Photograph of artists in the lobby of a theater, talking, laughing and eating together.

I was at a national arts conference, surrounded by movers and shakers. You know who stood out? You know who brought the real questions, the truths grounded in a track record of building cultural community?

The artists and thinkers from Pittsburgh.

I said: time to go to Pittsburgh.

For the past two years, I have been coming here from Philadelphia, connecting with artists and sharing resources about how artists build sustainable lives.

I offer you: Three Observations From an Outsider With a Crush on Pittsburgh.

1) Damn, you have good people.

Pittsburgh has some unbelievable artists and arts leaders.

Marcel Walker is doing a series of comic books, Superheroes of the Holocaust. So crucial in this divisive time to remember those with the courage to stand up.

DS Kinsel creates and curates through BOOM Concepts, the smartest and most relevant placemaking I have seen anywhere in this country. Real artists building real community.

Do you know about “community based illustration?” Genevieve Barbee draws the everyday lived experiences of Pittsburgh.

Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council does more for working artists than any similar organization I have seen (including, ahem, Philly’s equivalent). Their Having our Say survey looked closely and candidly at working conditions for Pittsburgh artists. Lots of cities need to copy that.

Gil Teixeira makes music for prison musicalsstreet choirs for those who are suffering, and orchestras of cellphones.

Janera Solomon curates more than art; she curates civic honesty. There’s a beautiful future for Pittsburgh and America, and it passes through the transformative art and righteous conversations Solomon programs.

2) But you don’t always appreciate them.

Pittsburgh has brilliant artists and arts leaders, people poised to lead the national conversation about building an equitable arts and culture sector. But that doesn’t mean y’all always listen to them. Like in Philly, Pittsburghers can be unimpressed with their own, quick to look to an outside “expert” over a brilliant local. My Philadelphia dance company got a lot more love in Philly after our first big show in New York. “Wow, you guys must be good.” Um, we’ve been here, doing this, for years.

Raise up your homegrown geniuses. Listen to them, fund them, follow them. The national conversation needs the insights of Pittsburgh artists and arts professionals. If these people were in New York or Berlin or Paris, they would get rock star treatment. Why does so much of Gil Teixeira’s most exciting work happen overseas? Why isn’t DS Kinsel running everything? When will Janera Solomon be president?

3) Redevelopment is coming.

Pittsburgh is on the cusp of massive redevelopment and neighborhood change. Whatever you’re picturing, it’s bigger than that, by a lot. Those of us who have been through it in Philly recognize the signs.

Artists and arts organizations can do a lot at this moment to root yourselves in communities and neighborhoods. Buy. Don’t rent. Buy.

And think big. I know some born-and-raised Baltimore artists who are talking about buying a block—a whole block in Baltimore—to build art and community by and for the neighborhood.

And, yes, artists play a complicated role in redevelopment. But local Pittsburgh artists rooted in communities are crucial architects of a Future Pittsburgh that is brave, inclusive, and fun as hell to live in.

Plan or be planned for, as they say. Artists and arts leaders are crucial partners in equitable and thoughtful redevelopment, but too often we are not at the table. Every conversation about redevelopment should include an artist and an arts leader. Want to understand displacement? Talk to an artist who lives and works in the neighborhood she grew up in. Want to understand what turns residents into neighbors? Talk to a community arts leader who builds real dialogue and connection.

Artists are a core strength of the city and its neighborhoods, a key reason why people stay and, more and more, why people come to Pittsburgh.

And why I can’t wait to come back.

Andrew Simonet is an artist, writer, and founder of Artists U. Photo: from the 2016 Regional Artist Info Session at the New Hazlett Theater.


Published in The Arts Blog