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Public art advocates seek a reboot of Pittsburgh's 'Percent for Art' law

Pittsburgh's Percent for Art law funded creation of this sculpture by OOA Designs in Wightman Park, in Squirrel Hill.
Pittsburgh Department of Public Art and Civic Design
Pittsburgh's Percent for Art law funded creation of this sculpture by OOA Designs in Wightman Park, in Squirrel Hill.

Some advocates for public art in Pittsburgh say the city could be spending its funds for such projects more strategically.

They’re calling for a reboot of the city’s decades-old law allocating funds for public art. Known informally as Percent for Art, the law requires the city to set aside 1% of the funds for the construction or renovation of any city-owned building costing $50,000 or more to create art on that site.

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There are two main problems, critics say. One is that the funds generated on any given project are often quite small. For example, even a $1 million renovation of a senior center would produce just $10,000 for art — not enough to cover artist fees, materials, fabrication and maintenance of a substantial mural, sculpture or other artwork.

“It might be able to support a temporary public-art piece, but it can’t really be a piece that will be a permanent public art,” said Sallyann Kluz, who heads the nonprofit Office for Public Art. The budgets often limit the city to works such as pavement murals, whose lifespan is necessarily limited.

Another problem is the requirement that the art must be on the same site as the project funding it, limiting the placement to locations where work is being done and hindering efforts to spread artworks more equitably throughout the city.

“Right now, Percent for Art is reactive based on location, as opposed to opportunistic and strategic as to where’s the greatest need,” said Sarah Minnaert, the city’s public art and civic design manager, whose department often works with the Office for Public Art. "Is there a way we can pool those resources, for example, in order to make a greater impact with the resources that we do have?"

In June, Kluz disseminated an email encouraging residents to write the Public Art and Civic Design department to advocate for pooled funding. “Through this strategy, ten one-million dollar construction projects would generate $100,000 for public art, which could then be allocated for artist fees and project implementation in one or more locations,” Kluz wrote. “This strategy would also better support artists by providing them with more realistic budgets and wages for their work.”

Minnaert said City Council might take up the issue during this year’s budgeting process, which will likely begin this fall.

At stake are several hundred thousand dollars each year from the city’s capital budget. Minnaert says the current capital budget includes $29.4 million in eligible projects, so approximately $294,000 is set aside for Percent for Art.

Not all Percent for Art funds are spent in the year they are budgeted; some construction and renovation projects are multi-year, and payouts for art and artists often span multiple fiscal years as well, said Minnaert.

This year, the city will spend about $124,600 in Percent for Art funds on projects, including Suphitsara Buttra Coleman’s pavement mural in the Chartiers Spray Park, Minnaert said.

In addition, qualifying projects are not always buildings. For instance, one such project in the current budget is the Davis Avenue Bridge Reconstruction in Brighton Heights, which includes $30,000 for artwork.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: