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Pittsburgh Art and Community by Alexandra Oliver

Community. Valerie Lueth and Paul Roden, 2014. Photo courtesy of the artists and Tugboat Printshop

I

On a mild Friday evening last September, 100,000 Pittsburghers went to a party on the Roberto Clemente Bridge as guests of the Cultural Trust. The bridge had been stocked with vendors, food stalls, two stages for DJs and one very special guest: a giant inflatable rubber duck. “Crowd the bridge,” the Trust’s website admonished, and people did. At one point circulation stopped completely: police yelled at young people climbing the tresses, two mothers with children and strollers squeezed back tears of panic, and those who managed to survive while crossing the bridge were disappointed to discover that all the food was sold out. Visitors checked in on social media and bought the merchandise. The party’s organizers received a proclamation from City Council, declaring October 29th, 2013 to be Pittsburgh Cultural Trust Day and encouraging “all citizens to support and attend the Cultural Trust’s diverse events and programs.” The gesture was redundant, or at least belated, but welcome in any case.

Rubber Duck is an invention of Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman. It had made stops all over the world, generating buzz, derision, and Instagram posts, but its first American stop was Pittsburgh. It was a perfect fit. Many cities have civic pride; Pittsburgh has something closer to civic adoration, which is expressed most intensely in its famous sports fandom, but also in the circulation of feel-good lists, as citizens relish the satisfaction of someone who’s known all along what others are just now discovering: “Best All-American Vacations”, “15 cities for Creative 20-somethings that Aren’t New York or Los Angeles.” Buzzfeed’s attention is particularly telling as a sign of Pittsburgh’s growing cultural cachet among a younger, hipper crowd. But what does this mean for the arts? What is left after the rubber duck has swum on? What can, or ought, Pittsburgh ask of its artists, and what do those artists need in return?

While the city is home to a handful of established cultural organizations that offer exhibitions, events, education, and often, jobs, to creative individuals, a diverse group of small but ambitious culture-makers has taken root here, too. These entrepreneurs serve populations and purposes that the big institutions can’t or don’t, while doing what they do best: creating in ways that defy easy description, mixing knitting with Pittsburgh’s bridges, performance with community dinners, and occupying vacant structures in endlessly original and challenging ways.

II

Much of Pittsburgh’s allure comes from something that no one, not even the Cultural Trust, can take credit for: low cost of living. Rents are famously cheap and this attracts artists, entrepreneurs and young people, three classes that have something in common: failure, according to Evan Mirapaul, an art dealer who specializes in fine art photography. “That sounds like a negative philosophy, but it’s not intended that way.” He explained: “The cost of failure is low, and cities where that’s true spark a lot of creativity.”

In 2012 Mirapaul founded the PGH Photo Fair, which brings outside galleries to Pittsburgh to sell fine art photography. But Mirapaul’s role in Pittsburgh extends beyond art dealer. Rather, he hews to the classical model of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, an early twentieth-century art dealer who was among the first champions of Cubism. In addition to cultivating collectors Mirapaul has also spearheaded challenging projects like La Hütte Royal, a house installation by the German artist Thorsten Brinkmann. The house, located in Troy Hill where Mirapaul is also a resident, is now an internal maze of rich, unsettling sensuous experiences, carefully crafted through the use of found objects, video, photographs, and sound. Navigating the space is like spelunking your way into a Jean-Pierre Jeunet film. It is disturbing enough that it’s hard to recommend unequivocally to all your friends, which is altogether a good sign. A writer for Art in America called the installation a “grotesque palace.”

According to that source, Mirapaul purchased the house for $9,000, an unthinkable sum for an artist in New York or even Berlin. But affordable space alone cannot support a vibrant arts scene and in the absence of a class of committed patrons; artists must become entrepreneurs. Flight School, a crash-course in business for artists offered by Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, fills a gap in college arts education, which tends to focus on technical and conceptual aspects of art-making. Without such programs, young artists are often on their own when it comes to figuring out how to make a living. Nicole Capozzi, who owns Boxheart Gallery with her husband Josh Hogan told me she sometimes struggles to convey to artists that exhibiting at her gallery means entering for-profit, retail context. Both majored in arts education, having been told repeatedly that being an artist itself was not a viable career choice. But although they decided to open a gallery rather than teach in schools, they quickly discovered that a major part of their role involved teaching artists about the business of art.

Supporting emerging artists in this way isn’t unique, but what distinguishes Capozzi’s and Hogan’s enterprise from New York or London peers is a collaborative attitude towards commerce. “Artists need growth, collaboration and dialogue,” Capozzi told me. She is realistic about the notion that artists will outgrow her gallery and even welcomes the idea. “It may not always be this way; however, for now they will have to leave us. And that would be awesome.”

Capozzi for her part is beginning to explore art fairs, which would provide access to a bigger market. In the meantime, artists such as William Kofmehl and Dee Briggs have managed to make careers for themselves while living in Pittsburgh but selling elsewhere. Others, like Cy Gavin, as well as the performance collective Yinzerspielen, have chosen to decamp for New York but continue to exhibit work in Pittsburgh. For less established artists like April Fridges, who arrived in Pittsburgh last year to take a tenure-track teaching position at Point Park University, this is a precarious path. “It’s a give and take,” she told me recently, when we met at an opening in Lawrenceville. “You have this great position but there are no galleries here. You live here but show elsewhere—that’s the rule.” Her worries reveal an ongoing tension between two sets of expectations and activities involved in teaching art professionally.

III

In the gap between artists’ material needs and a robust system of patronage, which lies somewhere in the future, the universities provide a stable base for artists who want to take risks: if your primary source of income is not sales, you have more freedom to make unsalable work. Ayanah Moor moved to Pittsburgh from Philadelphia 14 years ago, initially as a visiting artist at the College of Fine Arts at Carnegie Mellon University, and found that her new role carried some advantages. “You’re presented to the art scene with a certain level of status, being art artist who’s an academic,” she explained. “That gives you an interesting lens to look at the art scene because you figure out, how might I fit in the arts scene here, and what are the benefits or limitations in having my work known, here and beyond?”

Moor emphasized that her teaching position has also allowed her to pursue collaborations, such as a sound piece with Herman Pearl. All My Girlfriends (2011) consists of a recording of Moor reading the text of JET magazine’s “Beauty of the Week” centerfolds in a clear, bright voice. The piece was funded by the Studio of Creative Inquiry, which is a “laboratory” housed at CMU, and exhibited in the Pittsburgh Biennial at the Andy Warhol Museum, specifically, in the museum’s elevator. In a video on the Studio of Creative Inquiry’s website, Moor thanks the organization for its support and says, “I hope people enjoy it.” It’s a thoughtful and intriguing work (according to Moor, people stayed in the elevator for long periods, riding up and down), but conceptual work is a difficult sell, and the fact that it deals explicitly with race and sexuality makes it doubly so.

While Moor has benefitted from institutional support, she remains somewhat critical of the dominance of Pittsburgh’s foundations, if not their funding model per se. Not only do they support art, they shape it, and overlook practices that commercial galleries, residencies or artist-run centers might support.  The result is a kind of “corporate” system that favors good grant-writers, not good artists. In her opinion, “The institutions support activity, not criticality, beyond a certain point. You lack a certain kind of rigor.” Instead, Moor advocates a diversity of models and institutions.

In addition, Moor offered a different perspective on arts and community, one that has—on the surface of it—nothing to do with art: “Pittsburgh suffers from having a poor public transit system. So when you ask about community you have to ask, how can people move around and see things? The city’s still very segregated in some ways. I think it makes all the difference. It’s about movement and making sure that the make-up of audiences is diverse. You have to have access points.” This is a difficult subject, especially for well-meaning, white artists who are often themselves poor, dependent on public transit, and in debt. As they move into depressed or historically black neighborhoods, development often follows. “East Liberty has really transformed rapidly in the past five years, which has lead to accolades like ‘most livable city’ and highly visible, booming development, but it also has the highest rate of poverty among African-Americans.” (I looked this up: Moor was close. Pittsburgh came in third in a ranking of major metropolitan regions, as of 2013, according to Harold D. Miller, a professor of public policy and management at CMU.) Moor went on, “You have this dynamic of visible progress and this erasure of different aspects. This contest says a lot about the dialogue that happens and the difference between gentrification and development.”

To their credit, many artists and arts administrators are aware that creeping housing prices will inevitably make it harder for artists to find living and studio space, and are trying to manage the growth in their own small way. Janera Solomon, Executive Director of the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, recently purchased a slice of space on Penn Avenue in Garfield. Ayanah Moor was featured in their inaugural show. More recently they hosted the PGH CSA (“community-supported art”), which uses direct subscription to fund artists’ multiples. During the exhibition opening in May Janera said she and her husband, Jeremy, who is a partner in the project, wanted the space to develop organically. “Penn Ave is changing quickly and I think it’s important to preserve room on the avenue for a diversity of new ideas and emerging artists.”

IV

Blindness and visual art are not an obvious pair by any means. But, as I discovered on an afternoon workshop at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts last January, what is obvious or not is largely a question of perception anyway.

The workshop was organized by Creative Citizen Studios, a project of Kirsten Ervin, who holds an MA in Special Education and Tirzah DeCaria, who completed her MA in Arts Management at CMU. CCS also consults with cultural organizations that want to improve accessibility to their collections and programs. This afternoon they presented Touch Art, a project of workshops and training for people who are blind or visually impaired. During the presentation, several of the participants spoke about their experiences of exclusion, and how art teachers—even well-meaning ones—assumed they were incapable or uninterested in visual art. Ann Lapidus, who was born sighted but has now been navigating the world as a blind person and artist for six years, made a remarkable statement: “Just because I’m blind doesn’t mean that I don’t see. I am creating the world in my mind.”

Indeed, the adaptations necessary to include people with disabilities may be less radical than one might assume. Ervin and DeCaria do not aim to develop new art classes for the blind, but rather to include the blind in existing art classes by providing these accommodations. As one participant asks bluntly in a documentation video posted on the Touch Art website, “If sighted people are doing it, why shouldn’t we?”

With their complimentary professional backgrounds Ervin and DeCaria represent an imbrication of two communities, which has permitted them to do more together than they could have alone, or as Ervin puts it, within the framework of “human services.” “So, how refreshing,” Ervin continued. “We teamed up with our different strengths, and also are embraced and welcomed by larger art institutions.” They have since worked on projects with the Carnegie Museum of Art and the Warhol Museum.

The dynamic and mutually-beneficial encounter between the arts and disability communities has attracted supporters on both sides, and, importantly, some who already straddle a middle ground: committed, interested artists with disabilities who lack access to formal training, such as a BFA or MFA would provide. CCS also holds classes at the Union Project featuring guest artists who share their work and run critiques. Ervin told me over the phone that, “Pittsburgh artists are community-minded—not everyone, but there is strong tradition here. They see arts as a way that community can be engaged.” Her current challenge is to find more funding, to increase access, and to convince funders of the importance of adult programs. “Typically when you talk about art education for folks from disenfranchised communities the focus is on kids, and I think that’s great, but people with disabilities grow up and the majority of their life is spent in adulthood. There’s a real need for adults and people can be enriched no matter what age.”

V

Ervin recommended I talk to Amanda Gross. Gross, a local fibre artist who also works as a program director for a faith-based nonprofit, recently directed an outstanding community-driven artwork. Knit the Bridge, which is often compared to the Rubber Duck’s scale and enthusiastic public reception, engaged community volunteers to cover the Seventh Street Bridge (also called the Andy Warhol Bridge). It was “yarn-bombing” on a large scale, a type of street art that uses yarn to cover public objects or spaces. Eye-catching and colorful, these guerilla decorations are eminently photogenic and often have a humorous aspect.

Gross envisioned her project literally and metaphorically. The tagline on her WordPress page reads: “Knitting Pittsburgh Communities Together, One Bridge at a Time.” Impressively, her list of community partners includes 128 names, from the Pittsburgh Tote Bag Project, which collects new and gently used tote bags for distribution to the region’s food pantries to Star Chevrolet Nissan and Volvo. The Pittsburgh Foundation was also a supporter.

Gross dismisses the comparison to Rubber Duck. “My goal has always been [to work] at this intersection between arts and peace-building,” she told me recently, when we met for coffee in Oakland, near her office. “Depending on where you’re coming from there’s different language for that: community art, socially engaged art, arts and activism.” Gross’ background is Mennonite, which is one of the historic peace churches (the others are Church of the Brethren and the Religious Society of Friends). Rubber Duck was the creation of a single author, she notes, by contrast an astonishing 2,000 participants supported Knit the Bridge.

I asked whether Knit the Bridge had had any lasting impact on any of the participating communities. Gross’ response is unequivocal. “That definitely happened in a number of different ways,” she said. Defunct knitting groups were reenergized and newcomers to Pittsburgh made their first community connections through the project. The media had difficulty telling this complex story, and preferred to focus on Gross, a charismatic white woman with a calm poise and a quick smile.  By focusing on her as a personality, Gross said the story missed the project’s “horizontal leadership” and wide range of community experiences. NPR was a notable exception. It focused on three teenage boys from the North Side, with 16-year-old Diondre Harris leading the story.

But while the media have trouble recognizing such distributed authorship, academics and art critics have praised it. Many view projects like Knit the Bridge as socially progressive because they reposition the artist as one maker among many and engage communities in dialogue with an emphasis on social inclusion. Claire Bishop, a British critic and professor of art history at the CUNY Graduate Center, put it this way, in her book Artificial Hells: “the artist is conceived less as an individual producer of discrete objects than as a collaborator and producer of situations…” for example, social events, publications, workshops or performances. Likewise, the “work” of art, formerly an object, is now conceived as a project, and the viewers as participants.

Bishop is concerned that such “projects” are too quick to discard older avant-garde values of shock and dissensus. She also argues that governments and funding agencies have instrumentalized such projects for cultural policies that celebrate innovation and creativity, while concealing structural social inequality. On this view, innovative, creative individuals—like entrepreneurs, who are the new heroes of business schools around the country—assume risk willingly and happily sacrifice wages for the opportunity to “do what they love.” Such policies also presume a world of equal opportunity, where passion, not education, health or safety, is the most critical resource. In Bishop’s words, “the emergence of a creative and mobile sector serves two purposes: it minimizes reliance on the welfare state while also relieving corporations of the burden of responsibilities of a permanent workforce.”

Most of Bishop’s case studies are drawn from a European context. In Pittsburgh, designer and blogger Dane Horvath, who maintains the enormously popular Steeltown Anthem blog, apportions some of the blame to local critics who would rather celebrate than critique. She cited as an example the reaction to Dee Briggs’ House of Gold, which has so far received cordial praise. Horvath thinks we can do better and ask tougher questions about the fate of Braddock’s housing, which is still crumbling under the radar of most policy-makers. “I get that bringing attention is important but I want folks to actually fix the problem, not just create art projects around it,” she told me, via email. “I do praise interesting installations such as these but I also like when there is a back and forth discussion. I get so tired of just reading kiss-up reviews, it’s not bad to be a little critical and just ask ‘why?’ That’s how we learn, right?”

In any case, Gross’ and Briggs’ community-oriented projects fit well within Bishop’s “participatory” framework, connecting them more tightly to a group of artists and collectives globally than to the majority of their Pittsburgh peers, who continue making paintings and sculptures. Similarly, the efforts of Vanessa German’s ARThouse in Homewood and Transformazium’s “deconstruction” of a house in Braddock, resonate with the Dorchester Projects, initiated by the artist Theaster Gates in Chicago’s South Side. Such projects activate abandoned urban spaces to support community well-being and they exist uneasily within established critical frameworks. In an interview with Jim Rugg on Tell Me Something I Don’t Know German said, “I’d never describe anything I do as a project or program,” citing negative associations with post-war housing projects, and, “I don’t talk about my life as work.”

For the purposes of community-building, space is clearly a critical tool. Ryan Lammie, an artist and entrepreneur who runs Radiant Hall, has transformed a half-occupied office building into a dynamic and supportive environment for almost two dozen artists. In a casual, friendly arts scene, Lammie has achieved a creeping celebrity reputation for operating a sustainable, artist-oriented business. (Full disclosure: Radiant Hall will be providing space for a project I am directing.) At an arts community meeting held recently at Startuptown, Lammie introduced himself to a roomful of Pittsburgh VIPs including established artists Bob Qualters and James Simon as, “that guy everyone keeps mentioning.” He said this modestly, with a shy smile, but it was true: three people had mentioned him as an inspiration or important connection. His ambitions are less modest: he plans to open accessible Radiant Hall-supported spaces in other neighborhoods, to respect geographic specificity while building a network of professional contacts and shared resources. In a symbiotic gesture, arts organizations and foundations have been courting Radiant Hall in hopes to replicating its success in target areas.

Just as useful are food and drink. Casey Droege, an arts community-builder whose projects elude easy definition, organizes a regular arts dinner series called SIX x ATE, featuring six artists who give short presentations on a pre-selected theme. The dinners are advertised but most invitations are extended through word of mouth, and the community has grown organically. In another instance of support being extended from a large institution to a small one, Tina Kukielski, one of the Carnegie International curators, helped Droege identify the first round of artists. The Carnegie Museum also donated their Lawrenceville Satellite Apartment for the dinner in June 2012, as a part of a popular series of over 30 events. The events are casual and welcoming, but have a spark of intensity as people network, explore ideas and meet new artists. Droege admitted as much, during a talk at CMU last year: “No one really understands it ‘til they go and they see what it’s like.”

Such entrepreneurial approaches are necessary if smaller organizations and individuals are to survive and build careers in the city. Forty-two percent of the region’s cultural organizations are running deficits and the same number are breaking even. I asked Ayanah Moor whether she was optimistic about the future of Pittsburgh art. Although she is leaving to take a position at a prestigious school in a larger, more glamorous city (Chicago), she was upbeat. “Because of Pittsburgh’s size it’s possible to connect with people making great work. Despite some of my criticisms, there are some really awesome artists here. As long as artist are producing I’ll be hopeful.”

 

***

Alexandra Oliver teaches art history at University of Pittsburgh, where she received her PhD this year.  More of her writing can be found on her website WORDS &TC.

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