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Pittsburgh moves to shrink arts portion of federal pandemic-relief funds

A band plays between two large purple-blue inflatable hands.
Bill O'Driscoll
90.5 WESA
Squonk Opera, seen here in 2019 rehearsing its show "Hand to Hand," was among the artists paid out of American Rescue Plan funds at Pittsburgh's 2022 Fourth of July celebration.

Pittsburgh City Council could vote as early as Tuesday to reduce the portion of its American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds dedicated to the arts.

The proposal comes from the administration of Mayor Ed Gainey, which wants to reallocate $650,000 — or nearly one-third — of the original $2 million arts set-aside for capital projects.

“We’re looking for other ways to get the money expended in ways that would benefit residents as quickly as we can,” said Deputy Mayor Jake Pawlak.

The proposal is a part of a larger move to reallocate about $20 million in the city’s share of federal pandemic-relief funds.

But the move troubles the arts advocates at the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council (GPAC), who note that the arts sector was among the hardest-hit by the pandemic, and among the slowest to recover.

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One 2022 GPAC survey, for instance, found that the percentage of local artists earning incomes below the federal poverty line grew from 2018 to 2022. And a 2023 PA CultureCheck survey found that fewer of half of arts-and-culture groups in Southwestern Pennsylvania reported attendance levels have returned to 2019 levels.

“Arts organizations and artists are shovel-ready in terms of how they use these funds right now as COVID recovery,” said Morgan Kasprowicz, GPAC’s director of research and special projects. GPAC is trying to rally public opposition to the change.

Pittsburgh was awarded $335 million in the federal pandemic-relief funds in 2021, and that June, Mayor Bill Peduto’s office announced $2 million would be used for “a new fund to support local artists who experienced financial hardship during COVID and to bring music and art into public events and facilities across Pittsburgh.”

Some of that money has already been spent. In a July 28 blog post, Kasprowicz documented that the city had spent about $137,500 of ARPA funds on its 2022 Fourth of July celebration, and about $7,900 on last year’s Light Up Night. But therein, too, lies some controversy.

Of the Fourth of July expenditures, some $92,000, or 70 percent, was for fireworks and a fireworks barge — paid to Zambelli Fireworks and Borghese Lane LLC — while just $12,000 went directly to performing arts groups. (Much of the balance was paid to production companies for things like stage setup and audio services).

Of the $7,900 the city contributed to November’s Light Up Night event, $3,750 went to Zambelli.

GPAC questions the city’s payouts for fireworks out of a fund earmarked to help artists and arts groups recover from the pandemic.

“I think that based on what we know about the need for recovery support and the arts and culture community that fireworks are not at the top of list of needs,” said Kasprowicz.

Pawlak acknowledged that critique but noted that what counted as an arts event is subject to interpretation. “I think that we have differing opinions on what the eligible uses of the funds are, and also what we can reasonably achieve,” he said.

The city also distributed $125,000 of ARPA funds to the Western Pennsylvania Juneteenth celebration, to pay for live music acts, city officials have said.

With most of the original $2 million arts allocation still unspent, GPAC is urging the city to come up with “an equitable and impactful plan” to distribute the money to artists, whether in the form of grants or contracts for particular arts projects.

Kasprowicz said cities including Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Phoenix and Tulsa have created plans to get ARPA funds to artists.

She added that GPAC itself is in the process of paying out $450,000 in ARPA funds it received through the National Endowment for the Arts. She said priority was given to small, mid-sized, and BIPOC-led groups, and to BIPOC artists.

Pawlak said the Gainey administration inherited the plan to spend $2 million on the arts from the previous administration. “There wasn’t a clear plan on the desk when we arrived for how to make that line item function in the way it had been publicly described,” he said.

He added that the city is facing spending deadlines as well. It risks forfeiting any ARPA funds that are not contracted by the end of 2024 or not spent by the end of 2026.

“We don’t see a reasonable way to do that and in the meantime, in the interest of all residents, [we] have an obligation to keep these funds moving, before their expiration point,” he said.

But Kasprowicz said GPAC believes a good plan is possible.

"We just want to first prioritize not losing the funds and then we can have a larger conversation about how to use those funds in a way that is impactful and is equitable and meeting the needs of the arts community at this time,” she said.

Council was set to hear public comment on the proposal at its Tue., Aug. 1, meeting. Anyone who wishes to comment in person or by email must register here.

90.5 WESA’s Kiley Koscinski contributed to this report.

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: