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Two rounds of grants brighten holidays for Pittsburgh artists and groups

People on a stage dressed in old-timey clothes with a flag behind them.
Matt Polk
Pittsburgh Musical Theater
“Les Miserables” was staged at the Byham Theater in November by Pittsburgh Musical Theater, one recipient of a new round of federal pandemic relief money through a state program.

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.

More than 100 area artists and arts groups received a holiday present last week. And it was the kind of gift that’s always the right size: cash.

Two rounds of grants were announced. One came via the Pennsylvania General Assembly’s COVID-19 ARPA PA Arts and Culture Recovery Program. Yes, it was nearly three years ago that President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act into law, but these things can take time. The state program to aid the arts sector with those federal pandemic relief funds was created only in July 2022. Applications were due in early 2023.

Nearly 70 nonprofit arts groups in Allegheny County received a total of about $3.1 million (out of a statewide total of $13.35 million). Most individual grants ranged from $10,000 — for the likes of Balafon West African Dance Company, barebones productions and Bodiography Contemporary Ballet — to $95,000 each for larger nonprofits including the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh and the National Aviary.

“It was like a present,” said Colleen Doyno, executive director of Pittsburgh Musical Theater, which received $40,020 from the program. At its home in the West End, PMT runs a Conservatory for kids ages 4 to 18 (they staged “Les Miserables” at the Byham Theater in November) and a professional company whose next show, also at the Byham, is “Grease.”

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Grants like this one are especially valued because groups can use them for anything from paying performers to keeping the lights on. “Operational money is hard to come by now,” Doyno said.

PMT’s Recovery Program grant equals about 2% of the group’s $1.8 million budget. Doyno said it will help defray expenses like financial aid for the two-thirds of its 250 students who receive it.

The biggest of the Recovery Program grants actually benefited no single artist or arts group at all — yet. Rather, the $264,000 awarded to the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council is for GPAC to redistribute in its four-county region, including Allegheny, Beaver, Greene and Washington. (GPAC also received a separate $43,000 grant to fund its own operations.)

GPAC has previously regranted pandemic relief funds from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Allegheny Arts Revival program.

CEO Patrick Fisher said the new regranting guidelines will be finalized with the statewide group PA Partners in the Arts in early 2024. He said the funds will likely be awarded, through an application process, to individual artists and arts professionals.

As in past pandemic relief projects, Fisher expects plenty of applications. “The demand has always outpaced the funding pool,” he said.

Both individual artists and small arts nonprofits, meanwhile, were among the recipients of the latest round of Advancing Black Arts in Pittsburgh awards, announced Dec. 21. (The press release is here.) The long-running initiative of the Heinz Endowments and the Pittsburgh Foundation was augmented in 2021 by a $2 million gift from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott.

All recipients are Black artists and organizations that are either Black-led or primarily serve the Black community. Most of this year’s 38 grants, totaling $1.6 million, are for two years and were awarded for development or completion of specified projects. Most individual grants fell between $20,000 and $50,000.

One awardee was Dominique Chestand, who plans to use her $50,000 grant to further develop Broke Babe Supper Club, meant to encourage Black people and other people of color to adopt vegan or vegetarian diets.

Chestand says most advocates for healthy eating are fat-phobic or rely heavily on pricey, high-end ingredients. In a culinary world “really geared towards pleasing rich people,” she says, “It’s really about shaming people into eating healthy.” Meanwhile, when she talks vegan and vegetarian to Black folks, she adds, “People’s ears close.”

Thanks to the grant, she plans to spend a year visiting chefs in Chicago, New York, Seattle and Los Angeles — cities with strong vegan/vegetarian cultures — and develop recipes around affordable ingredients. Examples already at hand: panna cotta made with coconut milk instead of dairy, and a collard green salad prepared so as to make uncooked collards more toothsome. She’ll photograph dishes to highlight single ingredients.

In year two, she’ll stage a series of three free Broke Babe dinners she’ll market to organizations that work with the food-insecure. The first-come, first-served guest lists will number between 35 and 50 per dinner.

Chestand, operations manager for Pittsburgh’s Office for Public Art, first tried to launch Broke Babe in 2018, when she was living in Chicago. But her own financial insecurity kept it on the ground, she said. “It was not the type of project you could really support with a small amount of money,” she said. She estimates the Advancing Black Arts grant should fund 95% of the project.

Other new Advancing Black Arts recipients include familiar names like filmmaker Emmai Alaquiva, BOOM Concepts, singer Zuly Inirio (of the Afro-Latinx Song and Opera Project), Staycee Pearl, INEZ, artist Alisha B Wormsley and filmmaker Gregory Scott Williams Jr. Emerging talents include writer and artist Sean Beauford, singer-songwriter LoRen, artist Victor Muthama and playwright a.k. payne.

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: