Out on a Limb: Advocating for a Bold Local Art Scene


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An assembled crowd attends a film screening during the Apartment Talks in Lawrenceville © Carnegie Museum of Art.

Let me start by saying this: Carnegie Museum of Art, where I am curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, could go further to be more welcoming, more accessible, and frankly, more fun for Pittsburgh’s artists. Working toward this goal has been a priority, among many, for me—and my colleagues, including Amanda Donnan (guest editor at Pittsburgh Articulate, where this essay originally appeared)—since I got here in May 2009.

As part of this effort, the five curators then in the contemporary art department (Daniel Baumann, me, Amanda, Tina Kukielski, and Lauren Wetmore) initiated the Apartment Talks series at a space in Lawrenceville. We ran this alternative space, a component of the 2013 Carnegie International, for almost two years on top of 12-13 hour days at the museum, and loved doing it. Pittsburgh artists made up the majority of the presenters, and their names and images of their work were published in the International catalog. This is not nothing. That catalog is in the hands of curators, collectors, critics, and artists all around the world. For two years that small apartment in Lawrenceville became what I would like to see all over Pittsburgh: a place for Pittsburgh artists, writers, filmmakers, educators, collectors, curators, and others to connect and exhibit with artists from all over the world. This coming together should not be the exception, but rather the rule.

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Gallery Nova is a non-profit, city-owned gallery in the center of Zagreb, Croatia. Photograph via Gallery Nova.

Zagreb, Croatia

A collective of four women known as What, How & for Whom (WHW) run a tiny gallery in downtown Zagreb (Gallery Nova) with an international reputation. They rely on a smart network of Eastern European artists, writers, and others to do inexpensive, imaginative, politically-engaged shows in a space that makes, say, Wood Street Galleries, look like Gagosian. But it is run on discourse, argument, politics, aesthetics, food and drink, community, and commitment to both the serious fun that is art and changing one’s city, culture, and politics. There is no reason an artist or group of artists couldn’t take over one of the Cultural District’s small galleries on Penn and do a similar program, bringing in artists from the southern US, Philly, Chicago, Cleveland, NYC, Toronto. Pittsburgh is a far more stable and politically/historically untroubled space than is Zagreb, and has more funding for the arts. The WHW collective went on to organize an iteration of the Istanbul Biennial. Zagreb is no more likely than Pittsburgh to produce this kind of ambition or engagement. Start with ten ambitious/ generous/outgoing/misanthropic people, and make others want to show up. Have a good website.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

A city of fantastic big institutions: Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Barnes, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Artists who live there are lucky because ICA, in particular, exposes them to unconventional and prescient group shows, under-recognized artists, inclusive openings, and sharp, iconoclastic thinking. PMA has a ton of Duchamps and is free on Sundays. All that being said, Carnegie Museum of Art hosts many national “first” exhibitions in addition to the International. Ragnar Kjartansson, for example, one of the biggest, most fun, most generous art stars today, had his first solo show at the Carnegie, and spent over a month here in Pittsburgh (WYEP’s Brian Siewiorek gave him a crate of Sinatra records that pretty much changed his life). Turner Prize nominees Cathy Wilkes and Duncan Campbell had their first major US museum shows here, Campbell’s coming right before he represented Scotland at the Venice Biennale. The Warhol’s Nicholas Chambers is working on an ambitious solo show with Swiss artist John Armleder (who rarely shows in the US), and the Mattress Factory consistently brings in international artists. But what Philly has that Pittsburgh doesn’t have is Vox Populi (and about eight other really ambitious artist-run spaces).

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Artists Ei Arakawa and Sergei Tcherepnin perform ALL APOLOGIES for Quadruple-Consciousness at Vox Populi. Photograph via Vox Populi.

Vox shows some of the best artists in Philly, who apply to be a part of the program. The gallery mounts professional caliber shows and invites outsiders, from around the US and beyond to do shows there. It is artist-run, artist-supported, and open to the outside. There is no reason that 20 of Pittsburgh’s best artists couldn’t open a similar space and do great monthly shows that are the place you have to go to meet the most interesting people in town. (Important to note: not everyone who applies to Vox is accepted. This means that the program really represents the best in town, and encourages young artists who are ambitious and want to be a part of that community to show up to openings, to get to know people, to be a part of the conversation.) Vox now has a dedicated performance program and a film and video program. The other thing that Vox Populi did that ensured its relevance is situate itself near bigger and like-minded institutions (for years it was a few floors down from the Fabric Workshop and Museum, and timed its openings accordingly). There are a few vacant storefronts and office spaces on Craig Street by the Carnegie…

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Artists in Minneapolis are lucky, too, because they have the Walker, one of the best contemporary art museums in the country. If you grow up in Minneapolis and go there you are seeing the best artists in really interesting shows before the rest of the country does. But Pittsburghers have similar opportunities—if you go to three Carnegie Internationals between the ages of 10-20, for example. If you saw the 2004, 2008, and 2013 shows between elementary school and college, you saw Paul Chan, Paul Thek, Isa Genzken, Bruce Conner, Mladen Stilinovic, Zanele Muholi, Nicole Eisenman, and about one hundred other major artists in depth, and you saw what it could mean to be an aesthetically, politically, and socially engaged artist. And this in a city where that work is actually seen by a general audience and multiple publics. As an artist, your work would then be in dialog with this work, and that is a very good thing. But what you’re not getting in Pittsburgh, and you are in Minneapolis, is the program and the openings at Midway Contemporary Art. Midway is a non-profit that looks a lot like a really nice Chelsea gallery, and it also has one of the best public art libraries around. But the smartest thing it does is mix the best artists from say Berlin, New York, Los Angeles, and London, with the best artists from Minneapolis. One show is Jordan Wolfson, the next is a recent MCAD MFA grad. Originally founded by artists who had experience and networks in New York and other places, they found patrons, made a board, held fundraisers, and got themselves out into the world.

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The library at Midway Contemporary Art in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Photograph via Midway Contemporary Art.

Smaller cities like Zagreb, Minneapolis, and Pittsburgh—as well as larger ones like Philadelphia—need small venues that can mix international and local artists as if they are part of the same conversation (because they are). And I say small because these venues have to have great parties, and easy-going events. Simply put, most big institutions just cannot do this, as much as we want to. There is no reason a savvy Pittsburgh curator or artist(s) could not start a similar institution here. Ask those with money, connections, and a desire to mentor for help. They will give it.

The flip side of the coin can be found online in websites like Contemporary Art Daily, a scrappy upstart from Chicago that has achieved international recognition and defined a much-discussed new aesthetic. Contemporary Art Daily proves lots of things, but mostly it proves that it doesn’t matter where you are located; as long as your gallery has some florescent lights and concrete floors and pretty much looks like a gallery and shows art that looks good online, you can get major exposure. It would be easy to open such spaces in Pittsburgh, and suddenly have people scrolling past your show in between shows in Zurich or Brussels. Because while it’s crucial to have local impact and engagement, you also need to be able to expand your network, and your invitations will be well-received if you’re known nationally and internationally. Small organizations with very little physical space can have outsized impact on the Internet.

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Founded in 2011, Spaces Corners is an artist-run photobook gallery and project space based in Pittsburgh, PA. Originally located in Lawrenceville (pictured), the shop is scheduled to re-open in Troy Hill later this year. Photograph via Spaces Corners.

The big institutions in town with national and international purviews (the Warhol, CMOA, Mattress Factory) have specific missions about showing national and international art. If we didn’t concentrate on showing national and international art, Pittsburgh artists would—at least as things stand now—lose the opportunity to experience work by their peers from Europe, South America, the Middle East, LA, NYC, and so on, in person. But small institutions should be giving the big ones a run for their money. We should be looking over our collective shoulder, jealous that the small institutions can act more quickly, be more responsive to the most interesting art they’re seeing, and maybe even wooing our supporters with their penchant for good parties, good taste, and zeitgeist-defining programming.

Like the images of an artist’s work from Berlin or Istanbul? Invite them to do a show. Fundraise for a plane ticket and a few hundred dollars for supplies and opening refreshments. Better yet, get those sponsored. You have to ask people for money–—it’s something we do all the time in institutions, and the more you do it, the easier it gets. People want to support good ideas and good energy. Show the artist from Berlin or Istanbul a great week in Pittsburgh, and maybe you’ll be invited to Istanbul, and so it goes from there, as your international circle widens.

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Azimuth is a floating sky observatory created by Steve Gurysh and Luke Loeffler. Photograph via The Drift.

There is so much opportunity to be ambitious here. This may sound highly strategic, but I would suggest you make friends with one of the Google people, or any of the other young, smart, affluent individuals who are moving to town. Make art matter to them. The relationship is profoundly reciprocal. Explain why they should put a few thousand dollars into an art show. This is not a craven pursuit, rather it is the job of any institution’s director or curator: to enlist those with resources to make a civic, cultural impact, and to help make art matter to people’s lives. It is also the necessary next chapter in Pittsburgh’s industrial evolution: tech and education must support the city that has supported them, just as the manufacturing barons once so generously did. Art, especially contemporary art, needs advocates. Its content is not always easy, but it’s incredible how it can change the lives of those who invest in, learn about, and live with it. Finding ways to engage the new wealth in Pittsburgh that is founded on technology, entrepreneurship, social media, and a very uniquely 21st Century set of values in relation to communities, cities, and culture is central. These relationships will ensure the future of this city, and more generally, of interesting, ambitious art blossoming outside of the coastal cultural centers.

Don’t wait for institutions. Just come to our openings, meet our supporters, introduce yourself to me, meet the visiting artists, and then build on all of those connections. This is one of a few cities in the country with affordable space, supportive institutions, a civic culture of philanthropy, and a healthy DIY ethic. It’s happening already here. Look at the efforts of Sanctuary, a temporary gallery that set up shop on Butler Street this summer, and was founded by a former Pittsburgher who is drawing on her national network to bring in great young artists from NYC and elsewhere. Look at the super smart programs and books curated by Spaces Corners, an organization any city, large or small, should be proud to call their own. Or The Drift, doing great art projects on the city’s rivers (founded by CMU MFA students who we need to do a better job of retaining). The creation of a cosmopolitan, energetic, and deeply relevant Pittsburgh contemporary art ecology, founded on small spaces with a local/national/international outlook is practically low-hanging fruit. Go out on a limb…

This article originally appeared on Pittsburgh Articulate, a publication that aims to expand the scope of critical art writing and increase dialog surrounding the arts and relevant issues in the Pittsburgh region.