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Mayor Gainey abruptly dismisses all members of city's art commission

Sarah Kovash
90.5 WESA
In 2017, the Pittsburgh Art Commission voted to recommend removing a 117-year-old statue of songwriter Stephen Foster, which had been criticized as demeaning because it includes a slave sitting at his feet, plucking a banjo. Last week, Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey dismissed its members.

Two days after their November meeting, all five members of Pittsburgh’s art commission were abruptly dismissed by Mayor Ed Gainey last Friday.

The commissioners, some with several years’ tenure, were notified by phone. A subsequent letter signed by Karen Abrams, director of the Department of City Planning, informed commissioners their term had expired in January, when Gainey took office, and that “the decision has been made not to reappoint you to your position.”

“We want to express our sincere gratitude for your service to the Art Commission,” Abrams added.

Some commissioners voiced objections to how they were let go.

Commissioners are mayoral appointees approved by city council, and serve as unpaid volunteers. They have authority over the addition, alteration or removal of public artworks and also the design of some municipal buildings and other facilities, including city parks. The goal, broadly, is to maintain and improve the quality of the built environment. In recent years, their highest-profile votes have been for the removal from public view of controversial statues of composer Stephen Foster and explorer Christopher Columbus.

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But former commissioners, all appointees of former Mayor Bill Peduto — who lost to Gainey in the 2021 Democratic primary — said they had no prior indication that Gainey was displeased with them or was preparing to remove them.

“I felt like it was not really handled really well,” said Sarika Goulatia, a commissioner for five years. She said that until last week, she was unaware she was serving out an expired term.

“We know the mayor has this right, but it’s the process of how it was done that was very upsetting to all of us,” said Richard Parsakian, who had served on the commission since late 2019.

Parsakian said that early in the mayor’s tenure, city planning staff told the commissioners no changes would be made to the commission. He said they knew no differently until Friday.

Commission chair Andrew Moss said Gainey had scheduled a meeting with him this past summer but that it was cancelled.

“The need to completely remove all commissioners really seems to be a bit inappropriate, and a little irresponsible, quite honestly,” said Moss, a commissioner for seven years.

Parsakian added he would have welcomed a meeting with the mayor about any planned changes to the commission. “I think I would have been a little more confident that the administration is really looking out for the design process and [the applications that come] before us,” he said.

The ousted commissioners also include Peter Quintanilla and Vivian Loftness.

Moss said the wholesale removal of the commissioners is unusual. He said new commission members have traditionally served with more experienced members. “What that gave the commission was a sense of continuation and just a learning that came from starting as a new commissioner, [that] you had other members on the commission who had been there for quite some time,” he said.

The three ousted commissioners reached by WESA all said they were told in last Friday’s phone calls from city planning staff that they were removed to make the commission more diverse and “more representative of the city.”

Commissioners noted that their number included two women, one of whom is Asian; a Latino man, and, in Parsakian, a businessman and arts patron who is a longtime informal representative of the local LGBTQ community.

They added that there are two vacant seats on the commission. Gainey “could have filled those two seats and brought in somebody who he felt was more his interpretation of what representation is,” said Parsakian.

However, neither the letters to the commissioners nor a statement issued Tue., Nov. 22, by mayoral spokesperson Maria Montaño, gave a reason for the dismissals. The statement read, in part: “The administration is in the process of naming and identifying new members before the January art commission meeting. We look forward to having more information to share soon about our vision moving forward.”

The art commission does not meet in December.

Commissioners said they had received no negative feedback from the mayor’s office about any decisions they had made. However, in an Instagram post, Goulatia speculated whether they had somehow displeased the mayor. “Was being critical of city run projects instrumental in this termination without any meeting with the mayor or his team? Or is it just what every newly elected mayor does?”

Controversial discussions the commission was involved with this year included: criticism of Point Park University’s plan to erect a gate on a courtyard on its Downtown campus; a vote to scale back a large bus shelter on Schenley Plaza for the planned Bus Rapid Transit System; and criticizing a plan to fast-track reconstruction of the Fern Hollow Bridge because commissioners felt too little attention had been paid to its design.

In response to a question about whether other mayoral commissions might be subject to similar moves, the statement from the mayor’s office said: “At this point in time, we are not making any other changes to other commissions for the City of Pittsburgh.”

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: