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Ending tax burden should help arts blossom

| Sunday, July 29, 2007

In the 1990s, I lived in the San Francisco Bay area, in a two-story dingbat-style apartment building, one mile from the San Francisco International Airport. In the evening, I used to enjoy watching the airplanes land as i sat on the enclosed sunporch of my low-slung, period 1960s pad, even if it meant peering at them through the twisting branches of a massive-yet-sickly Magnolia tree.

Being a native Pittsburgher, I had never seen a Magnolia tree before, let alone a dying one. But, to me, it was a magnificent sight nonetheless, especially every spring when it managed to produce a few blooms. After all, in a climate that varied by no more than 25 degrees all year long, it was my only sign of spring.

So it is that "Magnolias for Pittsburgh," a public art installation by Chicago-based sculptor Tony Tasset, grabbed my attention in the dead of this winter past. I can remember gazing up at one of the approximately 800 hand-painted pink blooms on one of the two cast-bronze trees, among five real ones situated at the Seventh Street and Penn Avenue Parklet opposite Agnes Katz Plaza, transfixed in a moment of sweet remembrance.

I was back in California again, which doesn't say much for a 40-year-old artist and member of Pittsburgh's version of the Boomerang Generation who is more than happy to be living, working and making art once again in his hometown.

Nevertheless, it was a transformative experience, which is why it's no surprise that Tasset's installation received national attention last month at the Americans for the Arts National Conference in Las Vegas. One of 40 projects selected by the Public Art Network of Americans for the Arts, it was chosen from more than 240 projects submitted, all of which were completed between April 2006 and April 2007, for the 2007 Public Art Year in Review.

Being the third year in a row in which Pittsburgh has been recognized in this way, this project joins a long list of city projects previously recognized, including Jenny Holzer's "For Pittsburgh" at the convention center (2006), Two Girls Working's "Trappings: Pittsburgh public bus installation" (2006), Ned Kahn's "Articulated Cloud" at the Childrens' Museum (2005) and "Freight and Barrell" by Steven Siegel commissioned by the Three River Arts Festival (2005).

Commissioned by the Sports and Exhibition Authority and placed in the plaza with help from The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, the organization that has managed the space as a rotating public art space since 1992, each bronze tree component of the installation measures 22 feet high and 24 feet wide, and was cast from one hand-sculpted replica of a Magnolia tree by Tasset, a professor in the University of Illinois at Chicago's School of Art and Design.

The national recognition comes at a momentous time in Pittsburgh's history after Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's recent decision to eliminate the amusement tax on nonprofit arts groups.

The current 1.25 percent tax on arts organizations will be cut from Pittsburgh's 2008 operating budget, due for release in September. A move that is estimated to save nearly $450,000 in total, according to the city's budget office, for such financially strapped organizations as the Cultural Trust, Pittsburgh Public Theater, Pittsburgh Opera, Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera and the Pittsburgh Symphony.

The tax cut outlines the mayor's commitment to the arts, which is why the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council awarded him a "Chairman's Award" back in May in recognition of this considerable contribution to the art community.

"America's most livable city is a place with a talented and optimistic arts community, winning national recognition and making all Pittsburgher's proud," Ravenstahl said recently, marking both events. "Cutting the amusement tax will allow artists, dedicated people like Tony, to stay in Pittsburgh, be successful in Pittsburgh and ultimately make Pittsburgh America's most livable city for years to come."

Having been a dedicated professional artist for nearly two decades now myself, I, like many artists I know, are happy to be here in Pittsburgh as opposed to living and working anywhere else, even if there are warmer climates. And why not• We have magnolia trees, too.

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