East Liberty-based Duolingo announced Wednesday a multi-year fund to support local artists and arts organizations. The language-learning app developer made the announcement as the company officially unveiled a new public mural on the Duolingo headquarters on Penn Avenue.
The company says it will put up $150,000 over the next three years to fund public art projects and support arts organizations. The first art grant has been awarded to two local artists towards the creation of a new mural in East Liberty.
Duolingo’s new mural, called “To Be Human,” was created by Ann Lewis, a Detroit-based multidisciplinary artist whose previous works include a public mural near the long-term parking lot at Pittsburgh International Airport. Lewis was selected by Duolingo after the company received 160 submissions across seven countries.
The mural stretches across the South Beatty Street side of the building to the Mignonette Street side. A dark smoky purple gradually fades in and out of a bright orange with maze-like white bars weaving through the windows. Lewis often hides messages in her work. The South Beatty Street side contains the phrase “We Rise” and the Mignonette Street side reads “Together.”
The message was inspired by students at the Barack Obama Academy of International Studies in East Liberty. As part of Lewis’ process for creating the mural, she spent time in residence at the school working with students, creating collages and learning about their perspective of community.
“It is my honor to dedicate this mural to the students of Obama Academy and the Pittsburgh artists and activists that have engaged with me throughout this process,” Lewis said. “This wall has a complex history and I am very grateful that the mural helped reestablish a dialogue between Duolingo and the community.”
The current Duolingo building was once home to a beloved East Liberty mural — called “Lend Me Your Ears” — that was painted across the two-story building in 2003. That mural was made by artists Alison Zapata and Jordan Monahan. A developer, however, covered it in 2015 so that windows could be installed. Duolingo began leasing the space in 2016.
“A portion of the legacy and history of the African American community in East Liberty was being erased with the removal of this mural, along with the dislocation of businesses and its residents. Duolingo inherited this when they moved into the building,” Zapata said.
That complex history played a role in the selection of the first grant recipients. Zapata and Natiq Jalil will receive $20,000 in addition to Duolingo’s assistance in finding a location for the mural.
“It was incredibly important to make sure that these artists in particular [received the grant],” John Tronsor, Duolingo’s facility manager said. “So right now we’re in talks with a local property owner to get their vision realized in the neighborhood.”
Tronsor said after selecting Lewis to complete a new mural, Duolingo learned about a proposal by Zapata to replace “Lend Me Your Ears” that never materialized. According to Zapata, local filmmaker Chris Ivey initially informed the company about the more recent history of mural proposals for the building.
“We’re going to do everything we can in this instance to make sure that we make it right,” he said. Duolingo will provide logistical and legal support to the artists to create a new mural in East Liberty in addition to the grant.
“They are open to understanding and, hopefully, with the creation of this fund, more voices from local resident artists will be seen and heard through the reinvesting, inclusion, and guidance of local artists throughout the process,” Zapata said.
Duolingo will also award a grant to the Kelly Strayhorn Theatre to support its programming.
"Support for Pittsburgh artists and arts organizations connects our city to the world, expressing our values and most urgent priorities,” said Joseph Hall, executive director of the Kelly Strayhorn Theater. “Community arts funding reinforces what we know to be true — art has the power to shape society."
“As a company we want to make language free and accessible to everybody. We see that public art can serve a similar function that way,” Tronsor said. “It’s free and accessible to anybody who should choose to look for it.”
Artists and organizations interested in future grants through Duolingo will be able to apply starting in 2021.
This story was updated on Oct. 21 to include comments by grant recipient Alison Zapata.