Neon Heater Gallery
Text by CM Turner
Portrait by Egan Parks
Findlay, Ohio, “Flag City, U.S.A,” is a rustbelt city hovering around 41,000 residents. Distanced a hundred and twenty or so miles west of Cleveland, and a hundred and sixty miles north of Cincinnati, it is a thoroughly Mid- western locale. The largest area employers include Whirlpool, Marathon Petroleum, and Cooper Tire & Rubber Company. With a population that is approximately ninety-one percent white, homogeny is the de facto state of affairs. “Quaint,” “nice,” and “rural” are adjectives that come to mind when describing the city. It is not exactly the kind of place you would expect to find one of the state’s most exciting contemporary art galleries, but that is exactly why Ian Breidenbach and Emily Jay run The Neon Heater in Findlay, Ohio.
Since opening in November of 2012, the mission of The Neon Heater has been to integrate contemporary art into the culture of rural communities and smaller cities. As Breidenbach puts it, “We want The Heater to create awareness of new ideas, to be inclusive and open, and to inspire thought and discussion... We’ve always had the belief that New York doesn’t need us, but Findlay does. We try to bring in amazing artists and artworks to the people who have limited abilities or avenue to see this type of work... Art is everywhere in New York, art is everywhere in LA... if we’re going to expand any worldviews, art needs to be everywhere else too.”
Breidenbach acknowledges that there are “more traditional” venues for art in the city of Findlay, with the expected assortment of local artists’ water- color and photographic landscapes, but for more conceptually driven work, outside of the universities in the area, The Neon Heater seems to stand alone. This can be a bit tough at times. “Our target audience is most defi- nitely the people who live here, and they are our focus. We are always trying to engage with the people of Findlay first, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve succeeded. Being a contemporary art space in a city without an actual art scene has its challenges. The bulk of our audience has been online or from outside of Findlay.”
Located on the second floor of an historic walkup, The Neon Heater feels very much like a gallery one might find in Manhattan’s Lower East Side neighborhood, with one notable exception. The Neon Heater “...operates almost entirely outside of the realm of consumerism, allowing for experi- mentation and creative freedom devoid of financial concerns,” Breidenbach states. “I think the art world has gotten so big... artists are feeling the need to get outside of it in order to actually do interesting things.”
This experimental ethos and focus on quality of work and conceptual in- vestigation versus potential sales has prompted a wide variety of exhibition themes and designs, from emerging and established artists alike. Exploring the exhibition archives on the gallery’s website, it becomes quickly appar- ent that Breidenbach and Jay have tapped into a network of post-internet artists who are pushing the boundaries of their media. When it comes to lens-based and installation work, The Neon Heater carries some of the best programming in the region, showcasing works by artists such as Rick Silva, Jordan Tate, Roxana Azar, Casey James Wilson, Justin Hodges, and Rachel Rampleman.
Breidenbach relates, “We have always wanted the artists we work with to have total freedom with the space. We don’t curate the shows; we curate the artists that we work with. Once we invite an artist to show at the Heater, the space is theirs to do whatever they want with it. They have the freedom to play around with new ideas they might not have fully explored, to see new work outside of their studios and experiment in a place where the stakes aren’t as high as they could be in a commercially driven gallery.”
Echoing this sentiment, Jay adds, “I love to see how artists navigate the space. Some artists just send us their work and trust us to hang it and create the show, which is a real honor, and a really fun opportunity to engage with another person’s art in an intense way. Then there are artists who come in and play in the space and then after a day or two, there is a beautiful show up. I love to see that process unfold.”
In visiting the gallery and speaking with Breidenbach and Jay, it’s easy to see their devotion to the ideals they’re upholding with The Neon Heater. The commitment is evidenced further when they discuss their current and on- going projects set to strengthen the contemporary art scene throughout the region. In May of 2017 the duo launched Current-OH, an online platform dedicated to organizing and promoting the artist-run and independent ven- ues throughout the state of Ohio. Breidenbach relates that the experience of finding new independent venues and meeting the arts facilitators involved in these disparate projects has been especially rewarding, “Regionally, I think Ohio has a lot of really great stuff going on, and up until recently, I’m not even sure I knew about it all... I think that organizing everyone to- gether has been a really good thing. It helps get the awareness out there that we’re active and always doing things...”
Connected to this idea of community are the art tours Breidenbach and
Jay build into their practices. Per Breidenbach, the tours are essentially road trips, “... where we put together a route of pop-up shows, creating shows and events by coordinating with other artist-run galleries around the country. We make long lists of artists we want to work with, where we want to travel, how much time we can get off work... and then try to create some sort of loose concept for the year and build that way.”
In moving toward fulfillment of their gallery mission, Breidenbach and Jay see their efforts to bring contemporary art into the culture of rural communities and smaller cities as part of a larger movement that is beginning to take root across the country. “It’s starting to hap- pen,” they assert, “there are spaces and people with a lot of drive springing up outside of the cultural centers. You have Kate Mothes in Wisconsin, Haynes Riley in Arkansas, Lind- sey Stapleton and Corey Oberlander in Rhode Island, Andy Kincaid out in Wyoming, The Tiger Strikes Asteroid crews, which, mind you, are all in cities, but I feel like they are the moles, spying on the art world, feeding us all information on how to survive. And we’re all talking, which is the interesting part. I think maybe one of the problems with the art world is that every gallery is trying to make a name for themselves, trying to be bigger and better and sell more, whereas we’re all working together.”
Perhaps this neighbor helping neighbor approach has something to do with the thoroughly Mid-western locale of The Neon Heater. While Breidenbach and Jay have been endeavor- ing to shape the culture in the city of Findlay, perhaps the city of Findlay has been actively shaping their approach to The Neon Heater. This, of course, is the ultimate goal of any arts institution committed to its community, to exist in a mutually beneficial sphere of influ- ence. Breidenbach and Jay have committed themselves to an investment in the city of Find- lay, Ohio. The hope is that the residents of the city endeavor to return the favor, matching the enthusiasm that visiting artists bring when mounting new exhibitions with an open willingness to embrace that which is new, difficult, unexpected, or unknown.
Ian Breidenbach (b. 1984) is a conceptual artist, curator, and traveler. He lives and works in Findlay, OH, where he founded and curates the Neon Heater Art Gallery. He received a BFA from Wright State University in 2009, with a Selected Studies degree in Film and Installation Art. He exhibits and curates regionally, nationally and internationally.
Emily Jay (b. 1988) is an artist who lives and works in northwest Ohio. She received her MFA from Bowling Green State University in 2013. She has exhibited internationally, and currently teaches Photography, Art History, and Visual Literacy at Ohio Northern Univer- sity. She has co-curated The Neon Heater Art Gallery in Findlay, Ohio, since 2016.
The Neon Heater is open every Thursday during scheduled exhibitions from 5:00 -7:00 PM. Further visitation by appointment. Additional information on programming by artist- run and independent galleries in the state of Ohio can be found at www.current-oh.art.
C.M. Turner (b. 1986, Cincinnati, OH) holds a Bachelor of Arts in Studio Art & Exhibition from Goddard College in Plainfield, VT (2011), and a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Cincinnati – College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (2015). As an artist, writer, and independent curator, his projects focus on quotidian and corporeal experiences with language, communication, and identity construction and management, especially within the overlap of physical and digital spaces. www.cmturner.com