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Downtown Pittsburgh gallery for Black, brown and queer artists disputes eviction

BLaQK House supporters pose with artwork from the Downtown gallery on First Avenue the day of the group's eviction.
Bill O'Driscoll
90.5 WESA
BLaQK House supporters pose with artwork from the Downtown gallery on First Avenue on the day of the group's eviction.

A Downtown gallery spotlighting Black, brown and queer artists has closed its doors in a dispute with its landlord. Gallery owners said they were evicted illegally, while the landlord said the tenants defaulted on the lease.

BLaQK House Collections shuttered Monday after a 21-month run at a space on First Avenue. Volunteers helped empty the gallery that afternoon.

BLaQK House Collections co-owner Nicky Jo Dawson.
Bill O'Driscoll
90.5 WESA News
BLaQK House Collections co-owner Nicky Jo Dawson.

The gallery represents 32 artists and has curated work for venues including nearby Black co-working space Emerald City, Hill District arts center Nafasi on Centre Avenue and the offices of Mayor Ed Gainey.

On June 15, building owner Todd Palcic sued the gallery in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court, claiming that it had defaulted on its lease. Co-owners Nicky Jo Dawson and Cynthia Kenderson said the lease renewed automatically, and that it is paid through this October.

“We actually have no problem with leaving if that’s truly what he wants. But we want our due process,” Dawson said Monday at the gallery, where some 30 supporters had gathered to protest the closure.

Dawson said her group was locked out by Palcic on June 19 — the weekend of the Juneteenth holiday celebrating Black freedom, and she called that timing insulting. June is also Pride Month, she noted, and both Dawson and Kenderson are Black and queer.

Dawson said gallery staff arrived at the space to find that the doors had been glued shut. On June 24, Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Daniel Regan required BLaQK House to pay $400 to Palcic for a locksmith to allow access to remove its art and other property. Regan required BLaQK House to vacate the premises by 5 p.m. Monday.

Supporters who turned out Monday praised BLaQK House.

“What they’re doing down here is amazing,” said Saundra Coley McKey. “[I]t’s given black people away to show their talents, their gifts.”

Kenderson added that BLaQK House is among the more-affordable event spaces Downtown.

Palcic is a businessman and president of O’Hara Township-based Thar Process Inc.

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Kenderson said she previously worked for Thar, and that Palcic suggested the space to her as a way to realize her vision of a community art initiative. BLaQK House opened in October 2020.

A copy of the lease Palcic submitted with his lawsuit indicates the rent was $1 a month. The lease, signed by Dawson and Kenderson, was set to expire on Oct. 1, 2021, but a box reading “Automatic Renewal” is checked in the document, which was submitted with Palcic's suit.

Palcic also submitted as evidence a “notice to quit” addressed to Kenderson and Dawson and dated Feb. 12, 2022. The notice stated he had rented the space to them “at almost no charge … for over a year because you were my friend with the understanding that after a year you would have to pay the market rate.”

Also in the notice, he wrote that he offered them new lease terms that they didn’t accept, and that he was now ordering them to vacate the premises. In the notice, Palcic added that other tenants in the building had complained to him about noise from events at the space. He also asserted that the venue is not “zoned for” use as an event space.

Palcic responded to phone messages from WESA seeking comment after this story was originally published. At that time, he provided WESA with copies of emails between himself and Kenderson from Oct. 7 and 8, 2020, that he said supported his contention that the two of them had agreed the below-market lease was for one year only, and that any subsequent rental would be at closer to market rate.

Kenderson and Dawson said Monday they have paid for the space through this October. They dismissed claims of noise complaints. Kenderson said she had always represented to Palcic that the venue would be used as a gallery and event space, and that Palcic himself had attended several events there.

The building, which houses First Avenue Lofts on its upper floors, is located in a special Downtown planning district that includes a nearby hotel, restaurants, offices and residences.

In an interview, Palcic disputed that the co-owners of the gallery had fulfilled the terms of the original lease.

"She never even paid a dollar," he said of Kenderson. He also said their original agreement involved the use of the space as a cafe that showed art, not as a space for large events. But he said he didn't initially confront Kenderson about this because of their friendship, and because he assumed the gallery would be leaving the space in October 2021.

For the same reason, he said, he had considered the lease "a formality."

"I'm really heartbroken," he said. "I completely trusted Cynthia."

Dawson said BLaQK House had contacted Gainey's office about the dispute. Mayoral spokesperson Maria Montano declined comment.

Interviewed Monday, Kenderson emphasized that BLaQK House is not a space but “a movement of artistic expression,” and that its activities would continue. Dawson said the group had found places to store the artwork it removed from its former gallery.

Updated: June 29, 2022 at 8:32 PM EDT
This story has been revised to add comments from building owner Todd Palcic.
Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: