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Pittsburgh City Council OKs festival aid program, but with no funding

Three Rivers Arts Festival main stage
Bill O'Driscoll
90.5 WESA
When she submitted the bill, Councilor Theresa Kail-Smith indicated that the funding was to come from a pool of about $2 million in federal funds allocated to assist artists hurt by the pandemic. However, that money is no longer available.

Pittsburgh City Council on Tuesday unanimously authorized the mayor’s office to create a fund to aid festivals in the city that were hurt by the pandemic. However, the bill named no funding source for the program.

“I’m working with the administration on identifying the dollars that should be used and [will] work with my colleagues, hopefully, on getting this done,” said councilor Theresa Kail-Smith, who proposed the bill in early June.

When she submitted the bill, Kail-Smith indicated that the funding was to come from the city’s allotment of $335 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars — in particular, from a pool of about $2 million allocated to assist artists hurt by the pandemic. As of mid-June, an estimated $15 million of the city’s ARPA money remained unspent and at possible risk of forfeiture if it is not at least allocated by year’s end.

However, speaking during a council meeting last week, councilor Erika Strassburger, who serves as council's finance chair, informed her colleagues that those $2 million had already been "spoken for."
Kail-Smith proposed the bill in the midst of a dispute between the city and William “B” Marshall, founder and organizer of the long-running Western Pennsylvania Juneteenth festival, over funding for that annual event.

On June 3, Marshall was one of several organizers of local festivals who told council they favored of the bill, citing the visitors and economic benefits the events bring to the city. Also among the speakers were the organizers behind Pittsburgh Pride and Little Italy Days. Some said they were disappointed to learn that the city had such funds but had not made festival organizers aware of them.

Informed Tuesday of council's vote on the measure, Day Bracey, founder of Barrel & Flow, a festival for Black-owned breweries, said he was hopeful.

“I think it’s an amazing thing,” Bracey said. “I wish that we didn’t have to fight for it. These are funds that should have been readily made available a while ago.”

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The disbursement of ARPA money on the arts has been the subject of controversy before, as when the city was criticized for spending some of the $2 million allocated for relief for artists on fireworks. And in 2023, Mayor Ed Gainey's administration proposed reducing the ARPA funds set aside for artists by one-third to benefit spending on other priorities.

On Tuesday, at least one arts advocacy group expressed skepticism about the new bill.

"While the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council is generally pro public support and funding for the arts, we have heard preliminary concerns from our stakeholders in relation to how this impacts ARPA funds earmarked for the arts," wrote Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council CEO Patrick Fisher in a statement.

"We await further clarity from the City on their source of funding, and how lingering questions are answered will determine how impact and outcomes align with aspirations and intentions. Beyond one-time or relief funding, the Arts Council welcomes the opportunity to work with the City to identify dedicated and sustained public funding streams for the arts."

Kail-Smith emphasized that, once the use plan and fund are established, “there will be a process people have to apply and qualify for.”

Kiley Koscinski contributed to this story.

Updated: July 9, 2024 at 3:33 PM EDT
This story has been updated to include a response from the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council.
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: