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Restructured Pittsburgh Art & Civic Design Commission is off to a good start

The new Fern Hollow Bridge during its ribbon cutting in December.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
The new Fern Hollow Bridge during its ribbon cutting in December.

This is WESA Arts, a weekly newsletter by Bill O'Driscoll providing in-depth reporting about the Pittsburgh area art scene. Sign up here to get it every Wednesday afternoon.

Much like other civic commissions, Pittsburgh’s Art Commission long did its job without getting a lot of attention — save the occasional high-profile debate about whether to remove controversial public monuments, like the Oakland statues of Stephen Foster and Christopher Columbus.

Last week’s debut monthly meeting of the restructured Art & Civic Design Commission was a chance to reflect on the value of such deliberative bodies, composed of volunteer appointees who wield both expertise and a bit of power.

Mayor Ed Gainey’s reorganization of the longstanding Art Commission split it into two committees of five seats each, mostly functioning independently. The Art Committee reviews and approves (or denies) applications for artworks on public property, including city parks. The Civic Design Committee oversees changes or additions to city-owned structures — including buildings and bridges — and landscapes (again, including parks).

Gainey dismissed the members of the old Art Commission in November, and it took some time for City Council to pass legislation enabling the restructuring, and then to approve the mayor’s nominees. So, the new Commission has a backlog of cases: For example, the Art Committee’s agenda included artist Carin Mincemoyer’s proposal for a work beneath the new Fern Hollow Bridge — an item that otherwise might have been taken up as much as two months earlier, at the canceled January meeting.

Still, the March 22 discussion illuminated the many competing values and exigencies that can come into play around public art.

Mincemoyer’s “Trail Meander” consists of a number of sculptural boulders and logs designed as seating to be arrayed on both sides of the popular Frick Park trail that runs beneath the rebuilt bridge. She presented it to the committee via online video, which is how the commission has been meeting since the pandemic struck.

All four committee members seemed to like the design. (A fifth member, Tom Mosser, resigned shortly after being appointed because he moved outside the city.) But artist Mikael Owunna — whose colleagues had just elected him commission president — was concerned that “Trail Meander” didn’t explicitly acknowledge the old Fern Hollow Bridge’s disastrous collapse, in January 2022.

“It was a really big tragedy that took place there,” said Owunna. “I know that at least one family, their elderly parents, are suffering with long-term disability. It’s really changed the trajectory of their entire lives.” Owunna said he didn’t want to “erase the trauma” of the collapse.

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Mincemoyer agreed, but noted the expedited construction timeline not only for the bridge itself, but its accompanying artwork: Following her selection by the nonprofit Office for Public Art (OPA), she began the design just a few months after the collapse, not enough time to grasp the long-term effects of the event.

Owunna asked if now, a year later, she might do something different. Mincemoyer said she wouldn’t: “I really didn’t want to dictate a specific kind of use of that space because so many people use that space for so many kinds of activities. I felt it was important to honor that and support that.”

Mincemoyer and OPA executive director Sallyann Kluz told the committee that other art projects are planned for the bridge and its environs, and would provide better opportunities to include a plaque or other memorial expressly dedicated to recalling the collapse.

Other committee members seconded Owunna on the need for a memorial, especially for the benefit of victims and their relations. “Their family members started on top of the bridge and actually ended down where this project will be. And so I just want to ensure that we don’t leave this out as we move forward,” said Celeste Smith.

However, Smith acknowledged that, as Mincemoyer and Kluz noted, memorializing the disaster was not part of the original assignment. Kluz added that the already-delayed project was funded by a 1% Federal Highway Administration set-aside for art on the site, and risked losing the funds if not completed by June. And, she said, installation had to be coordinated with plantings on the site, meaning it had to begin as soon as possible.

Ultimately, the committee voted 4-0 to approve “Trail Meander.”

OPA’s Kluz actually attended both committee meetings — with Mincemoyer and, in her role as a private citizen, at the civic-design-committee meeting regarding the redesign of Enright Park, which is in her neighborhood.

Interviewed a few days later, Kluz said she thought the first meeting of the restructured commission went well.

“It’s very clear that they’re passionate and interested and committed to the process,” she said of the commission members.

The commission’s next meeting is April 26. More information is here.

Poet Nikki Giovanni reads at the August Wilson Center on Thu., March 30.
Joey Kennedy
Poet Nikki Giovanni reads at the August Wilson Center on Thu., March 30.

WESA's Weekend Picks

  1. Comedian and storyteller Gab Bonesso headlines the World Bipolar Day fundraiser for Disability Pride PA at the Library for Accessible Media, in Bloomfield, on Thu., March 30.
  2. Acclaimed poet Nikki Giovannivisits the August Wilson African American Cultural Center’s TRUTHSAYERS series, 7:30 p.m. Thu., March 30.
  3. Think fast: Six contributors to the new Norton anthology “Flash Fiction America,” co-edited by Pittsburgh-based Sherrie Flick, read at White Whale Bookstore, at 7 p.m. Thu., March 30.
  4. Short dance films from Pittsburgh and around the world leap to the screen in “Constructed Sight,” a festival curated by Shana Simmons Dance. Opening night is 7:30 p.m. Thu., March 30; the festival continues online through April 10.
  5. Dozens of local makers and vendors of everything from clothing to vinyl records converge on Heinz History Center for the ninth annual Vintage Pittsburgh retro fair, in partnership with The Neighborhood Flea, 9:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Sat., April 1.
  6. April means getting outdoors with events like Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy’s free weekly Earth Month events, with guided hikes, fitness classes, live music and more in various city parks, starting today, from noon-3 p.m. in Westinghouse Park, in North Point Breeze.
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: