Penn X Roup Gallery more ‘incubator space’ than art gallery

By Kathy Zhao / Staff Writer

Don’t let the name fool you — Penn X Roup Gallery is much more than just a place to look at artwork.

The space located at 5450 Penn Ave., between Garfield and East Liberty, does display and sell artwork. However, it’s also a clothing retailer, a shoe refurbishment center and a music venue.

“I’ve had people say that this is an ‘incubator space,’” said Nico Hartkopf, a 2010 graduate from Carnegie Mellon University and managing architect of the gallery. “But we’re not here to help individual things grow and then leave, we’re here to help each other grow and at the same time, be a part of a community.”

About a year after Hartkopf graduated with a bachelor’s degree in architecture, he leased the space for a refurbished modern furniture store — 54/50 Modern. He boarded up the windows, made renovations — fixed rotted floorboards, replaced broken windows — and then reopened.

The response was tepid.

Hartkopf was frustrated. He wanted the community to appreciate that he was taking a dilapidated storefront and making it into something useful.

“As an architecture person, sometimes you get so focused on architecture that you want to believe everyone cares about it the way you do,” Hartkopf said.  

He realized the way to engage people is through the programming in an architectural space. The average person doesn’t care about what a building looks like as much as what actually occurs within it, such as musical performances, social events and unusual, creative businesses.

That was how clothing company, Daily Bread, and shoe company, Refresh PGH, got involved.

Daily Bread is co-owned by Alex Avakian, who knew Hartkopf in high school. It’s a clothing company based in Pittsburgh that began as an Internet blog in 2009. Now, it has a huge local following — including an Instagram account with nearly 9,000 followers.

Daily Bread specializes in printed shirts and vintage fabric hats. The company’s hats create a rainbow of textures and patterns along the gallery’s walls — floral, camouflaged, paisley, striped and cartoon pipe-smokers. Each snapback or camper hat is tagged with a wooden or cotton logo that says, “Daily Bread: Quality Cottons & Vintage Fabrics Est. 2009 Pittsburgh, PA,” ensuring that buyers display their Pittsburgh pride while wearing them. The hats can run anywhere from $25 to $125.

However, Nigel Calvimontes, chief operating officer, wouldn’t label what Daily Bread does as only retail business. He said it’s “facilitating a community and a culture of like-minded businesses and individuals who all wanted to support the arts and the city.” Daily Bread is more about a scene or attitude — one that integrates modern art with hip-hop and electronic music into a creative, party atmosphere.

Refresh PGH became affiliated after its partners — Baldwin Dawkins, Neil Tucker and Sean Devine — spotted the building during a meeting at Commonplace Voluto Coffee across the street.

Refresh PGH is a company that specializes in sneaker consignment, refurbishment and customization. Tucker, the artist behind all sneaker customization at Refresh PGH, turns out sneakers in fluorescent tones and vibrant themes, from bright, shiny red to Pittsburgh black and gold.

“It’s always a tour when people come in,” Tucker said, motioning to the doorway that leads to the rest of the gallery from the Refresh PGH portion. “Customers always ask, ‘Can we go in there?’ and then we show them around and they check out the rest of the space too.”

Like Daily Bread, Refresh PGH has built a large following of Pittsburgh residents and students using social media outlets such as Twitter and Instagram. Calvimontes said multiple Pitt football players have come to Refresh PGH to get their sneakers cleaned.

When Daily Bread moved into the gallery in 2013, Hartkopf tore out the front walls for two sections of the building, replacing them with architecturally salvaged glass windows.

He said it kept the neighborhood involved with the change — residents weren’t walking by boarded-up windows that one day would disappear and reveal a store. They could walk in while the work was going on, ask what was happening and see the renovations. Daily Bread also kept its followers updated with every paint job and wooden decal addition via Instagram.

The businesses have also attracted would-be customers during the monthly Penn Avenue Arts District’s First Friday Gallery Crawl. Penn X Roup usually hosts a DJ or musical artist, so visitors can stay to listen to some new music, buy a hat or some sneakers and, most importantly, socialize with the other Pittsburgh residents inside the gallery.

Hartkopf leases rather than owns the Penn X Roup space, but he does own two more properties on Penn Avenue. He said it will be more than a year or so until the new properties will be functional spaces.

“Penn X Roup Gallery is a result of me graduating from the School of Architecture and,” Hartkopf paused, “ … life.”

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