The arts community reels as the Vanderelli Room prepares to close

Nearly a decade after opening her landmark Franklinton gallery, AJ Vanderelli is set to walk away as the calendar turns to 2024.
AJ Vanderelli inside the Vanderelli Room
AJ Vanderelli inside the Vanderelli RoomCourtesy AJ Vanderelli

The Vanderelli Room started nearly a decade ago almost as a lark, with founder and operator AJ Vanderelli debuting the name in a Strongwater dining room where she curated art while a tenant at 400 West Rich.

“Kris Howell was managing [Strongwater], and we were sitting in there when he was walking by, and I was like, ‘Hey, can I put up my art in here?’ And he was like, ‘Okay,’ and kept walking,” Vanderelli said. “And then we were all talking, and [artist] Walter Herrmann was like, ‘You’ve gotta call it the Vanderelli Room. You’ve gotta call it the Vanderelli Room.’ And he kept saying it, and I was like, ‘It sounds stupid.’ And then when Kris walked back through, I was like, ‘And can I call it the Vanderelli Room?’ And he was like, ‘Okay,’ and again he kept walking.”

This pair of passing “okays” set Vanderelli on a nearly 10-year adventure and emphatically changed the trajectory of the arts community living and working in the Franklinton neighborhood.

In that time, the gallery, which settled into its current space at 218 McDowell St. nine years ago and will close its doors at the end of December as developers chart a new course for the building, emerged not only as a spot that helped launch the careers of countless artists but also as a place of connection where creatives would gather to blow off steam and brainstorm exhibits and potential collaborations. Oftentimes, these conversations happened between artists seated at a table that once belonged to Vanderelli’s mother, which the gallerist set outside at McDowell Street, the seating area overlooking a wide, open lot that Chris Sherman, former local vice president of development for Urban Smart Growth, described as “the neighborhood’s park.”

“I have my certain chair that I want to have when I’m out there,” said painter and Returning Artists Guild co-founder Aimee Wissman, who credited Vanderelli with opening her eyes to the reality that she could even pursue a career as an artist. “I have so many good memories of just meeting people and spending time and connecting and sharing collaborative ideas, like, ‘Oh, you need to meet this person.’ If you just sat down at that table on any given day, you were going to have some awesome interactions, because you knew other interesting people were going to be coming through there.”

Vanderelli happened into the role of gallerist at a time of deep transition, recalling how she landed as an artist tenant at 400 West Rich in the wake of a divorce and at a point when she was just beginning to explore what she actually wanted from her own life. “Being a person in the cog, you’re like, okay, I’m a woman. I need to get married. I need to have babies. And I started going down that path and it was like, ah, this is just not me,” Vanderelli said. “And then meeting the artists through CCAD, and meeting professors there who pointed me to Milo [Arts] and that community, it started to open things up.”

Living at Milo Arts, Vanderelli came to appreciate the sparks that could be generated randomly within communal spaces, recalling how she would spend hours sitting with artists such as Chris Tennant and Andy Moss, talking for hours about everything down the types of mixtures each would use for glazing works. “I was on fire when I was in that space. It just always popped off,” Vanderelli said. “We would have bonfires, and someone would be like, ‘I’m working on this thing,’ and immediately it’d be like, ‘Let’s go check it out!’ And we’d run to the studio to see what they were working on, and it was beautiful.”

These interactions impacted how she later approached the creation of the Vanderelli Room, hammering home the importance of building in spaces where artists could “sit, be still and communicate with each other,” Vanderelli said.

Artwork by David Butler at the Vanderelli Room
Artwork by David Butler at the Vanderelli RoomCourtesy AJ Vanderelli

In discussing the early years at McDowell Street, however, few of Vanderelli’s recollections suggest stillness. She described the space, which served as a church at some point prior to Vanderelli taking over the lease, as existing in a wild state of flux, playing home to house concerts, loose exhibits and spillover from afterhours parties. On nights that nearby neighbors hosted dances, which occasionally included random bursts of fireworks, the room would be converted into a de facto dog kennel as a means of keeping anxious pups isolated from the noise – a role that did little to improve the condition of the tight-knit indoor/outdoor carpet that covered the entirety of the gallery floor.

“Laura Daily, her mom, Jan, she was like one of my mom’s, and she came over like, ‘Oh, honey. I don’t know,’” said Vanderelli, who eventually tore up the carpet and painted the floors. “But then they were all super impressed, because I cleaned her up and she was fine.”

Over the course of months, Vanderelli spiffed up the space, assisted by friends such as Sherman and James Kindler, who installed the track lighting in the gallery, providing his labor free of charge. She also immersed herself in learning the business of gallery operations, often soliciting the advice of Duff Lindsay, founder of Lindsay Gallery in the Short North, who was blunt in his assessment of what she could expect running an art space. “He was like, ‘You’re not gonna make shit,’” Vanderelli said, and laughed.

And then, gradually, the room started to find its voice, which multiple people interviewed described as a reflection of Vanderelli’s personality.

“She will give you everything she has, if she knows that you need it, and not even think twice about herself,” said Amy Hess, whose son, the artist Henry Hess, essentially grew up in the Vanderelli Room. “She is the essence of community. She exudes it. She builds it. She feeds it. She nurtures it. And the gallery reflects that. Through her, we have met everyone who is in our lives right now. And I think so many people would say the same thing.”

“She is that openness that everyone feels there,” Wissman said. “The vibe of that space is her. You couldn’t have one without the other. Sometimes you need a hype man. Sometimes you need someone who’s going to move mountains for you, and I’ve seen her pour so much of herself into other people.”

While the gallery reflected its founder in spirit, those interviewed said Vanderelli still displayed a soft touch as a curator, offering suggestions on best hanging practices but allowing the artists to shape the look and feel of an exhibit in a way that best represented their work. “The beauty of AJ’s space is that it wasn’t run by a curator or a gallerist or a collector. It was run by an artist,” said Wissman, a self-taught artist who first met Vanderelli shortly after she got out of prison in 2018, having learned about the gallery when it hosted a show by incarcerated painter Dean Preston. “And that first show with Dean was huge, because I never imagined an incarcerated person could have a solo show on the outside. That wasn’t an idea that even crossed my mind when I was inside painting.”

Similarly, Marcus Blackwell recalled a Harlem Renaissance-themed exhibit Vanderelli created in 2018 for which a number of the city’s Black artists contributed work influenced by the Harlem Renaissance, an early to mid-1900s artistic movement that started within the Black community in Harlem and spread across the county, flowering in places that included Columbus’ Bronzeville neighborhood. 

“And I don’t know if it was opening night or just set up, but there were a bunch of us Black artists outside at a table, and it was just us,” said Blackwell, who was joined in this conversation by artists that included Raeghan Buchanan, Lisa McClymont and Eric Murphy, among others. “And one of my friends, who happens to be my studio mate, she stood up and she goes, ‘You know what’s cool about this moment here? This is Black people talking to Black people about Black stuff, and there isn’t a white voice here to challenge it, or to insert itself. And it’s a beautiful, rare thing for us to be able to do that.’ And what happened after that is we all just kind of sat there for a minute, because it was beautiful, but we were also taking into account that, yeah, it is sort of rare for us to be able to sit around and talk as people of color who make art. And it’s one of my most vivid, indelible memories of the place, and it goes back to AJ creating a space that allowed for this kind of epiphany.”

Art by Dana Lynn Harper at the Vanderelli Room
Art by Dana Lynn Harper at the Vanderelli RoomCourtesy AJ Vanderelli

The Vanderelli Room filled a unique role within the Columbus art scene, artist Dana Lynn Harper said, with the gallerist creating a room that felt at once curated and accessible, which Harper described as a challenging line to walk, and one that she doesn’t in existence anywhere else in the city.

“She’s managed to preserve that accessibility while also maintaining that validation that comes from having a solo show in a well-known place, where it still means something to have an exhibit,” Harper said. “And it takes a really genuine person who is in-tune with their community in order to pull that off.”

Vanderelli said her “schtick,” as she termed it, is that she wants each artist to reach their potential, and if she can aid this process in some way, she wants to. The gallerist traced this urge in part to a difficult childhood, recalling the years she grew up amongst relatives afflicted with bipolar disorder, muscular dystrophy and a variety of addictions. “And then I’m the middle child, too, so I’m always trying to make sure everyone is all right,” Vanderelli said. “And that’s who I am. If I can, I will.”

Amy Hess said she viewed this care countless times over the nearly 10 years she’s known Vanderelli, crediting her not only with helping her son, Henry, who has autism, with reaching new peaks as an artist, but also with opening her eyes to the kind of life that could be possible for her son. “She really saw his talent and ability, and then she brought us along into understanding … the world of the arts,” Hess said. “She has always been incredibly kind and interested and intuitive with Henry, where she could sit quietly with him, and she could understand him in a way we never could, because we didn’t know that art piece. … She was immediately family to us, almost like the piece of the puzzle that was missing.”

Everyone interviewed lamented what is going to be lost with the closure of the Vanderelli Room, with Sherman describing it as the latest in a series of ongoing changes to Franklinton that for a time left him questioning the artistic future of the neighborhood. “It’s one of those things that is inevitable, but I’ve been concerned about the creative direction of the neighborhood starting to fade,” said Sherman, who allowed that he has been buoyed by the resurgence of energy he’s seen at 400 Square.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen with the building, and maybe somebody else will move in there, but it’s never going to be the same,” Hess said. “That’s been a place where if you’re locked out, if you don’t have some place to go, it’s a place to land. If you want to see art, if you want to create art, it’s a place to land. It’s such a community space for so many people that the loss feels insurmountable.”

When news about changes around the 400 West Rich campus started to break early in 2023, and the reality began to set in that this could be the gallery’s final year of operation, Vanderelli reiterated that the Vanderelli Room was more than a building, setting the stage for another chapter, which is currently in flux.

In January, Vanderelli will curate a sprawling exhibit at WitchLab dubbed “Transitions” and featuring art from dozens of the creators with whom she has forged relationships over the past decade. After that, she intends to take some time away to decompress and figure out what might come next, with February looming as the first month in nearly nine years where she’s not working at a sprint and preparing to launch a new exhibit.

“I really want to spend time next year exploring other spaces. I’ve been in my bubble so long, and I want to get out into Columbus and explore other spaces and talk to people and see what’s working for them,” said Vanderelli, standing in the middle of the gallery, where her thoughts drifted to the number of times that she must have mopped the spacy's craggy, uneven floor. “Hundreds? A thousand or more maybe? … For so long, it’s been either I go to my apartment, or I come here. And now it will be there, but not here, which is still weird to think about.”

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