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Above:Recent growth in the number of galleries, shops, studios, and cafés in Lawrenceville is turning the neighborhood into the city’s newest artists’ enclave.





Art in Our Neighborhoods

For a small metro area, Pittsburgh offers a wealth of cultural opportunities and resources. But is it enough to sustain a strong and vibrant artistic community?

Tinsy Lipchak, director of Tourism and Cultural Heritage at the Greater Pittsburgh Convention and Visitors Bureau, can recite endless testimonials from unsuspecting visitors astonished by what they find here: a city of shimmering beauty, with a vibrant and well-established art scene full of great museums, diverse performing arts organizations, a strong history of philanthropy,
and appreciative audiences.

Spanish realist painter Felix de la Concha was one of them. He and his wife, comics scholar Ana Merino, visited from Columbus, Ohio, while she was working on her master’s degree. They thought Pittsburgh was such a great city that they decided to move here. Merino earned her doctorate at the University of Pittsburgh, and de la Concha exhibited his work at Carnegie Museum of Art and the Frick Art Museum. He recalls that both shows were very well attended.

“There’s a lot of energy in Pittsburgh, a lot of interesting exhibitions,” observes de la Concha. “It’s a city where people are very interested in art in general. I visited the museums, and I loved the architecture. I haven’t seen that in many places.”

With all that going for it, one might think Pittsburgh is a true arts mecca, a city that nurtures its own and helps them gain renown far outside its borders. But in terms of its art scene, Oz has some behind-the-curtain shortcomings. They are, however, far from fatal.

Hope and Ambition
Carnegie Museum of Art Director Richard Armstrong admits the Pittsburgh art scene has had its ups and downs over the years, but he concurs with de la Concha’s assessment. “If you look at the housing market, if you look at the Spinning Plates Lofts (low-income residential units built for artists), and at the grants from the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and Heinz Endowments, there’s a great deal of of support here given the scale of the city,” he says. “I travel a fair amount and there aren’t many American cities that offer all this.

“There’s a tremendous range of ambitions here, and it’s really something quite amazing to see,” he adds. “Outsiders think it’s heaven.” In fact, Armstrong says he frequently fields calls from people in other cities “desperate to try and replicate our situation.”

The Andy Warhol Museum Director Thomas Sokolowski is a fan of non-establishment movements to maintain and strengthen the city’s arts community. He praises the efforts of the BridgeSpotters Collective and East Liberty’s Shadow Lounge, where “poetry slams,” DJs, and performers of all stripes work in a comfortable environment highlighted by changing displays of local artists’ work. “People bring their own alcohol, the prices are cheap, and they give a forum to people to perform, and that’s really important,” he says.

Sokolowski, who regards art as an object for agitation as well as other forms of enlightenment, adds, “I think we really need a place that would just allow for wonderful presentations of art that’s raw, that isn’t necessarily pleasant.” He says Jill Larson, owner of Fe Gallery on Butler Street in the burgeoning Lawrenceville art district, does “refreshing” shows in which she pairs local and out-of-town artists together. “I think the hope for young artists in this community can be found on Butler Street in Lawrenceville and in the area of Penn Avenue, where a lot of galleries have been built up.”

Room To Grow
Indeed, Lawrenceville and the adjoining Bloomfield-Garfield area seems to have overtaken the South Side as Pittsburgh’s new Bohemia, a title that belonged to Shadyside in the ’60s and ’70s before gentrification and other factors pushed its artistic practitioners to East Carson Street and beyond.

Michelle Illuminato, a visiting assistant professor of art at Carnegie Mellon University, says she remembers when the South Side was filled with bars populated by shift-ending steel workers and withered old men. That wasn’t long before she became a mid-’90s resident of the former Duquesne Brewery, a.k.a. “the Brewhouse,” whose inhabitants battled—with eventual success—to overcome various bureaucratic tie-ups and turn the space into a legitimate artists’ enclave.

Illuminato subsequently lived in—and loved—the Spinning Plates Lofts in the Friendship-Bloomfield area. She left the city for a while but, like so many others, couldn’t stay away. She now lives in North Point Breeze and is considering buying property in Lawrenceville. “The amount of space in Pittsburgh makes a lot of things possible,” says Illuminato, who has lived in Madison, Wis., and Bowling Green, Ohio, and notes that neither city has the sort of leftover industrial space—ideal for artists—that Pittsburgh boasts.


Adam Sipe, a North Side resident who’s in a three-year, summer-only graduate-school program at Bard College in upstate New York, says the low cost of living in Pittsburgh is a big part of what’s keeping him here. The Greensburg native says he may wind up in New York someday, but right now, it makes sense for him to be in a more affordable, slower-paced community. Sipe, who won the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts’ 2004 Emerging Artist of the Year award, also works as an art handler at The Warhol. He calls that job “an invaluable experience” and “a good glimpse into the art world.”

Though positions like Sipe’s aren’t plentiful in Pittsburgh, Illuminato says the museums here have enormous resources that aren’t being tapped because artists and researchers aren’t even aware they exist. “People don’t know that they don’t have to be a scholar from New York to come in and access The Warhol’s archives,” she says.

The Big Apple Effect
That lack of awareness, unfortunately, is a subtle indicator of the city’s artistic downside.

When asked for his assessment of the Pittsburgh art scene, Armstrong admits, “I’d say it’s battered at this point. Important venues and galleries have closed or cut back, and having uncertainty at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts has been tremendously dampening.” The Shadyside center, a city institution that offered classes, exhibits, and a retail store full of unique, locally focused art and crafts, nearly collapsed last year before Pittsburgh Filmmakers Executive Director Charlie Humphrey stepped in to resuscitate it.

Pittsburgh’s not suffering alone, however. “Regional art centers have really withered considerably over the last 25 years as the art world has become more centralized around
New York and Los Angeles,” says Armstrong. “San Francisco and Chicago, both communities I knew well in the old days, are considerably less vital than they were. And Pittsburgh is in such a close magnetic pull to New York, I think it’s becoming very difficult for an artist to sustain him or herself here.”

Sokolowski observes, “We have a very small sector of exciting artists working here because most of the good people leave. They leave for various reasons, one of which is there’s very little activity in terms of shows, exhibitions, and sales. But I think it’s largely because there’s not enough interest on the part of the community to want to go see—or buy—works of art.”

Studio Z, a former art gallery on the South Side owned by Kathleen Zimbicki, did so well in the ’80s that Zimbicki was able to put two kids through college. But in the ’90s, she says, New York snobbery set in. Pittsburghers who could afford to buy art went to the Big Apple to
get it because they automatically assumed that city had better art—even though, as she notes, “A lot of local people show in New York.”

Zimbicki, who is also exhibition chair for the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh’s annual exhibit, which returns in May to The Warhol, says those in charge of curating, casting, or signing actors, artists, or musicians “think everything is New York City and L.A., and everything else is Iowa.”

Madrid’s de la Concha agrees. He says he couldn’t even get sneezed on by art administrators in Columbus until curators he knew in Chicago put in a good word for him. But, he says, the situation is the same here as in most other cities.

It Takes a Community
Despite the issues facing Pittsburgh artists today, Sipe says he’s noticing more and more artists are choosing to stay put. He contends that artists can remain in Pittsburgh and make a living if they build success outside of the city with museum exhibits and gallery sales in New York or L.A. and travel frequently to gain exposure to what’s going on in the art world. But they likely won’t do it by relying on local-market sales alone.

Yet perhaps they could if Sokolowki’s vision were to become reality. His proposal: “Get 200 people—and I’ll be one of them—to commit $500 to $1,000 dollars to buy 100 tickets in a year to go to shows, to go to theater, to go to young music, etc. And I won’t just send my money; I’ll actually go to the shows and sit in those seats at least half the time.

“I think if you just had that core audience of people trying to do that,” Sokolowski says, “you would then begin creating a culture of the visual, musical, and theatrical arts. People in this town have relied on foundations and certain individuals for too long. It’s like, ‘Oh yeah, we have all these museums.’ Well, use them.”

Without Pittsburgh’s museums, theaters, clubs, and similar attractions, Sokolowski says, visitors would be left with nothing to do but go to the Olive Garden. Adds Zimbicki: “People should support local artists by going to the museums and local galleries and buying local art.” That’s important, she says, because if an artist’s career takes off, “you’ll kick yourself for not buying when you had a chance.”

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