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Best Small Art Gallery: moxie DaDA

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Conventional wisdom says the blank canvas is every artist's nightmare. For an art-gallery owner, though, it might be another story.

Christine Whispell, at least, seems right at home in the tabula rasa space where she and her colleagues are preparing to transplant moxie DaDA, their 2-year-old gallery.

The new venue is located in The Firehouse Ceramics Studios, an actual old North Side firehouse. And on the gallery's half of the first floor, beneath the high ceilings and fluorescent lights, three big wooden frames -- painted white and hung by chains on the bare brick wall -- suggest naked canvas.

The Arch Street gallery's grand re-opening, on Jan. 6, will be the latest chapter in a story that began when Whispell, a native of upstate New York, moved here in 1994 to attend The Art Institute of Pittsburgh. In 2004, after seven years as a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review news artist, Whispell left to combine her love of art with a long-held desire to run a community space.

With friends Grant Bobitski and Matt Indovina, she launched moxie DaDA in a Liberty Avenue storefront in Bloomfield. The airy front space housed exhibits, while a smaller room in the back (and even a narrow rear hallway) functioned as a retail shop for works by local artists, whose offerings ranged from jewelry to photography.

The gallery generated a following with lively opening receptions, well-regarded exhibits that often focused on contemporary mixed-media work, and innovative projects. Shows included Still Life, featuring art by and about homeless people; this past summer's Blind Date paired artists sight unseen, letting each one finish the other's work.

One local artist, David Wallace, says moxie is especially accessible: Unlike some galleries, there are no long applications to fill out. You can just show up and present your work.

"They're unpretentious, but they have really high standards for what they're doing," says Connie Cantor, another local artist. Her 2005 show at moxie, Flesh/Blood/Madness/Mud, included an outdoor installation and interactive outdoor mud-painting for gallery-goers. "Whatever idea I came up with, they said, 'Just go with it,' It was an artist's dream."

This year, however, Whispell and her landlord failed to agree on a lease. So in October, moxie closed its storefront. The Firehouse and its landlord, Matthew Grebner, were recommended by ceramicist Dennis Bergevin, a friend with a studio there. Moxie will now be splitting the first floor with shelves of pottery made by resident artists.

And by late November, Whispell was busy cleaning the Firehouse's interior brick. Bobitski and Indovina, meanwhile, were charged with building tall wooden partitions on casters -- movable walls that will expand the gallery's hanging space.

As with most small galleries, moxie DaDA isn't self-sustaining: Whispell, gallery manager Indovina and curator Bobitski all have day jobs. But Whispell, who's 30, says that while she likes the visibility of Bloomfield's main drag -- she still lives nearby, on Penn Avenue -- she's convinced that gallery-goers who actually buy art will follow moxie across the river. She's also scaling back the gallery's retail component.

The flux generated by the move suggests a new context for the gallery's surname, which stands for "Design, accoutrements and Displayed Art" but inevitably recalls the art movement famed for its reliance on randomness, uncertainty and creative destruction. Remember Blind Date and a pattern emerges: As Whispell says, "The artists really liked the idea of working with someone but not knowing what they were doing on the other side." You can see a similar tendency in Hand to Hand, the new space's first show. It's a unique collaboration between David Wallace and California-based Rebecca Trawick, who traded collage materials by mail until finished works emerged.

"The neighborhood I'm super-excited about," says Whispell. She likes the North Side's active civic associations, and the nearness of The Mattress Factory. She also likes that moxie DaDA is starting over.

"I like to change," she says. "I get pretty uncomfortable when you get comfortable."

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