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New Pittsburgh arts leader grew from punk-rock roots

A man stands on colorful pavement.
Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council
Patrick Fisher, photographed in Erie, is set to become the new CEO of the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council.

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.

Many arts administrators cite formative experiences in museums, theaters, classical-music halls or college classrooms. But the new head of Pittsburgh’s main arts-advocacy group traces his arts awakening to punk rock.

Not the kind of punk that fills arenas, though. Patrick Fisher grew up in Cochranton, Pa., a Crawford County town 30 miles north of Slippery Rock. Around 2000, at age 15, he discovered the hardcore scene in Erie, an hour away on I-79.

“It was my first sense of truly feeling community,” said Fisher, who this month was named CEO of the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council.

Those hardcore bands played fast and loud, but they were also social-justice advocates: anti-war, anti-corporate, critical of the carceral state. “None of these things were being discussed in the community I grew up in,” said Fisher. The scene was also his introduction to the DIY ethic, thanks to bands who booked their own tours, distributed their own records, and in some cases ran their own small venues.

His path to arts administration, and to Pittsburgh, took a turn about eight years ago, when Fisher — previously employed by for-profit firms — decided the nonprofit arts sector was his best chance to address issues he cared about. He spent two years as community and collaboration manager at the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville, then nearly five as executive director of Erie Arts & Culture.

Like the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, Erie Arts & Culture not only advocates for the arts in general and provides business-skills training, but also redistributes government and foundation funding to individual artists and organizations. This fiscal year, the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, which represents about 600 artists and organizations, is distributing about $620,000.

Asked to name his proudest accomplishments in Erie, Fisher cited his overhaul of the group’s policies through a lens of diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA) goals to change who was receiving resources and how. For instance, the group launched programs to connect with Northwestern Pennsylvania’s Syrian and Bhutanese communities, and co-created online directories for Black- and refugee-owned businesses.

Even more visibly, Erie Arts & Culture committed to create 50 large-scale public murals along routes where children walk to public schools – not only to improve the visual landscape and counter predatory advertising, but also to highlight the fact that some of those K-12 kids have to trek up to 2 miles each way. “I’ve always leaned toward art for social impact,” said Fisher. Thirteen of those murals were completed in 2022, with work on another 28 to get underway in the next week or two, he said.

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In 2019, the Erie Times-News named Fisher its Person of the Year. During his tenure, Erie Arts & Culture also established an artist-residency program that paired visiting artists with local industry, and developed a five-year strategic plan focused on capacity-building, lifelong learning, placemaking and placekeeping.

How will Fisher, 38, proceed in Pittsburgh? He said that’s largely up to Pittsburgh.

Though he concluded his tenure in Erie in late April, and doesn’t formally take over from current CEO Mitch Swain until June 1, Fisher has spent the past few weeks meeting artists and attending events here. He’s asking what people need, and also what has “wowed” them recently. (For him, it was the Pittonkatonk May Day BBQ — “That blew my mind!” — and Mai Khoi’s latest performance of her multimedia musical memoir “Bad Activist.”)

That said, Fisher does have some guiding principles. One, he wants to move away from the arts sector’s tendency to justify arts funding based on economic impact (how much spending the programming attracts and how many jobs it creates) toward a focus on the creative process. That, he believes, is what fosters personal and community development and best allows artists to thrive. (He compares this to how scientists are supported for their methods, not for whatever marketable products they create.)

Given Pittsburgh’s geographic location, low cost of living, and overall quality of life, he said, “There’s no reason that Pittsburgh can’t be the best tier-two city for an artist to live and work.”

He also said more performing artists and performance groups should rethink their practice in pursuit of that “wow” factor.

“Live experiences do need to evolve,” he said. “How are you not fighting against technology but potentially integrating technology? How are you moving beyond those standard traditional models of ‘buy a ticket, sit in a seat, watch the show, then leave’, to create something that is a more dynamic experience that people don’t want to miss out on?”

While Fisher said he enjoys photography, he doesn’t consider himself an artist. But he said some of his insights reflect his own nontraditional career path. “I think what has served me well in all my roles in the arts is I don’t come from an institutional background,” he said. “I can understand why the arts are intimidating to some.”

This past Saturday, Fisher’s rounds included Pittsburgh DIY music venue 222 Ormsby for an album-release show by regional hardcore band Danvers. Fisher is lifelong friends with the group’s vocalist, and also with a member of support band One If By Land.

It’s another way, Fisher said, he’s sticking to his roots while expanding his reach.

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: