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Pittsburgh City Council signals support for revamping public art oversight

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
Pittsburgh City Council voted 8-0 Monday to back three new ordinances governing oversight of public art. The changes were proposed by Mayor Ed Gainey’s Department of City Planning.

Pittsburgh City Council has indicated it is likely to approve sweeping changes to the laws governing public art in the city.

Council voted 8-0 Monday to back three new ordinances proposed by Mayor Ed Gainey’s Department of City Planning. A planning department official told council the changes would make the creation and siting of public art in the city more transparent, equitable and efficient.

One of the laws would rename the city’s Art Commission the Art & Civic Design Commission and split it into two bodies, one overseeing public art, and the other responsible for reviewing design changes to city-owned buildings or sites.

Another would amend the Percent for Art program, which sets aside 1 percent of the cost of municipally funded capital projects for art. Under the change, the funds would be pooled for use on artworks anywhere in the city, rather than limited to the sites of individual projects.

And the third change would create a trust fund for one-time contributions from 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.

Before Monday’s vote, Sarah Minnaert, the city’s assistant director for public history, art and design, fielded questions about the ordinances from councilors.

Minnaert said one goal of changing the 45-year-old Percent for Art law was to help the city to site art in communities that now have less of it, rather than simply appending it to capital projects. She called such communities “public art deserts,” and said the siting of artworks would involve neighborhood organizations, neighborhood comprehensive plans, and maps of the current locations of artworks, among other factors.

Councilor Bruce Kraus was among those who spoke favorably of the proposal. “I like this approach a lot,” he said.

City Planning announced the proposed ordinances Dec. 9, three weeks after Gainey abruptly dismissed all five members of the city’s Art Commission.

“I was actually glad that Mayor Gainey decided to go in a different direction,” said Councilor Theresa Kail-Smith on Monday.

While she thanked the commissioners for their efforts, she said she had concerns about geographic diversity in both the composition of the commission and in how art was distributed throughout the city, citing a lack of it in the “western neighborhoods,” including those she represents. (The city code, it should be noted, currently gives the art commission the power to approve or reject proposed public artworks, but it does not empower the commission to propose artworks or decide in which communities proposed artworks are placed.)

Councilor Bobby Wilson asked Minnaert whether the Percent for Art funds would be spent without council’s approval.

“Any contracting that we do goes through council review,” Minnaert said.

Minnaert said the splitting of the current seven-member commission into two five-member committees would lessen the burden on the volunteer members.

Minnaert added that if the ordinances passed, the city would seek to have the committees meet jointly “at least twice a year” so members could be briefed early on big projects. She cited the confusion that arose in August when art commission members objected to the size of bus shelters proposed in Oakland by Pittsburgh Regional Transit for the new Bus Rapid Transit system. Though the planning process began years earlier, commissioners said it was the first they had been told of the shelters and their scale.

Kail-Smith asked Karen Abrams, director of the city planning department, when the mayor might submit nominations for those new positions. Abrams said the mayor’s office was “working on it” but that she didn’t know a date.

Council could vote on the new ordinances as soon as its Dec. 28 meeting. The art commission’s next regularly scheduled monthly meeting is Jan. 25.

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: