Arts convention 'preconference' impresses visitors with city sights

| Friday, June 14, 2013, 8:57 p.m.

To the casual observer, the four buses that spent Thursday afternoon crawling through city neighborhoods could have been filled with average tourists.

But the sites and communities they visited were not typical first-day attractions.

Instead of Heinz Field or the Monongahela incline, tour stops included Love Front Porch in Homewood, James Simon Studio in Uptown and the Maxo Vanka murals at St. Nicholas Croatian Church in Millvale.

The passengers were attendees at the Public Art Network preconference, a two-day prelude to the Americans for the Arts' convention that was expected to bring 1,000 participants to Pittsburgh from June 14 to 16.

“The reason why we chose (Pittsburgh) is the vibrancy of the city itself,” said Robert L. Lynch, president and CEO of Americans for the Arts. “It is a destination that people might want to come to, particularly as it relates to the arts.”

Founded in 1960, Americans for the Arts is a national, nonprofit organization with 150,000 members committed to advancing the arts and arts education.

The organization's Public Art Network develops professional services for individuals and organizations engaged in public art and is dedicated to advancing public-art programs and projects through advocacy, policy and information resources.

Tour organizers chose sites at locations such as Schenley Plaza and the Ellsworth Avenue pedestrian bridge that showcase how the arts can connect with neighborhoods and create vibrancy.

Participants were pleasantly impressed by what they saw.

“When I told people I was coming to Pittsburgh (for the conference) they said ‘Pittsburgh?' and I had the same reaction,” said Christine Byers, public-art and historic-preservation coordinator for Culver City, Calif. “But the history and complexity is immediately visible and palpable here.”

Nathan Mattimoe, public-arts coordinator for the Arts Commission of Greater Toledo in Ohio was blown away by what he learned at The Union Project in the former Second Presbyterian Church in Highland Park.

“I was astounded to hear about the stained-glass restoration what was done by the community,” Mattimoe said.

Pittsburgh projects like City of Asylum made a big impression on Gary Farmer, cultural- affairs program manager for the Miami Beach Office of Tourism and Cultural Development.

The North Side-based City of Asylum/Pittsburgh provides residences for exiled writers in four colorfully decorated houses and creates connections between artists and the community through readings, book signings and an annual jazz/poetry concert.

“We are not just (an organization) for artists in exile,” said R. Henry Reese, co-founder and president. “We are a community-based program, where art changes the community.

“The power of using exiled writers' voices is that they evoke feelings in just about everybody,” Reese said.

“That (City of Asylum) could actually pull it off and accumulate so much property and have it grow is amazing to me,” Farmer said.

Farmer, making his first visit to Pittsburgh, came to the conference hoping to pick up tips and ideas from his colleagues. But he was also curious about the city.

“I had heard so much about the mills closing, a city on the skids and then rebounding and the role arts played in revitalization,” Farmer said. “I wish I could stay another week.”

Touching base with colleagues across the country was also the motivation for Rochelle Branch, cultural-affairs manager for the City of Pasadena, Calif.

“But I love taking tours and finding out more in-depth information,” she said.

“The Monuments, Memorials and Murals tour was quite interesting and very reveal ing,” Branch said. “It changed my pre-conceived notions of the decline and decay I had associated with Pittsburgh. ... I found the exact opposite. I didn't realize how much Pittsburgh is like Chicago or other major cities well-known for arts.”

Alice T. Carter is a features writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or

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