Once a shell of its former industrial self, Pittsburgh has been busily making itself over. Now its cheap rents and artistic legacy are luring a new generation of creative pioneers, writes Yael Friedman ...


As the host of the recent G20 Summit, Pittsburgh was a showcase of urban and economic renewal for the world. In three decades Pennsylvania’s Steel City has transformed itself from rustbelt victim to a more vibrant and economically diverse place. But while Andy Warhol’s hometown is enjoying its 15 minutes, the city’s dynamic art scene is also worth a look. With a top-ranked art school, a new director at the Carnegie Museum of Art and a city full of young talent and cheap rents, Pittsburgh is poised to become a solid base for the next generation of artists.

One of the city’s main engines for new creative energy may also be its oldest--the Carnegie Museum of Art. The Carnegie has a history of supporting and fuelling artistic innovation, and many are excited to see what direction the museum will move in now that Lynn Zelevansky is at the helm. Zelevansky became the museum’s director in July after a long tenure as head of the contemporary art department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She is determined to raise the museum’s profile and emphasises that “building up the museum’s contemporary collection is the main agenda.”

PittsburghThis is in keeping with the museum’s original mission. Unlike other museums founded during the gilded industrial age, which concentrated on safe-bet collections of Old Masters to reflect their new wealth, Andrew Carnegie opened his museum in 1896 with a vision of collecting the “Old Masters of tomorrow.” The Carnegie pursues this mission not least by highlighting the work of local artists, as it does with its annual Associated Artists of Pittsburgh exhibition, which features jury-selected pieces by artists living within 150 miles of the city. (The 99th annual show is on at the museum now.) According to Kitty Spangler, president of the AAP and a member since 1977, “this partnership between a city’s major museum and major artists’ organisation may very well be the only one of its kind in the country.”  

Yet some newer projects may provide better clues to Pittsburgh’s artistic future. One cannot mention the city’s burgeoning art scene without a local asking, “Have you been to Braddock?” A striking example of the region’s rise and fall and hopeful rise again from the ashes, Braddock is a half-hour’s drive from downtown Pittsburgh but a world away.

Braddock can boast that this is where Andrew Carnegie built his first steel mill and founded his first free library. For nearly a century the city’s dense, booming population of 20,000 thrived. Today, however, it is a poster child for the rustbelt’s post-industrial devastation: it has lost nearly 90% of its population and the average home costs $6,200. On a once bustling main street, only a handful of stores remain open for business, two meat shops, a dollar store and a few non-profits.

But as Jeanine Hall, a 26-year-old sculptor, observes, “the way creative people tend to think, they see possibilities in all the empty spaces.” She is a prime example. She moved to Braddock a week earlier, having left a comfortable leafy suburb near Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon university, where she received a master’s degree in arts administration. Hill had already been working in Braddock for over a year (and without payment) as the art director and manager of UnSmoke Systems, a gallery and creative space in a repurposed Catholic school building. The auditorium serves as the main gallery and event hall and the classrooms provide studio space for artists in residence.

thank youJeb Feldman, owner and co-manager of UnSmoke, fell in love with the town soon after he arrived from New Mexico, also to study arts administration at Carnegie Mellon. Braddock's empty lots and neglected streets inspired him to work with others to help spur development. He joined ranks with the city’s young and determined mayor, John Fetterman, who has gained national attention for his efforts to create a workable model of urban renewal. With the support of the mayor, Feldman sees investment in the arts as essential, both to invigorate residents and lure artists and their followers. He has become  an unofficial spokesman for Braddock's artistic development.

The result is a burgeoning mini-scene, with a good deal of artistic camaraderie. “It’s still a very small-town arts community feeling,” says Rob Rogers, a political cartoonist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “You can go to the leaders of the community and have them support and point you in the right direction.” He co-curated “Drawn to the Summit”, an exhibition of international political cartoons timed to coincide with the G20 Summit, now on at the Warhol Museum. “There is certainly a history in this city for patronage for the arts,” Rogers says, referring to the city’s industrial founding fathers–the Carnegies, Mellons and Fricks. “I think it’s just going to get bigger.”  

Only one more ingredient is necessary for a creative community to truly flourish: patrons. The city already boasts a ready infusion of “meds and eds”— its large academic and medical community. But many say the city is still hungry for entrepreneurs and financial investment.

On this matter locals are of two minds. Some view the G20 Summit as a boon for the arts, a perfect way for the city to earn the attention of potential private investors. But others, such as Larry Bogad, a theatre scholar, performance artist, activist and former resident, sharply disagree. Bogad sees art and theatre as tools of protest against business as usual. He was invited by Carnegie Mellon’s Centre for Arts in Society in September to offer an alternative voice to the G20 agenda, and he spoke for those who are plainly suspicious of appealing to financial interests.

Tavia La Follette, an artist who moved to Pittsburgh a decade ago and founded ArtUp, a leading local arts-education organisation, argues that much of the city’s character, good and bad, was born of its financial problems.  “That is not something that is exactly exportable,” she says, referring to Pittsburgh's mix of cheap rents and community spirit, but also its drastically reduced population. But La Follette is optimistic. She muses that “Pittsburgh is a fertile place for the arts if Pittsburgh can cradle it.”


Picture credit: tiffanywashko, Hryck. (both via Flickr),

(Yael Friedman is a writer and lawyer living in New York. She writes about art, law and politics for Artinfo and the Art Newspaper.)