have been misrepresented or ignored by mainstream journalism.