Downtown art gallery evicted in contentious landlord-tenant dispute
About 20 people marched through the streets of Pittsburgh on June 29 to protest the closure of a black and queer-owned art gallery after 21 months in its downtown space.
BLaQK House Collections, which opened in October 2020, represents 32 artists and has curated work for black coworking space Emerald City, the office of Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey, the Hill Nafasi District Arts Center, as well than some local diners, co-owner Nicky Jo told Dawson.
Todd Palcic, owner of 440 First Ave., Downtown, evicted BLaQK House Collections, saying they failed to honor their one-year lease and significantly overstayed their contract.
BLaQK House says Palcic illegally kicked them out of space, locking them up on June 16 this year. Dawson says that as queer black women, she and her business partner Cynthia Kenderson were especially offended by Palcic’s choice to do so on June 16 and during Pride Month.
Several days before the lockout, on June 15, Palcic had filed a lawsuit in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas against Kenderson and Dawson’s LLC, NextPGH, arguing that the term of the lease had expired and they had declined to leave the premises.
Dawson says that on June 19, gallery staff arrived at the building and found the doors stuck on. “We couldn’t get to our house. …There’s basically over $100,000 worth of artwork in this space alone. And he hijacked that space,” Dawson says Pittsburgh City Paper.
In a June 24 court order, Judge Daniel Regan allowed Dawson and Kenderson to return to space to perform previously scheduled weekend events and remove their property on the condition that they paid Palcic $400 for a locksmith. Judge Regan also ruled that Palcic would take possession at 5 p.m. on Monday, June 27. Dawson claims they paid but the locksmith never showed up and they had to hire their own. The gallery owners moved everything on Monday with the help of volunteers.
“He’s basically trying to displace the black, brown, and queer community of Pittsburgh. [BLaQK House] is the only such staple for all three sectors,” says Dawson.
Palcic tells city paper that renting his space at BLaQK House was his idea, which he undertook “to help artists in the African-American community after the BLM protests.” He says he “turned off” the doors to the gallery space after Kenderson and Dawson repeatedly ignored his attempts to terminate the lease and after receiving noise complaints from people living nearby.
A copy of the lease and a notice of resignation that Palcic sent in February 2022 are included in the June 15 court filing. The lease states a term of one year at the rate of $1 per month and a stipulation that the lease would automatically renew after one year, pending 90 days notice of termination from either party. Palcic tells city paper he found a blank standard lease and sent it to Dawson and Kenderson to fill out themselves. Palcic says he initially charged almost no rent at BLaQK House, with the understanding that after a year the two parties would negotiate payments closer to market rate. The lease does not include any renegotiation of the rent after one year.
In addition, “[Palcic] violently attacked us via text messages, emails,” Dawson said. PC, accusing Palcic of bullying beginning in April 2021. “He was threatening through text messages and emails. And he started doing things specifically for our gallery, like telling maintenance that they shouldn’t clean or stock our toilets. So since April 2021, we’ve had to supply all of our paper towels, napkins, cleaning supplies, and emptying, you know, the incontinence bag for sanitary disposals, things of that nature.
Palcic calls it “an outrageous lie.” “The gallery idea was my liberal idea of a unified Pittsburgh,” he wrote in an email to CP. “I just picked the wrong people. I bet I can find many other wonderful African American artists to work with us without hurting the tenants above.
Both parties refused to show city paper the correspondence in question.
“Once you’re in the mud, it’s hard to tell which side is which,” said Palcic’s attorney, Maximilian Beier. PC in a telephone interview.