July 27, 2016
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From an abandoned house to a structure that unfolds into a community theater

The premise was simple: 'If people can sit together, they can dream together'

The Coleman Center for the Arts, a local arts organization in York, Alabama, reached out to artist Matthew Mazzotta who designed the "Open House" project. Photos courtesy of the Coleman Center for the Arts

Matthew Mazzotta is a conceptual artist who produces permanent and temporary constructs in public spaces. His work focuses on exploring the relationship between people and their environment, often inviting public participation during the creation process. “Open House” is an award-winning project that Mazzotta built in York, Alabama. The house-shaped construct unfolds to create a 100-seat theater that hosts concerts, movie screenings, and plays.

The Coleman Center for the Arts, a local arts organization in York that was started about 30 years ago, invited Mazzotta to do work in the town. We spoke to him recently about his inspiration and artistic process. The following is an edited and condensed version of that conversation.

Mazzotta invited the residents of York to join in on a discussion about public space.

What inspired you to build the open-air theater?

MATTHEW MAZZOTTA: A lot of my work is about process. I asked different community members about the town and where they hung out. Some people said, “I go to this church,” and other people said, “I go to that church.” I heard some people talk about fishing, so I asked where they fished—but everyone was quiet and didn’t want to reveal their secret spots. So then I asked, “Where do you all hang out?” And they said, “We don’t have a public space.” So it became obvious that we should build a space for everyone to gather.

The residents told the artist that they didn't have a public square or a place to spend time with the community.

How did you decide on a site location?

MAZZOTTA: Real estate is very cheap in York, and there a number of abandoned buildings there. So we decided to build the public space out of an abandoned building in the community. We identified a house in the middle of downtown that was owned by three women who had wanted to start a daycare, but their dream never came true. So they gave us the land as long as we tore down the old, abandoned house. But we made an effort to use the materials from the old house, like the façade and timber, to remind people of the past and what used to be there. We wanted to embrace that concept of transformation: It used to be one thing, and now it’s something new.

Instead of only having transitional spaces like sidewalks, gas stations, or grocery stores, here was a new space where people could actually sit next to each other and talk.

Now, "Open House" provides a public space for town halls, concerts, and movies.

How did the town react to the project?

MAZZOTTA: On opening day, everyone came out. The mayor saw the potential for it to bring the town together and even held a town hall meeting in the space. It created new conversations about the town. Instead of only having transitional spaces like sidewalks, gas stations, or grocery stores, here was a new space where people could actually sit next to each other and talk. The premise of the project was that if people can sit together, they can dream together.

Mazzotta with residents in York. In September, “Open House” will be featured in a new show at the Smithsonian's Cooper Hewitt design museum called "By The People."

What has been the lasting impact on the community?

MAZZOTTA: With every community project I do, I start with my research on the town’s identity to help come up with an idea. But I always make sure that there’s a host organization that can continue programming into the future. The Coleman Center for the Arts was that organization in York, and they often host movie screenings, concerts, and shows.

Scott Rodd

The Renewal Project