Building a 21st Century Arts Center with parProjects

Who would have thought old shipping containers could be trendy?

Jonathan Sears and Chris Hoeting do. The two artists have joined forces with the community of Northside to redefine the phrase "permanent art exhibit." Their project - to build a Northside art and education center out of recycled shipping containers, combines new architecture, green building, and artistic creativity in a way never before seen in Cincinnati. parProjects, the organization they founded to develop this idea, is discovering success through a collaboration of architects, engineers, community residents and art enthusiasts. They see this project as part of a new generation of creative centers for the arts and another healthy expression of Northside's growing artistic community.

Like many good things, parProjects started with what looked like a fiasco. Sears and Hoeting, grad school friends and professional artists, had planned to open a conventional art gallery in Northside when a dispute with the building owner led to eviction and homeless pieces of art stacked on the hot sidewalk. Disappointed but undaunted, the artists rented a U-Haul truck and put on a successful gallery exhibition with the help of Northside businesses and art supporters.

Using the U-Haul got them thinking about temporary locations, art, and "wanting to include the community outside of the typical gallery situation, which is always there, everyday," recalls Hoeting. Art displayed in a temporary structure and location was innovative and matched the evolving personality of Cincinnati's arts community and emerging artistic presence in Northside. Hoeting was a native to Cincinnati, but Sears was a newcomer and excited about the area's artists.

"Cincinnati's art scene is exceptional," he believes, because of the many levels within it - from the established artist to the less established, from young to old. "And the architecture of the city lends itself to the art consciousness here," says Hoeting, referring to the high-styled elements and ornamentation on its old buildings and the sense of time and place that the historic streetscapes project.

A conversation about this temporary structure idea started with moving trucks, then moved to semi-trucks, and finally led to shipping containers. Ed Staples, owner of BEI Benedict in Middletown, had been selling containers for storage needs for years and generously offered a 45x8x10 foot container at no cost to Sears and Hoeting to stage their first shipping container exhibition. Last October, "The State of Matter: Glass Exhibition" opened, with a week of programming that ranged from glass blowing and flame-work demonstrations to open studios and artist talks. Twelve artists from the Cincinnati community were represented in the exhibition. Visitors to the glass exhibition were intrigued by this clever use of a shipping container. Steven Bloomfield, of Bloomfield/Schon + Partners was particularly interested: his firm is developing Factory Square, the largest residential building in Northside with close to one hundred new apartments.

"Steve started the momentum," says Sears, by helping the young artists connect with Cincinnati officials and engineers to review their plan for a permanent art center and make sure it could pass muster with city ordinances. Even better, Bloomfield offered space for a temporary art center in front of the Factory Square complex; plans now are for the permanent art center to be located just behind the Factory Square development.

And, still, even more folks have come forward to help. Bob Sala, who had generously offered the use of his Northside property for the glass exhibition, introduced the artists to Tom Bible. An associate professor of structural engineering in the University of Cincinnati's DAAP program, Bible offered his time and attention to all the structural engineering work for the project. In Sears' words, "he made sure that it could be built." Another graduate school friend, Brian Sykes, helped with architectural details.

Reusing old shipping containers - those boxcar-sized structures that carry everything from Asian-manufactured toys to car parts around the globe - is not a new idea. In recent years, European and Asian architects have created office and residential spaces, including row houses, apartment buildings and student housing, out of these versatile steel structures. Blocked and stacked like giant Legos, the containers' modular nature allows for flexibility in shaping the large design to occupants' specific needs.

"More people are looking for ways to use these shipping containers as alternative construction elements," say Hoeting. With a current global surplus of containers, converting them into buildings is both cost effective and environmentally friendly. "It's a true green design…reuse, renew, recycle." It was a mobile art gallery in Oslo, Norway, that initially caught Sears and Hoeting's attention and introduced them to the idea of a permanent art gallery made of shipping containers.

Phase 1 of the parProjects plan is a one story, mobile structure with gallery and education spaces and an artist studio. Hoeting and Sears now hope that their supporters will click away between May 1 and May 31 to vote for parProjects in the Pepsi Refresh contest. The contest prize of $50,000 is enough to build the first phase of their long-term dream of a Northside community art center.

"Northside lacks a central hub but it has some of the most exciting art programs in the city," Hoeting says, including Prairie, a gallery and art education space; Happen, Inc, offering free children's programs centered on the arts; and Visionaries and Voices, which encourages the artistic talents of disabled adults. Hoeting and Sears see these kinds of art programs and organizations as possible collaborators with their project and integral to the future of the art community in Northside.

Margy Waller, VP with ArtsWave and frequent visitor to Northside, believes that Sears, Hoeting and parProjects is helping to remake this neighborhood.

"In Northside, you see a naturally developing, organic art community growing. And once something [like this] starts, it builds momentum for change in the community." 

Photography by Scott Beseler.
Chris Hoeting
and Jonathan Sears
Par Project Phase 3
Factory Square site
Par Project Phase 1
Northside Artworks mural
Par Project U-haul gallery
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