London, Meet Pittsburgh
London-based curator and arts magazine editor Sheyi Bankale believes Pittsburgh's arts scene is ready for the Next Level
Last month, a Londoner arrived at The Beauty Shoppe, which was set to host a party, organized by long-time Beauty Shoppers Nakturnal, for the latest edition of Next Level, a magazine he publishes. This was not his first visit to Pittsburgh. By his own account, his first visit had been much colder. “I remember thinking, what’ve I come to?” He recalled, swiveling luxuriously in his cup chair at 6101 Penn. “London is cold, but Pittsburgh is different form of cold.” The visitor was Sheyi Bankale, publisher, editor, and curator of Next Level, an ever-evolving, London-based not-for-profit organization that he founded in 2002, which is dedicated to showcasing photography as contemporary art. He was in town for the launch of the latest edition of Next Level magazine, which is dedicated to Pittsburgh and appropriately features a bright red and oddly majestic Heinz ketchup bottle on the cover.
Bankale sat across from the fine-art photography collector Evan Mirapaul, a Troy Hill resident, whom he had met seven years ago during Mois de la Photo in Montreal. Over the years and around the world they continued to run into each other. Mirapaul invited Bankale to discover the virtues of Pittsburgh’s growing arts scene, with this irresistibly skeptical pitch: “Don’t take my word for it.”
Bankale’s vision is ambitious and paradoxical: rather than taking the global perspective of major cities (the view from London or New York), Bankale hopes to cultivate and connect the local culture of “secondary” cities. To this end he began researching the contemporary arts in Helsinki and Zurich, rather than London and New York, sharing the results with Next Level readers. After completing the research on Sao Paolo, Bankale felt the time was ripe to turn his attention to North America.
Mirapaul suggested that Pittsburgh was the right fit. “My first step was, let's bring you to Pittsburgh, let you explore.”
“I wouldn't say Pittsburgh was on my radar—at all,” Bankale confessed. “My knowledge of Pittsburgh, really, was the Andy Warhol Museum and the Carnegie Museum, and that was it.” Not bad, for a European. But Bankale is an energetic and committed researcher. “I'm really passionate about understanding the whole dynamic of what's going on locally before I hit the ground. But I parachuted in [to Pittsburgh], and it was still relatively fresh. I remember landing and asking, I cycle everywhere—can I have a bicycle? And everyone was lookin’ at me, like, really? So I arrived with that naivety. It was beautiful.”
He went on, sounding more like Oscar Wilde than Hans Ulrich Obrist: “I think what makes it really unique is the community spirit. Everyone seems to have a beautiful sensibility but also sensitivity that’s attached. Y’know, I can name many a city where you can't directly contact a director of a museum and see them, much less spend a good hour or so in conversation, instantly, without having a history. That’s unique.”
Next Level is distributed in 38 countries around the world and Bankale has become an accidental Pittsburgh ambassador or “conduit” (his term). He gets more calls now from European artists asking about Pittsburgh. This gives Bankale an opportunity to talk about “city issues” which are distinct from the “critical issues” that normally structure curatorial and publication projects in art photography (desire, communication, the portrait, etc.).
As Mirapaul excused himself, anticipating the launch party the next evening, Bankale previewed Next Level’s next phase, which involves Pittsburgh artists in exhibitions he’s curating around the world—this, in addition to his teaching schedule, at the University of Derby and Sotheby's Institute of Art, and overseeing the exhibition programming at Next Level Projects, an exhibition space, which held onto its “pop-up” status for no less than four years. “Can you have a permanent pop-up space?” He mused. “We're moving to a new space. It doesn't really have a termination on the lease. We could be there from tomorrow to… six years.”