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Pittsburgh's Public Art Manager wants public art to be paid its due

Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
A cyclist crosses the East liberty-Shady Side pedestrian bridge Friday, November 16, 2012.

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The art community in Pittsburgh has lost out on thousands, perhaps millions of dollars, because city officials ignored a decades-old law requiring them to set aside public money for art.

Pittsburgh's “Percent for Art” law, written in 1977, requires the city to set aside 1 percent of municipal funding allocated to major construction or renovation projects for public art projects.

That hasn't happened, said Pittsburgh's Public Art Manager Morton Brown, who is spearheading an effort to craft an enforceable law as part of the city's master art and design plan.

“City directors don't look into the art commission code to see what they need to do with the project,” Brown said. “They didn't even know about it, unless someone like me was there to tap them on the shoulder to say, ‘Hey, you owe us a piece of art.' ”

Brown has tapped shoulders to make sure recent city projects have contained public art. Pittsburgh artist Kim Beck designed the subtle etchings on the covered, first-floor windows of the new Zone 3 police station. Beck's work cost about 1 percent of the $1.8 million budgeted to convert the former youth hostel in Allentown into a police station, Brown said.

The city put an artist on the team that designed the $3 million Shady Liberty pedestrian bridge over the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway that connects East Liberty and Shadyside, Brown said. An artist is designing the stormwater management system for the environmental center at Frick Park.

“I told them, ‘You owe me 1 percent for art for this project,' ” Brown said of the environmental center.

City Council President Darlene Harris has worked with Brown on rewriting the law and felt other council members supported it. She set aside $25,000 in the 2013 capital budget to maintain the city's public art and war memorials.

“We want to definitely make sure we're taking care of our monuments and artwork,” Harris said. “Art lasts.”

Allegheny County has a similar law, passed in 2005 and requiring 2 percent to be set aside for art. Previous administrations have not enforced the law, said county spokeswoman Amie Downs.

The current administration does not appear to be interested in enforcing the law. Instead, the county wants to develop a maintenance and upkeep plan for the art it has, “before we move forward with any implementation of the existing law,” Downs wrote in a statement.

Since Brown took over as the city's public art chief in 2009, he has lobbied for enforcement of the 1 percent for art law, he said. He is studying past construction and renovation projects to determine how much money the city has withheld from the art community.

According to the formula, the nearly $2 million the city contributed toward building spray parks between 2008 and 2012 should have generated $20,000 for public art projects. The city should have set aside $28,000 for public art for the $2.8 million it allocated the past four years toward a new community and senior center in Riverview Park.

Brown's rewrite of the law, which will require city council approval, would likely make the 1 percent contribution to art automatic, wresting enforcement power out of the hands of department heads and not relying “on a political whim,” he said.

Brown hopes to publish a draft of the law early next year.

“There's this opportunity that has been missing for the city of Pittsburgh,” said Carolyn Speranza, who with other art leaders started a petition asking city and county leaders to enforce their percent for art laws. “I think artists are angry. I think, for the most part, artists have been politically disempowered for years.”

Speranza's petition has received more than 1,600 signatures.

The city's “Percent for Art” law had early success. During its first decade, the law funded 15 pieces of public art, including a sculpture at Paulson Pool, a mural at the West End Park shelter and fabric banners at the Sheraden Library.

Pittsburgh artist Fran Gialamas said blame for ignoring the “Percent for Art” law cannot fall solely on city officials. Early on, “Percent for Art” had strong advocates — Irene Pasinski, who helped draft the law, for one — who pushed the city, Gialamas said. Since then, artists have let down their vigilance.

“You needed people who were really on top of it, and it really fell apart,” said Gialamas, who founded a Pittsburgh chapter of Artists Equity in 1982. “You have got be aware of the 1 percent.

“You have to go after that.”

Aaron Aupperlee is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412- 320 -7986 or aaupperlee@tribweb.com.

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