Barbara Luderowski fell in love with Pittsburgh in the early 1970s, when most outsiders – and not a few locals – were having the opposite reaction. It was still an old mill town whose population was gradually leaking away.
But Luderowski, a sculptor and industrial designer, was on a business trip and saw something here. A widow, she left Michigan with her young daughter to renovate a house on the Mexican War Streets. Not long after, she purchased a former mattress factory nearby and began turning the six-story building into an arts center, complete with vegetarian co-op cafe.
Those were the roots of the Mattress Factory Museum, now an internationally known venue and one of Pittsburgh’s own art hubs, as well as a top tourist draw. Luderowski died Wednesday at age 88, at home in her loft-style apartment on the top floor of the building she turned into a landmark long before the existence of The Andy Warhol Museum, the Carnegie Science Center and other North Side cultural destinations.
The Mattress Factory is more than a museum. It specializes in original installation art – commissioned, cutting-edge, room-sized works that are typically dismantled after the exhibition runs end.
Contributing artists come from all around the world, around the nation and from Pittsburgh itself. Luderowski and longtime co-director Michael Olijnyk were renowned for their ability to make any wild project happen, whether it required sawing through floors, installing a pool of paint in the museum’s lobby or trucking in tons of dirt for an experimental sculpture.
Frequent Mattress Factory contributors have included the internationally known artist James Turrell, who has works on permanent display. The museum has also grown to include two nearby rowhouses, both brimming with art.
“I’ve really seen the Mattress Factory support creative practice, and really intelligent creative practice,” said Pittsburgh-based artist Maritza Mosquera, who said she moved to Pittsburgh in the early 1990s because of the work she saw on a visit to the museum. “And because it was world-renowned, the funding was good, so you could really as an artist relax and create. … It’s a Pittsburgh regional thing that is international."
The museum says it draws more than 28,000 walk-in visitors per year. Allegheny County credits it as the county’s second-most-visited destination, after the Warhol.
Luderowski was known for her no-nonsense demeanor, but she was also an eager collaborator and open to new ideas.
Karla Boos, artistic director of Quantum Theatre, recalls approaching Luderowski, whom she did not then know, about staging a play in the museum’s famous basement, with its bare stone walls.
“She didn’t know me from Adam,” said Boos. “And she just looked me up and down and said [imitating Luderowski’s gruff tone], ‘All right! Here’s the keys! Be careful! Be sure to lock up. See you in a couple months!’”
Quantum staged the play, Knives in Hens, in 1998. Boos and Luderowski became friends and did other collaborations.
“My world was so expanded by the art that I saw at The Mattress Factory, is still, and I think it's because she set that tone by being a person that doesn't have any any box around her,” Boos said. “There's been nobody more important in my professional development than Barbara was to me.”
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald also released a statement.
“Barbara was a true visionary and dynamic force for the thriving and nationally renowned arts community we have in Pittsburgh,” he said. “Her and Michael Olijnyk’s leadership at the Mattress Factory and beyond has helped lead Pittsburgh to the vibrancy we see today.”
Memorial plans for Luderowski are pending, according to a statement by the Mattress Factory.