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Pittsburgh Looks to Expand Public Art

When Huang Xiang came to Pittsburgh, he was so happy to be able to share his poems – which forced him to leave China – that he painted them onto his house on Sampsonia Way, marking the beginning of City of Asylum.

“In grass style … calligraphy, he painted a poetry anthology in Chinese,” Diane Samuels, artist and co-founder of City of Asylum said. “From the moment he was out there on the scaffolding, people in the neighborhood stopped by and asked what was going on.  We explained and then Huang Xiang would read, perform one of his poems – the neighborhood was fascinated.”

Artists and officials told city council Thursday how public art such as this continues to unite Pittsburghers and make the city a more vibrant, diverse place.

They discussed how to fill in the “gaps” of the public art process in Pittsburgh – especially those in regards to funding.

Public art is funded through the One Percent Ordinance, which was adopted in 1977.

But Morton Brown, City of Pittsburgh Public Art Manager, said the “outdated” ordinance only covers projects involving buildings.

“So contemporary models around the nation are not limited to buildings,” Brown said. “Bridges or other infrastructure that aren’t like public safety oriented would typically feed into a One Percent for Art in total that typically a public art manager like myself would have a pot of money with which to plan new commissions.”

Morton said the current ordinance also says that if a piece is created for a new building, it must stay with that building, adding to its limitations.

That’s why he and City Council are looking to update the ordinance.

“This is a process that we had started a couple of years ago in the public art planning process,” Brown said. “And public art Percent for Art, was number one in priority – we heard that from the community, we already knew that ourselves, but that’s what we’re going to do this spring is hopefully get some public comment around this, present some ideas and move through implementation.”

Renee Piechocki, Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council Office of Public Art director, said the city has a collection of more than 100 art pieces.

She said public art isn’t just a matter of making the city more aesthetic, it’s a way to stimulate the local economy.

“I think that’s something definitely to think about – if the city begins to do more public art, which I hope it does, that you’re not just supporting artists, you’re supporting the trades,” Piechocki said. “And I don’t know any council member that would say ‘yeah, we don’t need any construction jobs,’ so start to think about it that way.”