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At 25, the Unblurred art crawl abides — and grows

People walk next to clothing vendors.
Bill O'Driscoll
90.5 WESA
Visitors check out sidewalk vendors on Penn Avenue, in Bloomfield, at the July 7 Unblurred.

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.

As with many Pittsburgh neighborhoods, it’s hard to recall how different the stretch of Penn Avenue through Bloomfield, Garfield and Friendship was in 1998 — the year of the first Unblurred monthly art crawl.

Unblurred grew out of the Penn Avenue Arts Initiative, an effort by community-development groups to enliven the street with art galleries, studios and the like. (The idea was to reverse the “blur” of the strip’s storefronts through motorists’ car windows.)

At the time, the street was home to some neighborhood-serving retail, but in terms of visitor attractions, there wasn’t much more than a handful of small restaurants; Garfield Artworks, a gallery and event space; and, nearer to Negley Avenue, the studios of Dance Alloy.

But by the mid-2000s, with help from new additions like the Pittsburgh Glass Center and Modern Formations gallery, Unblurred was the place to be for local arts types every first Friday.

And, despite changes in venues and feel through the years, it’s both the longest-running monthly art crawl in town and the biggest. (The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s Gallery Crawls individually draw more people, but are quarterly.)

It certainly felt that way at the July 7 Unblurred. Given good weather, the corridor was teeming with visitors ducking into galleries, heading to restaurants, sampling the food, beverages and crafts on offer from sidewalk vendors, and even listening to live music played by an acoustic combo using a front porch for a stage.

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In truth, the crawl is less art-centric than during its initial heyday, a decade or more ago. Galleries like Garfield Artworks, Modern Formations and Most Wanted Fine Art have closed. Some tenants, like dance troupe Attack Theatre (which used to host game nights during Unblurred), have come and gone. Others have moved in and stayed, including Bunker Projects and Assemble: A Community Space for Art + Technology.

There have been more recent art-based additions, including the venerable Silver Eye Center for Photography, which relocated to Penn in 2017, and the Pedantic Arts Residency, which opened last year. But in latter years, most of the newcomers have been brick-and-mortar eating and drinking establishments (Two Frays, Soju, Mixtape), vintage stores, and those aforementioned street vendors, who add so much life to the scene.

There’s also the Garfield Night Market, a collection of 20 or so vendors who take over a block of North Pacific Avenue every Unblurred. The Night Market, which began a decade ago, hosts live entertainment and local vendors of everything from food to crafts.

One of the newest attractions, since May, is a sort of indoor bazaar organized by Boheme Pittsburgh, the Lawrenceville business incubator that rents space to makers of artwork, jewelry, clothing and more. About 15 Boheme vendors participated in July’s Unblurred. Boheme owner Sarah Ponsoll said they’ll be occupying the donated storefront space on Penn during Unblurred at least through September.

Long-time Unblurred denizens include Sheila Ali, who opened the Irma Freeman Center for Imagination, a gallery and educational center, in 2009. It’s arguably the busiest gallery on the corridor, with a new show every month, and live music at its opening receptions. Ali said Unblurred crowds lately feel a bit more conservative than in the old days, with “less people in wild outfits.” (She recalls one Unblurred-goer dressed as Abe Lincoln, and another as a tree.) But she enjoys the big turnouts, and adds, “We’re selling art, which is good.”

Nonetheless, the pandemic definitely changed some things. BOOM Concepts, whose storefront gallery had been a keystone of Unblurred since 2014, no longer opens its doors for the crawl; instead, it’s focusing on its own artist residencies and on supporting the Night Market.

BOOM co-founder Thomas Agnew said Unblurred crowds last year were small, which he attributes to the pandemic hiatus leaving people unsure it was still happening. He called the bounceback “amazing.”

“It has a momentum all its own,” says Rick Swartz, executive director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp., which helped launch the Penn Avenue Arts Initiative and oversees Unblurred. Swartz likes that Unblurred attracts young people to the neighborhood (though I’ll note that July’s event also drew plenty of visitors old enough to have experienced Unblurred when it was new).

The BGC — which owns a number of commercial and residential buildings along Penn — estimates that Unblurred draws from 1,000 to 1,500 visitors each month to the most active five blocks of the corridor. “It’s a great way to introduce people to Penn Avenue,” he said.

The next Unblurred is this Fri., Aug. 4. The venues are mostly between Mathilda and Negley, and they’re all open by 7 p.m.; peak traffic seems to arrive between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m., though the street stays busy well after.

More information on Unblurred is here.

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: