The Contemporary Dayton fulfills dreams

Inaugural exhibits in new Arcade space feature local, national and international artists

Apparently dreams can come true, even in the midst of a pandemic. See for yourself by heading downtown to the Miami Valley’s newest attraction: The Contemporary Dayton, a spectacular addition to the regional art scene.

Located in the historic and newly renovated Arcade, The Co (formerly the Dayton Visual Arts Center) opened its doors to the public on April 30. More than 1,000 arts-lovers have already shown up to celebrate.

“The space itself feels like an artwork,” said Arlene Branick, a retired educator at the Dayton Art Institute’s Experiencenter. Designed by John Fabelo of LWC Architects, the new venue boasts 6,224 square feet of gallery space. The former DVAC space was just 3,444 square feet with half required for storage.

It was only four years ago that DVAC folks — namely executive director Eva Buttacavoli and gallery manager Patrick Mauk — began envisioning a facility that would take their 30-year-old, well-respected gallery on Jefferson Street to an entirely new level. They dreamed of a bigger and more accessible space, added galleries for more exhibits, a location with more foot traffic and additional new donors. And they dreamed of continuing to nurture local artists, but reaching out to nationally and internationally known artists as well.

“We realized an artist in New York is thinking about the same things — gun violence or the pandemic or racial justice — as an artist in Dayton, Ohio,” says Buttacavoli. “We dreamed of national and local artists being shown together. We believed Dayton had the hunger, the curiosity and the experience to support a contemporary art center.”

3 exhibits now on display

Although Buttacavoli and her 18-member board haven’t stopped dreaming, many of those fantasies are becoming reality. What better place to attract visitors than Dayton’s iconic and newly renovated Arcade? What better collaborator than the University of Dayton?

The hiring of chief curator Michael Goodson was also a coup. Goodson, who attended Wright State University, has most recently been senior curator at the prestigious Wexner Center in Columbus and for more than four years had organized major exhibits for The Wex.

His mix of inaugural exhibits is exactly what the dreamers had in mind. “While The Co is presenting Dayton and Ohio artists in tandem with global artists, it will also keep equity in mind — showing artists of color, women and artists across the broad spectrum of gender identity while not excluding anyone,” he says.

Meet Zachary Armstrong

The dramatic exhibit you’ll encounter when you first enter The Co was created by Zachary Armstrong, a home-grown artist whose paintings, sculptures and large installations are now being shown from Beijing to Copenhagen. He’s represented by a New York Gallery and he’s in major international collections. Yet he continues to live in Dayton and to create his art in the Davis-Linden Building on Linden Avenue. His first one-person show was at DVAC in 2014.

The official title of the current show is “Grids & Abstracts,” but Armstrong prefers his own title. It’s a simple list of objects he’s jotted on the wall. A few examples: “Four lamps,” “two cats,” “six masks,” “one fish.” Kids are having a ball turning his list into a scavenger hunt, scouting out each of the items Armstrong has strategically placed around the room.

“What a painting should do is change the environment,” Armstrong says. His encaustics (also known as hot wax paintings) are mounted on floor-to-ceiling printed wallpaper, which he sees as an extension of the paintings. (When asked if the wallpaper might distract, Armstrong says that’s missing the point.) “Don’t stop at the corners of the painting,” he says. “This is me, trying to change the environment. The wallpaper is also the painting, it’s one big work!’”

The abstract art that fills the room is inspired by a childhood drawing of Armstrong done by his older brother, Noah, in the weeks after Zachary’s birth. “I needed a blueprint and used that drawing,” he explains. That “blueprint” eventually evolves into lines and grids made into stamps and screen prints, then multiplied, layered, inverted and flipped. You’ll recognize some of the iconic Dayton signs and symbols, including the Elder-Beerman logo.

Armstrong, who grew up surrounded by art, is a Fairmont High School grad and the son of George Armstrong, a sculpture and ceramics teacher.

Honoring Curtis Barnes

When asked by curator Goodson what artist he’d recommend for an adjacent gallery at The Co, Armstrong immediately suggested Curtis Barnes Sr.

“He was the first real painter I’d ever seen and his was the first real art studio I’d visited,” recalls Armstrong, who met the senior Barnes through a friendship with his son. “He worked from 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. He painted all the time; he painted on anything. Some of the paintings on the Westwood grid were done on ceiling tiles!”

Susan Anable, project manager for “Reimagining Works” at the Dayton Art Institute, remembers when Barnes hosted an open studio at the DAI on Sundays. “This is my church,” he once told her.

You’ll see a number of self-portraits, a series of paintings honoring his family members — his grandparents, parents, wife, siblings, children — and a wonderful grid of 36 “community portraits” created by Barnes during his long affiliation with Dayton’s Westwood Community Center. You may even recognize many of the folks he captured in these colorful oil paintings.

“I want the world to see these paintings,” says Armstrong, who served as head curator for The Co. exhibit entitled “Curtis Barnes, Sr.: Love & Peace.” He says his friend created more than 1,000 artworks.

Barnes, who inspired generations of artists over the years, died in 2019 at the age of 84. The Wright State University graduate worked as an art educator in the Dayton Public Schools and was a professor of art education at Sinclair Community College.

Filmmaker Cauleen Smith

Rounding out the inaugural exhibits is a show by artist/filmmaker Cauleen Smith. She recently had a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and is the recipient of the Studio Museum of Harlem’s prestigious Joyce Alexander Wein Artist Prize.

Her video on view at The Co is entitled “Remote Viewing” and was inspired by an NPR StoryCorps segment.

As a boy, the storyteller had watched civic leaders in his town attempt to obliterate a trace of the Black community’s history by digging a deep hole and burying a historical schoolhouse built for the education of Black students, one of the first of its kind in America. In her film, Smith recreates that dramatic scenario. Take time to examine the miniature handmade books by Smith; one of them serves as a storyboard for the film.

In addition to the three exhibits, a captivating sculpture by Daytonian Shon Walters now serves as a permanent welcome desk in the new space. It was a wonderful idea to fashion it from reclaimed fallen ash trees destroyed during the Memorial Day tornadoes in 2019.

“I believe a contemporary art center can work here,” says a thrilled Buttacavoli, who says her organization has been growing for 30 years, is beloved by the community and is a great resource for artists. “The Arcade is a dream come true.”


What: The Contemporary Dayton’s Inaugural Exhibits

Where: The Co, 25 W. 4th St., in the Arcade, downtown Dayton

When: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday; 11 a.m. until 8 p.m. Friday (First Fridays until 10 p.m.). Closed Monday and Tuesday.

Admission: Free

Parking: Available on the street or nearby lots.

More info: or call (937)224-3822.

To become a member: Membership levels begin at $25 for students, $50 for individuals; $75 for duos/families. All members receive invites to exhibitions, programs and events, reduced or free event admission and special art experiences, plus 10 percent off all art purchases.

About the Author