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The summer past in Pittsburgh's small arts groups

A black and white illustration of people outside a restaurant.
Courtesy of the artist
Njaimeh Njie's digital collage "The Bottom" is part of her show "Flight Plans," at Carlow University Art Gallery.

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.

With the annual deluge of fall arts events nearly upon us, I wanted to highlight what some of Pittsburgh’s smaller arts groups brought to the table during these past few months, when big outdoor festivals were dominating the scene.

By their nature, these visual- and performing-arts outfits get less attention. But in many cases they’re offering work that is just as compelling, and often more affordable.

The following is far from a comprehensive list; rather, it’s a few things I‘ve enjoyed since June.

Most local colleges and universities run art galleries of various sizes. One that’s easy to overlook is the Carlow University Art Gallery, located on campus just a block off Fifth Avenue, on the first floor of the University Commons. This summer it presented “Flight Plans,” a deeply felt solo show by Pittsburgh-based Njaimeh Njie that uses collage and family history to explore the folklore around Black people flying. The show’s still up into October.

An independent gem is the Irma Freeman Center for the Imagination, on Penn Avenue, in Bloomfield. Now one of the longer-running galleries on the Penn arts corridor, it consistently presents compelling work like “Cut & Paste,” this past June’s huge group show of collage pieces. Like many smaller venues, the IF Center has limited hours: Saturday afternoons and during the Unblurred art crawl that takes place the first Friday of each month.

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Pandemic aside, Pittsburgh still has plenty of theater. And it’s not just touring Broadway shows. Kinetic Theatre staged Duncan MacMillan and Jonny Donahoe’s audience-interactive “Every Brilliant Thing,” starring the magnetic Marcus Weiss. Throughline Theatre honored Chekhov with a fine “Uncle Vanya.” And two of Pittsburgh’s more experimental troupes sounded off: RealTime Arts, celebrating an unsung local hero with a unique, community-based approach in “The Constellationist,” and Uncumber Theatrics, which daringly employed shadow play, shadow puppets and a darkly fabulistic sense of humor in “Wee Beasties.”

Lastly, there’s the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, which is nearing 50 years of offering adventuresome work by contemporary composers. In July, I saw Steven Bryant’s “The Treachery of Sounds,” a PNME commission and world premiere staged (like all the group’s work) at City Theatre, in a rewarding evening of sights and sounds.

There’s surely more to come from these groups — and many others — regardless of the season.

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: