What happens in Pittsburgh stays in Pittsburgh

Cy Gavin, Untitled, 2015 acrylic, oil, ink, blood, diamonds, chalk and mica on brushed linen 54 x 90 inches. Image via /

A few days ago Huffington Post published a review of a current New York exhibition by a Pittsburgh artist. Awesome, right? The artist, Cy Gavin, has been living in Brooklyn since 2011 but he’s still one of ours. So when HuffPost says, “His debut solo show at Sargent’s Daughters is definitely worth a visit” we should be damn proud!

Except for one thing. That statement is false. Cy Gavin’s “debut solo show” is not happening right now in New York. It already took place last year—in Pittsburgh. I wrote about that show, which was held at Revision Space in Lawrenceville. It was a big deal because it also the gallery’s inaugural exhibition. Remember? Of course you do. It was even picked up by Blake Gopnik on Blouin. So why is this HuffPost writer getting it wrong?

As it turns out, he was just following the press release. The document, available on Sargent’s Daughters’ website, calls Gavin’s New York show a “debut exhibition.”

Why would Sargent’s Daughters make a claim that is so clearly false? Could it be an honest mistake? Unlikely. For an older, better-known artist these types of “firsts” tend to slide into obscurity, but for a young artist like Gavin with a short exhibition history, a glance at his CV should have revealed the truth.

Maybe the artist himself hoped to re-write his CV to have his debut sparkle with the light of New York City. If so, that would be dishonest and rude. But either way, writing press releases is not the artist’s job. Gallery press officers are responsible for doing the research and getting it right.

This latest episode with Cy Gavin seems to reaffirm the sad fact that what happens in Pittsburgh, however awesome, stays in Pittsburgh. Revision Space is just too small and too far to see from New York City.

Recently I wrote about Outlines, a gallery that had everything going for it–including amazing artists who later became canonical figures–and still disappeared into obscurity. The notion that our current efforts could suffer the same fate saddens me. But seen from another perspective, in being passed over by the official record, we have good company. Julia Halperin recently reveled that “almost one third of solo shows in US museums go to artists represented by just five galleries.” This means that Revision Space isn’t the only one having its credit stolen; even a mid-sized gallery in New York, or a gallery showing less than totally commercially viable work, will be eclipsed by Pace et al.

Why does it matter who gets the credit for discovering and nurturing young artists as long as they’re successful in the long run? It matters because credit is a major currency in the art world. It’s a key component to the gallery’s reputation. And it is this currency, not hard cash that it accrues as it discovers and supports young exciting artists. A gallery is a weird beast, caught between the behavior of an investor and a merchant. Like an investor, galleries gamble on the success of untested products. But unlike an investor, a gallery can’t buy low and sell high, because it has to sell. It’s also a merchant. In other words, smaller and regional galleries take all the risks of an investor without any mechanism to reap the rewards.

This just one part of a huge, dysfunctional, outmoded system that is also almost completely run by power and money. For better or worse we are all in it together.

Alexandra Oliver completed her PhD in art history at the University of Pittsburgh. Follow her on Twitter @aolivex or on Instagram.

15 Comments on What happens in Pittsburgh stays in Pittsburgh

  1. Thank you for noting, noticing, remembering, crediting, posting, and opining, Alexandra Oliver.

    Revision Space supports the success of Cy Gavin in Pittsburgh, New York, and beyond, and we will be hosting another exhibition of his works in Pittsburgh at the end of the year.

    Also, for those who missed it, the exhibition catalog for the 2014 solo show “Cy Gavin: Fugue States” is available at the gallery.

    • Update: exhibition is postponed as the artist completes his MFA and refocuses his studio practice.

    • fred seifried // September 8, 2015 at 5:03 pm // Reply

      Pgh is a GREAT place to start out ! Hugh % of CMU ‘ers etc. stay here because its CHEAP & accessible! Artists Musicians Actors etc I saw years ago are now known nationally ! Internet has also opened limitless ‘gallery type’ opportunities !

  2. Scott Sullivan // August 4, 2015 at 7:07 pm // Reply

    Well said! It’s like these “critics” only see what they want to see, a narrow lens that benefits only their timelines and story lines at the moment, and of course place, that they’re in.

  3. I will try to do a post about this issue on my diggingpitt blog, but the author hits on a huge point- one so depressing, I try not to dwell on it.

    A show show of Keith Harring sketchbooks from 1979 @ Barbara Gladstone Gallery made no mention of his time here- in spite of sketch titles, like drawing at The Carnegie,;drawing on Atwood St & Steel City drawing. Who knows his first solo was at the Pittsburgh Center For The Arts? His “real life” began in NYC.

    Likewise, Teenie Harris still draws blank stares among far too many.

    But what role does Pittsburgh itself play in this? If most galleries, foundations and media only support local artists why should anyone outside the city take notice or care. Artists sooner or later are left with the choice of accepting the joy of life in a bubble or leaving.

    Would the Mattress Factory be a nationally known venue if it refused to show a range of national and international artists?

    This website, of for and about art in Pittsburgh and only Pittsburgh is a good example of the problem. However awesome, its probably of little interest to anyone outside a 100 mile radius.

  4. IMHO- however the author touches on a huge potential chink in NYC’s armor.

    NY galleries need the city to be seen as a primary creative hub where work is made, instead of just a marketplace for the uber-rich. Collectors want to feel like they are still in a fermenting, dynamic, creative city- where artists make work.

    Destroy that myth and you can bring the word back into balance. NY needs artists much more than artists need NY.

  5. I get this. As a small gallery in Garfield–ARTica, I was one of the first to exhibit work by Vanessa German and even own two of her earlier works, but I doubt I’ll ever get credit on her CV or her historical write-us. I figure by now her “handlers” have long erased me from the gallery roll, even if indeed Vanessa included me. So yes as a Gallery owner, it would be nice to get acknowledgement that I knew Vanessa’s work was incredible light years ahead of everyone else. But I have pics and her earlier work.–sigh

  6. But Christine,

    Pittsburgh galleries, foundations and art centers help create this isolation.

    How often, do local galleries show artists from Cleveland, Columbus, D.C., Baltimore or anywhere outside a very small local area? One of the main ways to gain regional and national press or collectors is to mix local and national artists.

    Almost nobody I know in NYC, has heard of The Pittsburgh Center For The Arts, because it rarely shows non local artists. FE Gallery did that and got reviews in national publications. Spaces like Bunker Projects are inviting artists from outside the city.

    Sites like ArtHopper and Belt Magazine that link stories and reviews across a wider region tend to get a broader audience..Both are centered in Cleveland.

    • And a quick look at its exhibition history reveals that Revision Space shows artists from outside the city consistently. Our last show, “Immediate Realities”, included artists from Los Angeles, Denver, Tokyo, London, Berlin and Madrid, to name a few, and our next show is a solo by Steven Miller, an artist based in Seattle. Currently, “Great Waves II” features 3 local artists in a juried exhibition by major national curators, Eric Shiner and Chad Alligood. We have also been featured in local press as well as major publications in New York and France in the last year.

      • Might as well throw this idea out there.

        I moved to Pittsburgh in 2004 with the idea of starting a flat file based gallery,.modeled on Pierogi. I had a lot of national artists including, Lori Ellison, Jacob El Hanani, Martin Wilner and Linn Myers.

        I was terrible at running or promoting the gallery and the city was very different then.

        Have you considered developing any kind of “flat file”? Of course, then come the dreaded but critical art fairs. Has a Pittsburgh gallery ever participated in an art fair outside of Pittsburgh?

        Believe me, I know its not easy to swing all this, but little by little, everyone has to chip away at this isolation.

  7. Yes! I have seen a real change, with new galleries and projects working to create interactions between local and global artists.

    Sadly, the major institutions are still lagging.

    • The city has changed, because many people saw through their ideas. Some with more longevity than others… YES, it is NOT easy, but, as you said… chip away!! There are certainly artists and curators that would be interested. As Andy Warhol said, “They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” Words to live by?

      And YES! Revision Space was selected to participate in a major art fair this year. Stay tuned. It’s a huge leap, and we’re so excited. Pittsburgh’s first indeed.

      • That’s awesome news! Art fairs are a critical part of the system.

        IMHO, NY and LA dealers have really tried to limit access.

        I know it’s not easy for small independent galleries to break in. Mostly, I blame institutions like the Carnegie, Cultural Trust and the major foundations for supporting such a closed system.
        Does the Carnegie really have an active collectors group of any kind? Would a curator there take people to local galleries?

        When I got here it seemed like Vicky Clark and Graham Shearing curated every show.

        Sometimes it takes just one interested person. I cry at the stories of what it was like when John Caldwell was here. He really looked at local artists and tried to build connections for artists. Eric Shiner seems to be like that.

  8. This goes back to talks I had with one of the early creators of this site.

    I told them, what Pittsburgh needed above all, was a website that reviewed across a wider region, like the Texas art site, Glasstire. I also pointed out that an image rich site w\as critical to since many may never see these shows in person.

    This site is awesome, but why would anyone outside the area be interested in a site without lots of images, that only covered Pittsburgh art?

    This is not brain surgery.

    Pittsburgh needs- more galleries that link local and national artists.
    More art sites like Arthopper that connect art in a wider region
    More local critics on Arthopper and national sites like Hyperallergic
    More residency programs open to artists from outside of Pittsburgh
    More juried shows and events open to artists outside the region
    Projects that create collaborations between local and global artists
    Programs that invite national curators into the city
    Inclusion of local galleries in national and global art fairs.
    More symposiums that include national and local artists.
    Projects that bring national critics and art bloggers to tour the city.

    At this point Grand Rapids, Michigan (Art Prize) has a higher profile among artists than Pittsburgh, because they have worked to invite that attention.

  9. Alexandra, thank you for this really interesting piece about a troubling trend. I also appreciate John Morris’ comments about the reluctance of Pittsburgh arts to cross-fertilize more often. It’s something I have noticed about Pittsburgh since I moved here a decade ago. Since landing here, I’ve enjoyed getting to know the Pittsburgh literary scene, and I’ve also tried to mix it up with writers outside of Pittsburgh–through reading events pairing touring authors with Pittsburgh writers, as well as pop up bookshop events showcasing books from Pittsburgh authors and publishers next to small press selections from across the country and beyond. One of the first things I did when I relocated here from New York was some book distro on a very small scale–I took some of my favorite small press books published in NY around to Pittsburgh bookstores to see if they’d carry them. One bookseller told me up front, “No one will buy small press books from New York–just Pittsburgh.” I think that minds have opened somewhat since then, but there is room for more.

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