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Pittsburgh's Public Art office floats art appreciation with pool parties

| Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014, 9:08 p.m.
Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council
Anthony Vitale’s sculpture 'Aquarius,' which doubles as a functioning shower at Jack Stack Pool in Brighton Heights

Seeking different approaches to promote Pittsburgh's public art, Laura Zorch entertained one of many thoughts: a pool party.

The idea was to draw attention to what some might overlook, let alone fail to appreciate. In this instance, the subject is a curvy metal sculpture of abstract marine species that sits atop an outdoor shower at a Citiparks swimming pool on the North Side.

“There's things that people pass by every day,” says Zorch, the education-program assistant for the Office of Public Art, which has arranged the gathering at Jack Stack Pool in Brighton Heights. (Zorch is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.)

The Aug. 9 event, which is hosted by the Pittsburgh Urban Magnet Project, too, is one of many efforts by the office “to let people know what art is in their neighborhood,” Zorch says.

The pool piece, “Aquarius,” was commissioned by the city in 1964. It is among many artworks, big and small, which have adorned the city over the years.

Styles range from contemporary to retro to historic, some of them stretching back to the mid-1700s. Many, like the shower, are functional. Colorful bicycle racks and elaborate drinking fountains abound.

Beyond appearance, the presence of public artwork is significant, says Morton Brown, the city's public art manager, because it helps to distinguish the city of Pittsburgh.

“You can tell a lot about any city from the public art you see in it,” he says, calling it “one of the strongest pieces of a city's culture.”

How the public-art scene in Pittsburgh compares with that of other similar-sized cities is, in many ways, a subjective matter. But what is clear is, that when money is tight, maintaining art is seen as less of a priority.

For many years, Pittsburgh did not have a public-art manager, says Brown, who took his job five years ago. Before that, the city's Public Works Department was responsible for maintaining what now is a collection of more than 160 such pieces.

Pittsburgh had long failed to adhere to an ordinance it passed in the mid-1970s that required the city to set aside 1 percent of funds tied to the construction of municipal buildings for public art, although Brown has made it a point in recent years to seek such contributions. Brown says he is seeking to revise the ordinance to include other structures, like bridges, and that he could go before City Council with the request before the end of the year.

Nonetheless, the transforming backdrop of Pittsburgh over the years has seen its share of new artworks.

Art officials and enthusiasts cite the pedestrian bridge connecting East Liberty and Shadyside, which the city commissioned, with its globe lights and sparkling glass discs as a symbol of urban renewal.

Instead of an ordinary structure, “it becomes a place,” says Renee Piechocki, director of the public-art office.

The office has sought to showcase such projects since it was formed by the Heinz Endowments in 2005.

Besides arranging walking tours and helping advance art projects throughout the city — the office has scheduled a nighttime yoga class on the roof of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in September — it has spent the past year compiling a website of public art throughout the city. The website — pittsburghartplaces.org — will eventually feature public art across Western Pennsylvania.

As for the pool party, dozens already have registered online, Piechocki says. Besides a DJ, Popsicles and hula-hooping, workers at the office will offer details about the “Aquarius” sculpture.

Jake Flannick is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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