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Controversy raises profile of little-known Art Commission, which wants to place more art in neighborhoods

Wednesday, February 20, 2002

By Caroline Abels, Post-Gazette Cultural Arts Writer

The Pittsburgh Art Commission -- in charge of keeping the city beautiful -- meets in a standard-issue conference room that doesn't have a single painting on its gray walls or a sculpture in any corner.

Pittsburgh Art Commission member Ann McGuinn, left; Joan Blaustein, special projects manager for the city Planning Department; and Lockwood Hoehl, chairman of the commission and executive director of Chatham Baroque, stand before an abstract metal sculpture that the Art Commission selected for a site near the Hot Metal Bridge on the South Side. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)

The room in the city's Downtown Civic Building also gets overheated in winter, perhaps to compensate for the generally unheated debates of the Art Commission, a volunteer panel that meets monthly to approve the design of buildings and other structures on city property.

But a few weeks ago, the microphones in the room were picking up the heated voices of some frustrated commission members. They were upset that the commission's new banner policy -- under fire by City Council for its restrictiveness -- was giving the obscure Art Commission some distressing notoriety.

"There's this perception out there that the Art Commission just exists to stop things from happening, but that's not what we're about -- just the opposite," commissioner Mark McCormick said.

Hilary Tyson, a consultant to the commission, said the public probably had no perception of the Art Commission before the banner controversy.

"Now there's a bad one," she said.

Two years ago, to address its lack of visibility and respect, the commission began using its $50,000 budget to fund small art projects around the city. The artworks -- such as the metal sculptures on two Penn Avenue buildings in Garfield and the mural at Fifth Avenue and Jumonville Street in Uptown -- were the first to be launched and funded by the rejuvenated panel.

Still, people have a similar reaction when they hear about the city Art Commission: "The city has an art commission?"

Perception vs. reality

In 1911, the commission was established to approve the design of any building, bridge or structure on city property and any artwork intended for a public space. The commission has these same responsibilities today.

But the city rarely builds police stations or firehouses anymore, and public art proposals for city property are few and far between. Most major works of public art -- the Louise Bourgeois fountain in the Cultural District's Katz Plaza, for example -- are installed on private property and privately funded.

The commission therefore has been relegated to signing off on less glamorous projects: directional signs in city parks, canoe racks by the riverfronts, renovations to the Pittsburgh Zoo and Pittsburgh Children's Museum, which sit on public land.

The only major imbroglio the commission was recently involved in occurred in the mid-1980s, when it was criticized for releasing to newspapers a sketch of a Mark Di Suvero sculpture proposed by private citizens for Gateway Center. The sculpture was ridiculed by the public -- city Councilwoman Michelle Madoff called it "junk" -- and it was never built.

The commission's most recent controversy began with similar good intentions. By last fall, so many street banner requests had come before the Art Commission that the panel created a policy that, among other things, prohibited corporate logos on banners. The intent was to prevent the city from looking over-commercialized, but organizers of major events that require corporate sponsorship reacted with alarm, prompting City Council to rescind the legislation.

A public hearing before City Council on banners is scheduled for Tuesday. Some Art Commission members have expressed interest in attending, to deny what they sense other city government officials believe: that the commission clandestinely approved a policy that few people noticed until it hit the newspapers, even though a copy of it had been sent to all city departments.

"The implication was that we had a lot of power and did things in secret," said Lockwood Hoehl, chairman of the commission and executive director of Chatham Baroque. "But the truth is, we don't have much power, and we don't do things in secret."

Most of the time, commissioners simply suggest to the people who come before them that art or artistic fixtures be incorporated into plans. Commissioner Robert Indovina, principal of Indovina Associates Architects, said the panel deserves credit for recommending and winning artistic design changes to the new addition to the pedestrian walkway running alongside the Fort Duquesne Bridge.

This advisory role is an important one, said commissioners, who include two artists (Brett Day and Charles Williams), a landscape architect (Suzanne Meyer), two architects (Indovina and McCormick, of McCormick Architects) and two at-large members (Hoehl and Ann McGuinn, arts patron and wife of Martin McGuinn, chairman and CEO of Mellon Financial Corp.).

"It doesn't even occur to some people to get an artist involved," said Joan Blaustein, who as special projects manager for the city Planning Department oversees the administration of the Art Commission. "In fact, we're the only place [in city government] where a builder or developer can go and hear the word 'art.' "

Even New York City's Art Commission, which, like Pittsburgh's, is frustrated by its role as a review board and would like to initiate more projects, ends up doling out a lot of advice. Its president has been quoted as saying the commission is "a free design consulting service."

Creating art

It was hoped the 1977 "Percent for Art" law would give the Pittsburgh Art Commission more influence. The law, adopted by many other cities in the United States, required that 1 percent of the budget of a city-funded building or renovation project costing more than $50,000 be set aside for art. But most city renovations cost less than that, new buildings are rare, and there is poor enforcement of the law.

Further diluting the law is the fact that municipal authorities are exempt from it. (The Sports and Exhibition Authority has agreed to include art projects in the new Downtown convention center, but the artworks are being paid for in large part by foundations.)

Mulugetta Birru, executive director of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, said he didn't know about the city's 1 percent law but said he would be reluctant to voluntarily set aside 1 percent of his budget for art. Mayor Tom Murphy said he believes the program is a good idea, adding, "I'd like to think that a developer would see art as an enhancement rather than a penalty."

In 1990, aware that the 1 percent program was ineffective, City Council began allocating $50,000 a year to the Art Commission. But the Art Commission didn't spend its money. It had no guidelines in place to commission work and no full-time staff to coordinate projects.

Change came in 1994, when Blaustein became the commission's administrator and the Heinz Endowments, which was becoming concerned about the paucity of public art in Pittsburgh, formed a Public Art Advisory Committee.

The committee's consultants recommended that before the city gets major art projects rolling, it should expose residents to more examples of public art. The first result was a 1998 sculpture built at the foot of the Hot Metal Bridge on the South Side. It is dedicated to local steel workers.

Then came four neighborhood projects funded by the Art Commission in 2000: metal sculptures hanging on two buildings in central Garfield; a large quilt, made by high school students, now touring Carnegie libraries; a three-dimensional mural in Uptown; a continuous broadcast of South Siders' oral histories that people can hear if they tune into 92.7 FM while crossing the Birmingham Bridge.

The projects under way this year are similar: community-based and artist-driven. In Lawrenceville, there will be three-dimensional sculptures installed on the sides of Butler Street buildings; in Troy Hill there will be a sculpture installed in small park; in Hazelwood, murals and installations will go up in three locations.

Corey Brown, 13, pauses at Penn Avenue and Evaline Street in Garfield near a hanging sculpture created by Jeremy Groznik and Michael D. Walsh of Horizons and funded by the Pittsburgh Art Commission. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

"People need to know that public art is not just the Di Suvero that didn't get built, or that big abstract thing you don't understand, or a war memorial, or a mural," Blaustein said. "There's a whole gamut of things that can really mean something to people."

Raising awareness

But what if people don't know about those things? Williams and Indovina said the commission needs a publicity director. Others said it needs members with wider connections to the local arts community.

McGuinn, who joined after being a member of the Public Art Advisory Committee, is arguably the highest-profile commissioner. She said she hopes her visibility in the community will translate into broader knowledge of the Art Commission.

"If people know how and why we make decisions, they're not going to be afraid of our decisions," she said.

At its January meeting, commissioners wondered aloud whether fear of its decisions prompted City Council to sell the public land slated for a Gene Kelly statue to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy -- a move that would keep the statue from coming before the Art Commission for approval.

Though members of the Gene Kelly statue committee said maintenance of the land was the reason for the sale and denied that the Art Commission was a factor, commissioners thought the decision might have been prompted by fear of another Di Suvero debacle or a rejection of the statue by the commission.

"If that's true, I'm concerned that we're only important so long as we're not involved in a major issue," said McCormick, who plans on writing to City Council expressing disappointment that the statue won't be debated in the commission's public setting.

Better relations between the Art Commission and City Council could come through Councilman William Peduto, who would like to see the role of the commission expanded.

"The 'banner banter,' as I call it, has given [City Council] the opportunity to open up a dialogue," Peduto said. "If we allow the Art Commission a little more reign and help raise some money for them, we can really help them."

Most of the commissioners and the people who work for them reluctantly agree that the banner controversy might have been a blessing in disguise.

"Now, for whatever reason, people know about the Art Commission," Blaustein said. "They know there's a group out there that cares about the way things look. Because the way things look matters."

Caroline Abels can be reached at cabels@post-gazette.com.

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