Young white woman smiling

Alicia Jean Vanderelli

The Free Press is honoring Alicia Jean (AJ) Vanderelli with our Activist Artist Award at a ceremony Thursday, November 9. AJ is the owner and manager of the Vanderelli Room, an art gallery that has served as a showplace and safe space for activist artists – and it is the location of the Free Press Awards dinner.

AJ was born in Los Angeles, California and was raised in Panama City, Florida. After graduating high school in 1993, she left the small beach community in search of one that provided both the comforts of a small town with the diversity of a city. In 2003, she settled in Columbus Ohio. She earned a Bachelors of Fine Arts with a concentration in oil painting in 2008 from the Columbus College of Art and Design, graduating Magna Cum Laude.

In 2014, AJ began converting 218 McDowell Street into an alternative gallery space for local artists and a personal studio space to create her own work. The Vanderelli Room, located within the Franklinton Arts District, is a multipurpose space, housing a variety of art shows and performances. The gallery is a catalyst for AJ’s own vision and self-expression – a vision where a community is united through arts and education, that enables individuals to reach their potential and continue to grow through self-expression and exploration.

The number of social issue partnerships and events the Vanderelli Room has hosted is too long to list, but some include: the Free Press, Black Lives Matter, Community Pride, Abortion Fund of Ohio/Laser Pussies, Creative Women of Color, 1DivineLine 2Health, Heer to Serve, Transit Arts, and Silence=Death.

AJ initially got her start with social activism at the gallery when she talked with Lance, her landlord, about having the gallery. He wanted it to be exclusively a part of the arts complex 400 East Rich, but I did not want to do that. AJ reminisced, “I wanted it to be open to everyone. I had previous experience with Open Door Art Studio — I volunteered with them in 2007 — and I knew this kind of work was happening, but seeing artists with varying physical and mental abilities in that space really opened me up to that existing. It kind of blew my mind.”


The Vanderelli Room works with marginalized communities both as art exhibitions and emerged as a safe space to gather and organize. “This came up completely organically. People would ask and I would say yes, of course,” AJ noted, “This happened out of the gate, I think, because artists are storytellers and game changers. It just naturally existed in my own life so it would naturally exist in a space I’m running.”

When the 2020 George Floyd murder kicked off the protests and activities in Columbus, AJ stepped up. “When Columbus was super hot, I didn’t know if I could be down there personally because I would get arrested. So I posted on Facebook, I have a whole space that’s not being used because of the shutdown. What can we do? And then Rasheedah [Crawley] from People Helping People 614 texted me immediately and told me what she was doing out of her garage. I was like, I have so much more space,” AJ stated.

“I think that the gallery being so close too made it work. Rasheedah had already built a group of volunteers doing what they could in terms of supplies and supporting the protesters and the medics. But because of the location, the operation was able to expand, and they had orchestrated this whole machine of pulling in daily food donations and biking it out [to the protesters],” AJ explained, “And because of the grass lot, activists were able to spread out and make signage outside. You had this safe space where people could find comfort and nourishment—anything they needed, really. It was really helpful for the medics to be so close, too.”

The Vanderelli Room also partnered with many other creatives/arts groups such as Big Girl Burlesque, Franklinton Arts District, Gabinetto Segreto, Art Possible Ohio, the Columbus International Film & Video Festival, Available Light Theater, the Greater Columbus Arts Council Shadowbox Theater, and more.

Unfortunately for the local arts community, the Vanderelli Room will go into hiatus and shut its doors (temporarily) at the end of this year.

More information about the Vanderelli Room is at

The Free Press Awards dinner will be free and open to the public on Thursday, November 9 from 5-8pm at the Vanderelli Room, 218 McDowell Street in Franklinton. In addition to honoring Cynthia, the 2023 Free Press Activist Artist Award will be presented to Alicia Jean Vanderelli of the Vanderelli Room art gallery. The dinner features music and food from the Americas including vegan and gluten-free options courtesy of Gary Witte and Winie Wirth.

Following the awards presentation, renowned peace activist and author David Swanson will speak on “War Abolition and the Ukraine Problem.”

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