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Arts center called boon to business district

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Jan Pakler/For the Tribune-Review
Painting instructor Trudy Johns helps student Sofia Novak-Bruni work with acrylic paint on canvas during a Saturday, March 4, 2017, class at the New Kensington Arts Center.
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Jan Pakler
Paula Renee Brown works on soft sculpture art dolls on Saturday, March 4, 2017, at the New Kensington Arts Center on Fifth Avenue.
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Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Tommy West (right) and Don Henderson (left) chat at the New Kensington Arts Center on Friday, Feb. 24, 2017. West is on the center's board, and Henderson is the president. In the foreground is a painting in an exhibit by Charles 'Bud' Gibbons.
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Jan Pakler/For the Tribune-Review
Lexus Sabotha, 10, begins the process of picking glass pieces that she will use to make a mosaic cross during classes on Saturday, March 4, 2017, at the New Kensington Arts Center.
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Robert Sudy teaches digiital photography on Saturday, March 4, 2017, at the New Kensington Arts Center on Fifth Avenue.

Leaders of the year-old New Kensington Arts Center like their progress so far — not just in scheduling painting, photography and other art workshops but in attracting visitors to the city’s Fifth Avenue business district.

The center’s open gallery and artist market events, typically on the second and fourth Friday nights of each month, draw people who peruse photos, sculptures, and oil paintings and watercolors displayed in first-floor rooms at the former Career Training Academy medically related trade school.

The three-story building has entrances off Fifth Avenue and off of Barnes Street, which runs parallel to Fifth and has a parking lot nearby.

“It’s good to see that parking lot filled on a Friday night,” said Bob Sudy, the center’s projects director, education chairman and instructor for monthly digital photography sessions, referring to the gallery events.

And with a variety of weekend workshops, ranging from digital photography to glass mosaic techniques, “It’s good to see the streets lined with cars on Saturday,” he said. “We haven’t seen that in New Kensington in years.”

New Kensington Camera Club members started the arts center in early 2016 after John Reddy, who owns the 15,000-square-foot building, and real estate agent Marvin Birner offered it to the club, rent-free for four months. Bill Hall, the arts center’s treasurer, said the group now pays rent but declined to specify the amount.

Since then, the center has become a teaching and social space, and is envisioned as a place where novice and advanced artists will be able to use equipment such as 3-D printers that they don’t own.

“It was a lot more than we needed for a camera club,” said Tommy West, a center board member, referring to the building, “so we created an arts center.”

West helps to staff the center on a volunteer basis, and he donated some photo equipment along with art books for the first-floor library.

Don Henderson, the center’s president, envisions gutting the first floor eventually to make large, open gallery spaces — “something that has a wow factor” — along with a cafe and retail space.

New Kensington Mayor Tom Guzzo said an advisory board with about eight representatives from the city, academic institutions, a bank and foundations is being created to help raise funds to improve the center, while artists who run the center focus on expanding programming.

“It’s been a tremendous addition to downtown and also, it’s played a nice role in our revitalization efforts,” Guzzo said, referring to the city’s downtown, where many buildings are vacant. “All cities that are moving forward have an arts component.”

Rotating exhibits are held in what once was a uniform shop for Career Training Academy students; the school moved to Lower Burrell in late 2015.

The current display of paintings by Charles “Bud” Gibbons, professor emeritus of visual arts at Penn State New Kensington, runs through March 11.

Vacant classrooms on the building’s two upper floors and in the basement are potential work and education spaces.

Donated photo enlargers, a cylindrical, revolving darkroom door and piles of canvases, brushes and other supplies are stored in some rooms.

Center leaders said they plan to set up a photo studio with special lighting and backdrops, a space for working with digital images, a matting, framing and wood crafting area and a 3-D printing center.

Local artists could rent some of the smaller upstairs rooms as studios, Henderson said.

Terri Bertha of Allegheny Township has been to a few programs and said she likes the center’s variety of lessons and the open markets.

“They’re trying to revitalize New Kensington,” Bertha, an East Suburban Artists League member, said of the arts center’s leaders. She learned about the center through Patti Giordano, an East Suburban league member who also is president of the Allegheny Valley League of Artists.

The Allegheny Valley league is involved in planning programs at the New Kensington center. “We are trying to get all kinds of art there,” Giordano said.

Most workshops at the center draw between 10 and 30 people, Henderson said, and arts center members pay reduced fees.

Outside artists who teach sessions typically are paid 50 percent of fees collected.

“There are so many people in this Valley who are so talented,” Hall said. “The idea was bringing the artists in, and we’ll work together at getting art shows. We’re inspired by each other’s work.”

Artist Trudy Johns, who runs weekly painting and drawing classes, said the center filled a recent, trial-run painting party with 16 attendees.

“A lot of people were asking, ‘When are you going to do more of that,’” Johns said.

She said more could be scheduled and the center hopes to book corporate outings and birthday parties.

“We think that will bring more people in,” she said, “and there’s a lot more going on than just painting. There is sculpture and other work.”

Kim Leonard is a Tribune-Review staff writer. She can be reached at 724-226-4674 or [email protected].

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