Despite there still being questions about the fate of the Dreamers under the DACA program and a decision from the Supreme Court on President Trump’s immigration ban being handed down later this year, the Pittsburgh region continues to be a welcoming place for refugees from around the world.
Last Spring, the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council’s Office of Public Art, with funding from the National Endowment for the Art’s “Our Town” grant, awarded four artists-in-residencies. Our Town grants are creative placemaking grants, designed to strengthen communities through arts, culture, and design strategies.
“We did a call for organizations that served immigrant refugee communities,” said Sallyann Kluz, Director of GPAC’s Office of Public Art. Christine Bethea is working with the Bhutanese Community Association of Pittsburgh, Mary Tremonte is working with the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council, Molly Rice is working with the Northern Area Multi-Service Center (NAMS), and Lindsey Peck Scherloum is working with United Somali Bantu of Greater Pittsburgh.
“They’ve been collaborating for maybe nine or ten months of the residency so they’ve gone through a process of community engagement, a getting-to-know-each-other phase, and then community engagement activities,” Kluz reported. “And then they’re trying some different ideas for projects before they put together their final project proposal which will be coming up in the next couple of months. Once they’ve made their final project proposal, and it’s got everyone’s final sign-off, they’ll have a year to implement that.”
According to Kluz, the Bhutanese and Somali community organizations deal with specific populations and NAMS performs senior outreach, outreach within the community, and the region’s largest refugee resettlement program. The Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council conducts English as a second language programs and Tremonte is working with teachers who are in those programs.
Recent changes in U.S. government as they apply to immigrants and refugees have certainly had an effect on the communities taking part in the current Artist in the Public Realm program.
“It’s really been an intense period,” admitted Kluz. “And particularly looking through the lens that we have of seeing people coming in, I know that NAMS has seen some fluctuation in terms of the number of refugees they anticipate to be resettling. They still have a pretty steady stream of folks though because of how things were in the pipeline.
“But there’s a lot of stress in that community of people who are serving and trying to help refugees,” she continued. “My sense is that the Bhutanese and Somali communities certainly have family and people that they would like to come here. But they are not necessarily dealing with day-to-day immigration flow in the way some of these other agencies are.”
The importance of public art to address issues like these that are critical to the Pittsburgh region have been recognized since 2007 with the Mayor’s Award for Public Art.
At GPAC’s recent Response/ABILITY Annual Convening, Mayor Bill Peduto announced that this year’s award would be given to artist Andrea Polli and collaborator Ron Gdovic of WindStax for their “Energy Flow” light installation on the Rachel Carson Bridge from November 2016 - April 2018.
In an interview for a GPAC blog post last year, Polli said: “For me, some of the most exciting things that are happening with science and technology include our ability to monitor and understand our environment. So how do you try to make something visible more visible or bring that awareness to the public of something that is actually having a big impact on them but they don’t necessarily see it? That’s where I think public art can be really valuable.”
Energy Flow. Image: Jason Cohn
PechaKucha 20x20 uses a simple yet compelling presentation formula. Each speaker submits 20 images and each image is displayed for exactly 20 seconds before —Click!— and the next image automatically take its place. It’s a terrifying, thrilling, and exacting form and not always easy for speakers to follow, but follow it they must.
PechaKucha speakers are disciplined, inspiring, funny, humane, and —brief. Their topics are art, film, design, conservation, humanity, community and —beloved. The common thread that runs through each presentation is the speaker’s love and passion for their topic and their desire to share it with others.
AIA, AIGA, & GPAC organize and host three Pittsburgh PechaKucha Nights a year, with a goal to inspire creatives and others, alike. They will host the next PechaKucha on March 2, 2017 at 6pm at Alloy 26, 100 S Commons (Northside). For advance tickets, go here. Tickets are $10 for AIA/AIGA/GPAC members and $15 for non-members, and include drinks, food, presentations, and networking.
Briefly here’s an overview of just 5 of the scheduled speakers:
1. Photographer/lawyer Glenn Olcerst will be sharing images of houses in the Mexican War Streets with a focus on the exterior decorative arts. Glenn believes public art enhances neighborhood communication through artistic and cultural expressions, is a tool for community design and neighborhood improvement, and that public art promotes safety, diversity, education, and development. Glenn is a stonecutter as well as a commercial and fine art photographer who believes that making something beautiful out of nothing brings happiness and healing to both the artist and to the community.
2. ROY, a metal artist, will present her humanitarian project, “Midnight Helpers,” an aid effort for Syrian refugees. In 1922, ROY’s grandfather survived the massacre and great fire of Smyrna and settled as a refugee on the island of Chios, Greece. This family history, plus a recent visit to Chios, inspired ROY to assemble a team of volunteers to help Syrian refugees who have landed in Chios. Since October, Midnight Helpers has gather and shipped 3 tons of materials— clothes, food, shampoo, toothpaste— to support the efforts of the people of Chios as they welcome the recent flood of the refugees on their shores. All goods and man hours have been donated by individuals and business partners such as Stamoolis and Kahil’s Restaurant, the only cost is shipping.
3. In 2016, artist and illustrator, Ashley Cecil, was an artist-in-residence at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Among the vast archives, Ashley found and fell in love with the many specimens of Pennsylvania birds. Bird strikes, the phenomena of birds, confused by large areas of reflective glass, flying into buildings and dying from the impact, both moved and inspired her. At PechaKucha, Ashley will share the projects she initiated to grow awareness of the bird strike problem. Her projects included a mural of PA birds designed to be colored in by the community, an art class for youths and the coordination of four local artists to create bird themed gift shop items whose proceeds will help fund the bird strike research project.
4. In July, Kahmeelah Freidman, Office of Public Art, will lead the 48 Hour Film Project where local filmmakers will have just 48 hours to write, shoot, and edit a 7 minute film. Kahmeelah’s presentation will illustrate how the decade-old event has become more than a competition; it has become a rite of passage for young filmmakers in the 150 cities where the event is held. The 48 Hour Film Project provides opportunities for new filmmakers to make important industry connection and many of the 7-minute films they create become the basis for future feature length projects. Here’s how it works, at the beginning of the weekend each filmmaking team draws out of a hat the genre they must work in, and they are also all given—
—a line of dialogue and a prop that must be incorporated into the final product, which guarantees that the films are ‘fresh’ made over the weekend. Ultimately, the winning entry in Pittsburgh will compete with filmmakers from around the world at Filmapalooza 2018 for a grand prize and an opportunity to screen their film at the Cannes Film Festival 2018.
5. From her unique position as an architect working with artists to create public art Sallyann Kluz, Office of Public Art, will share insights gleaned from both artists and architects about creating art and building communal spaces for the public realm. Plus, Sallyann will explore how working with artists can change mindsets and refresh ways of seeing the world. (image: people practicing yoga atop the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, in the presence of "For Pittsburgh", artist Jenny Holzer's LED artwork)
March 2nd speakers also include Hayley Haldeman, Matthew Schlueb, Mark Dietrick, and Matthew Ketchum sharing their passions ranging from a love of creative people and their art to the Italian town of Volterra to creative tools and process in architectural practice.
Current and upcoming public art projects sponsored by the Office of Public Art, Pittsburgh Bicentennial Commission and Allegheny County are helping to make what many of us view as invisible -- or, at least, not something we‘re aware of -- more visible.
“One of our initiatives is something called the artist in the public realm residency where we pair an artist in the community with a non-arts organization,” said Renee Piechocki, director of the Office of Public Art. “The purpose of the residency is to increase social and physical connectivity between communities and between neighborhoods. We feel the artist in the public realm residency format is a really good way to achieve that goal because it supports longer term collaborations.”
In early January, the Office of Public Art released a Request for Qualifications to announce its latest round of opportunities for artists in the public realm. Working in collaboration with Welcoming Pittsburgh, the City of Pittsburgh Department of City Planning, and organizations that serve immigrant communities in Pittsburgh, the OPA will select four artists to collaborate with an organization in a two-year artist residency program.
“We did a call for communities this summer and fall and we picked four organizations.” said Piechocki. The organizations include the Northern Area Multi-Service Center, United Somali Bantu of Greater Pittsburgh, Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council, and the Bhutanese Community Association of Pittsburgh.
On the selection of immigrant communities to participate in the program, Piechocki said it reflected the interest of the Office of Public Art in bringing arts to new audiences. “We are also interested in raising awareness in how diverse the Pittsburgh region is. Most people don’t realize that the most commonly spoken language, aside from English in Pittsburgh, is Nepali. And there’s also Arabic and there’s also Spanish. Some people aren’t aware that there are 5,000 people that the Bhutanese Association of Pittsburgh serves that live in our region.”
Although the artists in the public realm project isn‘t something that can be viewed right now, Energy Flow, by Andrea Polli can currently be seen on the Rachel Carson Bridge.
Polli, Professor of Art & Ecology at the University of New Mexico, is known for her work at the interconnection of art, science, and technology. And, as Renee Piechocki pointed out, “Her projects tend to make things that are invisible visible.”
“In terms of the way our public art can help people’s public awareness of issues,” said Polli, “I think we’re really in a moment where maybe the advances of science are moving so quickly. There’s becoming a divide, a science and technology divide, where the average person, who may not be in the field of the sciences or technology, doesn’t have access to what’s happening very easily.”
“What’s truly exciting to me about Energy Flow, the Rachel Carson Bridge project, is that it’s a demonstration project,” she explained. “So you actually see the turbines and know that the turbines are producing energy that is powering the lights.” There are 27,000 on the bridge and the color and brightness of the lights can be controlled using digital technology. In addition, different animations can be programmed and changed based on wind speeds.
“For me, some of the most exciting things that are happening with science and technology is our ability to monitor and understand our environment,” she said. “So how do you try to make something visible more visible or bring that awareness to the public of something that is actually having a big impact on them but they don’t necessarily see it. That’s where I think public art can be really valuable.”
The Office of Public Art is hosting information sessions about their artists in the public realm program to review the program goals and application process with those interested in learning more. The deadline to submit qualifications is February 6, 2017 at 11:59pm. The final two sessions are:
- Tuesday, January 24, 2017 at 6pm Northern Area Multi-Service Center, 209 13th Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15215
- Tuesday, January 31, 2017 at 6:30pm Woods Run Library with United Somali Bantu, 1201 Woods Run Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15212
Andrea Polli will be in Pittsburgh this week, hosting talks and workshops that are free and open to the public:
- On January 23, Andrea Polli and her team will host Making the Invisible Visible, An EnvironMENTAL Challenge at the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, 810 Penn Avenue, 7th Floor, Pittsburgh, PA 15222
- On January 24 through January 28, Polli will lead teams of students, artists, technologists, scientists, researchers and professors during a five-day workshop at Carnegie Museum of Art.
Office of Public, a nationally-recognized organization dedicated to the education and technical support of public art in our region, hosts public art walking tours and special, insider studio tours each month – recently selling out tours to places like Thaddeus Mosley’s studio and the Homewood Cemetery. Rachel Klipa, Manager of Community Engagement for Office of Public Art, offers insights and comments on this weekend’s tours of public art in downtown and the Northside – bilingual tours in English and Klingon.
“We knew that Wizard World was coming, and we thought this was a great way to expand our audiences and reach new audiences. After all, public art is for everyone. At one of our staff meetings, someone threw out the idea, 'Hey, we should do this in Klingon!' and we thought, hey, that’s a good idea!” said Rachel Klipa.
She continued, “Kahmeela Friedson, one of our staff members who will participate on two panels at Wizard World, put out a national call for Klingon speakers and three or four people came forward. After interviewing, we determined that Andrew Shull Miller was the best fit – after all, he is a Klingon Language Institute Certified Speaker!”
Mr. Marc Okrand, who has a doctorate in linguistics, created the Klingon language and certifies the language’s speakers through his institute. Mr. Okrand began his linguistic career studying extinct Native American languages from the U.S. West Coast, helping develop the closed-captioning system for hearing impaired television viewers, and now exclusively champions and develops Klingon.
Rachel comments: “I think it’s great that Marc and others can manipulate real concepts and linguistics to make an artificial language, but at the same time I wonder how this fits in with studying and valuing languages that emerged from native cultures. There are, though, people who speak Klingon to one another and the language is validated by this network of people, so perhaps one of the issues this public art tour is raising - as all art raises social issues on some level - is really what native language can be and how people communicate. After I met Andrew, my mind opened to new ideas about the study of language and what they are doing.”
Andrew took the script for the public art tour to Marc, who then created 40 new words to accommodate terms that are in the script for the tour. For example, there is now a Klingon word for the following: monument, art space, Pittsburgh, Allegheny.
Marc is an expert in indigenous languages and is able to incorporate sounds from languages that other people speak. Shares Klipa, “For me, fluent in Spanish, Serbian and English, and a Spanish teacher, I found this to be fascinating. Andrew shared with me that sound combinations from the language the Aztecs (Nahuatl) once spoke are incorporated into Klingon. This public art tour brings a lot into question – regional dialects and accents are disappearing, too, for example. Seeing how much English is influencing Spanish in recent years is amazing. Languages are fluid, and must be able to breathe and adapt to cultural changes or they will disappear – they have to.”
Public Art Tours in Klingon language will be offered this Friday and Saturday. Reserve your tour tickets, here http://www.pittsburghartscouncil.org/events-and-workshops-etc/gpacevents/event/451
Each participant with receive a new book: Pittsburgh Art in Public Places, and will receive free admission to the Toonseum's Star Trek exhibit!
- Friday, November 4, or Saturday, November 5: meet at noon meet in the east lobby of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, then continue the public art walk through town.
- Friday, November 4, or Saturday, November 5: meet at the entrance of the New Hazlett Theater on the North Side and continue the public art walk through the Northside.
We in the non-profit arts talk a lot about ticket sales, individual donors, foundation and corporate support, memberships, and public support for the arts. Understandable. Steady, reliable income streams are essential to our survival and to our abilities to reach and serve the public.
But, increasingly, our sector is having different kinds of conversations. In a variation on the words of President Kennedy offered in 1960, we’re saying: “Ask not what our communities can do for the arts, ask what the arts can do for our communities.”
One platform where these ideas are taking shape is the “New Community Visions Initiative” of Americans for the Arts (AFTA), the nation’s largest arts service organization, of which the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council is a member.
The Initiative’s starting point is the premise that the arts don’t stand alone. We are, instead, one of 30 linked “contributors” which can make our communities healthy, vibrant, and equitable. Sectors, in addition to the arts, range from social justice, the environment, faith, aging, cultural heritage, and the economy to innovation and technology, education, the workforce, health and wellness, the military, and infrastructure, among others.
The over-riding question for the Initiative is: “What roles can the arts sector play, in partnership with these other sectors, to help our communities become more vibrant, healthy, and equitable over the next decade and beyond?” We as a sector seem no longer satisfied to be “amenities”—as nice but not really necessary, at least in some eyes. How can we make a difference on this broader platform?
I recently had the opportunity to participate in one of the AFTA Initiative’s many national conversations, a gathering of 120 arts leaders from around the country held on June 16-17, 2016, in Boston. The group generated a number of visions for how, in the future, the creativity of artists can and will work in partnership with other sectors to make positive change in communities:
- In the face of neighborhood gentrification and displacement, artists will help preserve cultural traditions, and bring new and existing residents together
- The arts will provide ways for individuals, including recent immigrants, to express their true identities in the face of pressures to deny and suppress those identities
- As new devices create ubiquitous connectivity, artists and other “creatives” will be a driving force in the design, structure, and nature of those devices
- The arts will be integrated more fully into the health care system and entrusted with the care of our citizens though arts-based therapies and preventative regimens
- In response to pressing ecological issues, artists will increase their production across all mediums that will create new public knowledge, dialogue, and action. (We're doing that, soon with the Re:NEW Festival)
Realizing these ambitious visions, of course, will not be easy. Within the year, AFTA will be offering “A Blueprint for 21st Century Healthy Communities through the Arts,” a combination of visions and practical, how-to strategies to help the arts sector along this path.
In the meantime, GPAC, for its part, held a workshop called “The Why, When, and How of Cross-sector Arts Partnerships” in May to explore the risks, challenges, and benefits of artists and arts organizations working across sectors. We drew on the experience and expertise of three local organizations—The Sprout Fund, the Office of Public Art, and New Sun Rising. Based on their collective, cross-sector experience with government, community development organizations, real estate developers, environmental groups, the gathering identified a number of keys to cross-sector success:
- Meet people and organizations where they are
- Build trust and familiarity
- Define and agree on specific goals-- some shared, some individual—and develop strategies to reach all of them
- Anticipate, communicate, negotiate (and communicate some more)
- Be sure you have “skin in the game”
It’s clear that cross-sector arts partnering is here to stay and will likely grow. The days of focusing mainly on income streams are over. Yes, there is much to learn, and much to aspire to. But going forward, the arts sector will continue to seek collaborative ways to engage our communities that help ensure those communities are healthy, vibrant, and equitable.
David B. Pankratz is the Research and Policy Director at the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council. Thank you to Citizens for the Arts in PA and the PA Council on the Arts for a 2016 Professional Development & Consulting grant to participate in the New Community Visions conference.
photo: courtesy of Neu Kirche Contemporary Art Center, artists and community members painting a mural, together.