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Proposed revamp of Pittsburgh Art Commission and 'Percent for Art' law receives praise

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. A proposed change to the city's arts code would allow those funds to be pooled for citywide use.

Some in Pittsburgh’s art community are reacting positively to Mayor Ed Gainey’s proposal to revamp how the city reviews, approves and funds public art and civic design.

Last week – three weeks after dismissing all five members of the city’s Art Commission – Gainey’s office announced it wanted to split the commission in two, with one committee reviewing public art proposals and the other body tackling applications for the design of buildings and other city-funded structures.

The administration also proposed changing the way the city administers its longstanding Percent for Art program, which sets aside 1 percent of the budget of each city-funded capital project for artwork. Instead of having to be used on the same project they were drawn from, the funds would be pooled citywide, to be spent on more substantial projects that might be located in other parts of town.

Gainey also seeks creation of a trust fund for one-time contributions from real estate developers who bankroll public art projects in exchange for “performance points” that grant them exceptions to the zoning code for things like building heights and setbacks. The fund, which would supplement Percent for Art funds, would also accept charitable gifts and budgeted transfers from the city’s general fund.

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The three proposed ordinances amending the city code were introduced to Pittsburgh City Council on Tuesday. The Gainey administration requested that council approve the changes in time for it to nominate and seat new commission members for the body’s next scheduled meeting, Jan. 25.

City officials noted that the art commission’s essential structure and function had not changed since it was created, in 1911, and that the Percent for Art law has been on the books unaltered since 1977.

Critics of the Percent for Art law (which applies to projects of $50,000 or more) said it seldom generated enough funds on any given project to create a substantial work of art. It was also faulted for linking a given community’s stock of public art to the number and size of capital projects there, creating citywide inequities.

In fact, the change in the Percent for Art was one local public-art advocates had previously pushed for.

“This is a necessary move to really be more strategic about where public art investments happen in the city and be more equitable about ... where they are and the neighborhoods they touch,” said Sallyann Kluz, executive director of the nonprofit Office for Public Art.

The city’s current capital budget includes $29.4 million in eligible projects, or about $294,000 in Percent for Art set-asides.

Kluz added that the creation of the trust fund linked to performance points would be “an exciting step” in remaking public-art funding here.

The proposed restructuring of the Art Commission as the Art & Civic Design Commission was likewise viewed favorably by Andrew Moss, who served as the art commission chairman before being dismissed by Gainey last month.

“Specializing and splitting it up between art-focused projects versus civic, more building type of projects, could certainly help focus the attention but also streamline the process,” Moss said.

Moss, an architect, acknowledged that it had been a challenge for the commission to review both public art and civic design projects, not only because of the expertise involved but also because of the time required to do both. He noted the art commission’s monthly meetings often ran four hours or more.

Sarah Minnaert, the city’s assistant director for public history, art and design, said the Art Commission reviewed about 50 applications a year, most of which required petitioners to make multiple appearances before the commission, especially if commissioners sought changes to proposals.

“That’s quite a load to process and to give thoughtful review to,” said Minnaert, who worked closely with the commission.

Minnaert said about two-thirds of the applications were for civic design projects. She said that if approved, the two new committees would, like the current commission, meet monthly, likely on the same day.

Historically, the art commission has seven seats, reserved for one painter, one sculptor, three architects, and two community representatives. While it did typically include a range of artists and architects, in recent years it was unusual for the commission to have all seven seats filled at any given time, largely due to turnover.

Under the new proposal, the Public Art Committee would have five members: four artists or art professionals and one community representative. The Civic Design Committee would include four architects or urban designers and one community representative.

Moss, the former commission chair, cautioned that the success of the new Percent for Art rules would depend on how the funds were administered. Minnaert said that projects would be developed with guidance from neighborhoods’ individual comprehensive development plans, maps charting the density of existing public art, and a budgeting process involving the mayor’s office and city council.

She said the administration would take advantage of the art commission’s revamped structure to improve communication between applicants and committee members.

In August, for instance, controversy ensued when the art commission voted to downsize two of the bus shelters planned in Oakland for Pittsburgh Regional Transit’s Bus Rapid Transit system. PRT officials said the shelters were needed at size to accommodate expected ridership. Commissioners objected on aesthetic grounds, and were upset that shelter designs had not been run by them sooner in the years-long process.

“This is really to get that communication and collaboration to happen earlier on in the process,” Minnaert said.

The Gainey administration has yet to present city council with its nominees for the reformulated commission. All five members dismissed by Gainey were appointed by former Mayor Bill Peduto, whom Gainey defeated in the Democratic primary in May 2021 before winning the general election.

In recent years, high-profile cases before the Art Commission have led to votes to remove the statues of Stephen Foster and Christopher Columbus, both in Oakland. The Foster statue was removed in 2018.The Columbus statue is still standing, though wrapped in plastic, pending the outcome of a legal challenge to its removal.

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: