Arts and Urban Renewal in Pittsburgh (Alex Oliver)

[I’m posting this on behalf of Alexandra Oliver, one of our Pittsburgh-based curators. Thanks for the write-up on the May 14 PEAL meeting, Alex!]

Unlisted curators and directors are not the only ones thinking about revitalization in Pittsburgh these days. In fact, all of Pittsburgh, on some level, is probably thinking about revitalization in Pittsburgh. Of course, artists are its avant-garde, contributing to the process, thinking about it, and critiquing it in turn. At least, we hope.

On a recent evening at Garfield Artworks, the steering committee of PEAL (Pittsburgh Emerging Arts Leaders) welcomed arts community members (emerging and established) for an evening discussion on the theme of revitalization. The three panelists (minus Justin Strong, who couldn’t make it) brought distinct perspectives but didn’t ultimately disagree on any point. Indeed, the whole evening suggested polite and sincere consensus.

The discussion, moderated by Brett Crawford, professor of arts management at CMU, kicked it off with her positive feelings about the city, making us feel good in the way only someone who’s left DC for Pittsburgh can. Then she gave the stage to Morton Brown, Public Art Manager at the City of Pittsburgh. He warned wisely of the “missionary effect”—descending on a community with an outsider’s solutions to its problems. He spoke from his own personal experience of engaging in long, ongoing consultation with local residents before installing a sculpture in a public park. “Dialogue is number one,” he concluded.

He was followed by Linda Metropulos, currently with Action Housing, who has long been a pillar of arts revitalization activity in the city. She congratulated Garfield Artworks as being one of the “trailblazers,” noting that while being the “first in” is great, it’s just as important not to “get priced out.” She referred to a number of projects that I wasn’t familiar with, making it hard for me to follow her, but generally I gathered that she was committed to sustainable development, so that spaces could continue to be accessible to families and artists. “It’s well-known that artists are the beginning of urban redevelopment,” she asserted. As evidence, she cited the case of Whole Foods. When the grocery retailer was looking for spaces, it took the presence of artists as a good sign that development was on its way. Artists, she said, give legitimacy to others who follow.

Finally, Vanessa German weighed in. She lives in Homewood and runs Art House, but her roster of projects is long and exceedingly diverse. As always, when I hear her speak, I feel her as a powerhouse of a particular kind of creativity that is identical with political truth. She began with a sophisticated philosophical question: if renewal is ongoing, then shouldn’t we expect that things would already have been “renewed”? Her point is that one cannot wait for city officials or politicians to announce programs of renewal—you just have to get out there and do it yourself. This was a lack of faith in the system expressed in in the best way: robustly positive, in the language of individual empowerment at the local level. “Just do whatever you want to do, within the means that you have to do it,” she said.  “If you have the spark of the thing, it’s probably not just about you, but it might need to come through you. There is no ‘they’ that will grease the path.” What might have come as a blow of disillusionment was received as good news.

Walking home after the talk I wondered about Brown’s easy characterization of artists as “entrepreneurs.” Does artistic creation slide so easily into a term that used to be reserved for business because of our gradual acceptance of the arts as a commercial enterprise? Or is it more like the destiny of the word “curator”—generalized in the other direction, to suit the needs to merchandisers and marketers?

Alexandra Oliver


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