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Removing black artist's words from The Last Billboard 'tragically ironic,' creator says

Bob Bauder
| Wednesday, April 4, 2018, 5:21 p.m.
The Last Billboard project in Pittsburgh's East Liberty neighborhood
The Last Billboard project in Pittsburgh's East Liberty neighborhood

A controversy is brewing over the removal of a black artist's message — "There Are Black People In The Future" — from an art installation atop a building in East Liberty.

Larimer artist Alisha Wormsley's message was one of 34 that have been posted, one at a time, on a large billboard atop the Werner Building at the intersection of South Highland Avenue and Baum Boulevard since 2013. Building owner We Do Property Management had the message removed, according to Pittsburgh artist and Carnegie Mellon University professor Jon Rubin, who created the installation dubbed The Last Billboard.

"Last week, The Last Billboard's landlord, We Do Property, forced Alisha's text to be taken down over objections to the content (through a never-before-evoked clause in the lease that gives the landlord the right to approve text)," Rubin said in a statement posted Tuesday on The Last Billboard's website.

The message went up in March. It was unclear why We Do Property objected.

The company's website directs callers to Caryn B. Rubinoff, principal of the Rubinoff Co., Downtown, which shares the same Liberty Avenue address as We Do Property. Rubinoff did not return a message seeking comment.

The Rubinoff Co. manages, leases and maintains about 2 million square feet of office, flex, warehouse and residential space in the Pittsburgh area, including the Koppers Building, Downtown, according to its website.

Contacted by email, Rubin declined to comment, but his statement indicates that he objected to the removal.

"I believe in the power, poetry and relevance of Alisha's text and see absolutely no reason it should have been taken down," he said. "I find it tragically ironic, given East Liberty's history and recent gentrification, that a text by an African-American artist affirming a place in the future for black people is seen as unacceptable in the present."

Wormsley could not be reached for comment.

The decision touched off a firestorm of controversy on social media.

Dozens of people have posted supportive comments on Wormsley's Facebook page, which contains a repost of Rubin's statement along with a photograph of the billboard containing her message. The thread has generated hundreds of shares.

Rubin previously told the Tribune-Review that he created the billboard to generate thought-provoking comments.

Funded by the Pittsburgh Foundation, the billboard has included such messages as "Ideally Everything Will Turn Quiet Now," "A Tow Truck Pulling An Ambulance" and "You Don't Need A Weatherman To Tell Which Way The Wind Blows."

Bob Bauder is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-765-2312, or via Twitter @bobbauder.

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