By Gina McKlveen
Last Friday, the Mattress Factory opened up its doors to the public to celebrate the birthday of its founder, Barbara Luderowski, who passed away in 2018 at her residence on the top floor of the six-story building she turned into North Side’s premier contemporary art museum.
Luderowski was introduced to Pittsburgh first as a student at Carnegie’s Institute of Technology, now Carnegie Mellon University, though she completed her formal education at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, where she remained until the early 1970s. Working primarily as an architect and designer in those days, Luderowski returned to Pittsburgh to pitch a public works project, but ended up catching an interest in the city’s North Side community. Insistent on contributing to this community and effectuating its culture, Luderowski packed up her Michigan life and headed east, eventually landing the old Stearns & Foster Mattress Firm building as her joint residence and studio space.
In her lifetime, Luderowski frequently pushed back on the idea of being a visionary; however, she undoubtedly had a clear vision for the Mattress Factory from conception to present day. As a special exhibit for the founder’s birthday, the Mattress Factory replayed a video of Luderowski explaining the museum’s significance to Pittsburgh’s North Side. In the founder’s own words, she described her goal as making “a building that housed creative people of different disciplines” and though many nay-sayers suggested, “Pittsburgh is a rotten city…not for creatives,” she emphasized that “creative people are drawn here based on the energy put out” by the museum.
To this day, the Mattress Factory has done just that, touting over 55,000 annual visitors, generating close to one million in earned income, and exhibiting upwards of 500 artists across various disciplines, nationalities, and backgrounds since its founding just shy of 40 years ago. Two of the museum’s most notable exhibiting artists Yayoi Kusama and James Turrell, each have iconic works displayed on the museum’s third and second floors respectively, and are part of the permanent collection. The energy Luderowski first envisioned for this space filled up an abandoned corporate relic and transformed it into an artistic playground that surpassed the interior walls and has extended to annex buildings scattered about the North Side neighborhood, translating this small community into a large community within an even bigger community.
Luderowski’s own work as an artist was similarly inspired by the city of Pittsburgh. She once compared her work as a sculptor to the typography of Pittsburgh, referencing how the city “interlocks little pieces that fit together and go on hills” almost like a puzzle. More than likely that same sentiment developed her interlocutory or interdisciplinary approach to the Mattress Factory, which is much less like a formal art gallery with rigid rules and more so a place where visitors are encouraged to break from convention and metaphorically jump on the mattress.
Not to be confused with The Original Mattress Factory, the Mattress Factory, art museum, is located at 509 Jacksonia Street in Pittsburgh’s North Side, and is open Thursday through Sunday from 11:00 AM to 6:00 PM and from 11:00 AM to 8:00 PM on every Wednesday.