Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council works through art to lead social change

At the Three Rivers Arts Festival in 2014, a volunteer choir took the stage with an original piece: “The Pittsburgh Complaint Song.” As the Complaints N’at Choir, they put the grievances of their friends and neighbors to music, singing, “Buses never run on time … Lack of good jobs for black women and men. … Why can’t Pittsburgh Public Schools have full time art teachers? … Potholes, potholes, potholes, potholes.”

The song was made up of real complaints, solicited online and in person by artist Christiane, who performs as Christiane Dolores. She is the Artist Relations Manager at the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, which promotes and advocates for arts in the region. The Arts Council is a membership organization; it provides services to individual artists and arts nonprofits, and re-grants national, state, and local funding to Pittsburgh artists and organizations.

The council also has to navigate a changing Pittsburgh, one whose contradictions are clear in the words of the Complaint Song. The city has been called one of the best places for millennials by publications including The Atlantic, and is consistently on lists of most livable cities in the U.S. The song’s retort: “You got noticed as the most livable city, and immediately got rid of everything that made you that way.”

“At this point, Pittsburgh has become cool,” Christiane says. “Everywhere you turn neighborhoods are getting developed into overpriced luxury living spaces, and artists are getting pushed out.”

Amid discussions of development, gentrification, and affordability, Christiane and the Arts Council created HE-HO, an artist-focused community health and housing fair. The 2013 event offered a mix of informative panels with performances and exhibitions, all on the themes of health and a place to live.

The “HE” part of the event was inspired by the Artists’ Health Fair toolkit developed by St. Paul-based Springboard for the Arts. Christiane intended to replicate that fair’s model of sharing health care and insurance resources for artists, and then decided to include information on housing as well.

Now, the HE-HO concept will become a toolkit that other cities and nonprofits can adapt, as part of the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council’s involvement in the Leading Organizations program. They are pilot participants in the program, sharing knowledge and insights with Springboard for the Arts, San Jose’s MACLA, Nashville’s Metro Arts, and the Macon Arts Alliance.

HE-HO was built on the idea that artists can achieve their potential to transform and grow communities only when their basic needs are met. But uniting people around practical resources for artists was tough to get off the ground at first. “One thing I noticed when calling health care people and housing people in Pittsburgh, they didn’t understand the concept at all — they didn’t understand why artists wanted to know about these things,” Christiane says.

“It started to be funny. I had to repeat myself like three or four times,” she says. “I just stopped saying ‘artists’ and started saying ‘community,’ because I wasn’t getting anywhere.”

Despite that disconnect, Christiane also wanted to make sure that HE-HO didn’t single out artists while excluding other people who need access. “We made sure that it wasn’t just artists, it was for the community. We were intentional with that, because I feel like people are creating a special class with artists,” Christiane says.

“We said, we’re not into artists’ housing, we’re into affordable housing that artists can live in,” she explains. “If we made it artists, it’d be like, ‘Whoo, artists’ housing.’ Meanwhile, where is the rest of the community going to live?”

It was also important that HE-HO include artists who were already addressing issues of health care and housing in the community. Copies of “Be Well! Pittsburgh,” artist Jude Vachon’s illustrated booklet of health care resources for the uninsured, were distributed during the fair. Shown throughout the day was Julie Sokolow’s documentary “Healthy Artists,” which depicts the efforts of Pittsburgh creatives to advocate for health care reform.

HE-HO has been presented as a fair only once, but the health and housing resources are being collected onto a website that artists will be able to access and add to, says Christiane.

Along with efforts to provide resources for artists on a large scale, Christiane’s role includes helping artists one-on-one. “I call it consulting, consoling, coaching,” she says.

Meeting with artists in person allows her to find out what they do and what they need, and whether they should be referred to one of her colleagues for specific help. Business and legal services, for example, are offered by volunteers with the Arts Council.

These “diagnosis” meetings involve asking hard questions, Christiane says. “A lot of times once you leave college, nobody asks you any questions. You’re just in your head, trying to figure out what you want to do,” she explains. “Pursuing grants and opportunities can be rough. It’s not always a sustainable lifestyle, so I talk to people about how to sustain themselves aside from that.”

Part of the problem, Christiane says, is that traditional grantmaking structures are disconnected from artists’ lives and needs. “A lot of these programs don’t provide equity or accessibility,” she says.

That’s an issue nationwide, she says, and Pittsburgh is no exception — despite the city’s recent trendy accolades. “We are not ‘most livable,’” she says. “There is not equal access for everybody. And that spills over into the arts.”

In recent years, the discussion of race and equity in the local arts community has often focused on the August Wilson Center. (In the Complaints Song, “Save the August Wilson Center” is a repeated refrain.) The center, in downtown Pittsburgh, is a gallery and performance space dedicated to African American culture. Its namesake August Wilson was born in the city, and won two Pulitzers for his cycle of plays chronicling life in the historically Black Hill District over the course of the twentieth century.

The center opened in 2009, but in the years after the recession, it struggled to pay off its construction debt. In 2014, the bank foreclosed. The center was closed for well over a year, during which its future was uncertain. As community members rallied to save this rare space focused on black history and culture, the center was on the verge of being turned into a hotel. Finally, a coalition of three major Pittsburgh foundations bought the building and pledged to preserve its cultural role.

Now reopened and active, the center is governed by a board that plans to continue recruiting members of color this year. “It energized our community, because of the importance of the August Wilson Center nationally for artists of color,” says Anne Mulgrave, the Arts Council’s Manager of Grants & Accessibility. “It pushed the conversation in a way that hadn’t happened before.”

As local issues like the fight for the August Wilson Center have mirrored national discussions of race, the Arts Council has looked for ways to make Pittsburgh’s arts community and their own work more equitable.

In 2013, the Council began coordinating the Pittsburgh Coalition for Racial Equity in the Arts. Since then, the coalition has come together at workshops on topics such as “Racial Justice and the Handmade Movement,” “Assembling a Diverse Workforce” and “Mapping Racism in the Arts.”

Beyond the in-person discussions, the coalition maintains a lively public Facebook group. Members regularly share events and other links there, from interviews with Black Pittsburgh artists to articles about the lack of diversity in Oscar nominations.

Part of the movement for racial equity is about getting people to talk — to share resources, suggest solutions, or in some cases, even admit there’s a problem.

“People say that in the organizations they’re in, no one is talking about it,” says Tiffany Wilhelm, the Arts Council’s Deputy Director about the initial reaction from some organizations around discussing privilege and barriers to success. “There is this resistance around what it really takes to understand these issues, which is some really deep personal work. Shifting the way we each individually see and think about the world. [People say,] ‘You’re asking me to do this really personal work as part of my job? I don’t get it.’”

Besides leading community conversations, the Arts Council has also looked inward, examining the ways their own systems can change.

For Mulgrave, that self-reflection started when an artist called the Arts Council to talk about the race and class barriers built into the application. “We had an eye-opening conversation that I still think about to this day,” Mulgrave says. “You can do all the outreach you want, but if people don’t think they’re going to get a fair shake in the process, they’re just not going to apply.”

Since then, the Arts Council has worked to adjust the application process to remove barriers. To open their grants to more applicants, the Arts Council created the “Grits and Grants” series, a grantwriting workshop hosted at nontraditional venues like neighborhood restaurants and coffee shops around Pittsburgh. Artists can ask for advice and hear “the unwritten rules of grantmaking that no one tells people,” Mulgrave says.

“We kind of take the fear out of it,” says Christiane, who is also part of managing the series and performs “dramatic readings of really bad and really good artist statements.”

Besides generally demystifying the process, Grits and Grants also allows artists to share their applications and get detailed feedback before the final submission. The grants are competitive, so the Arts Council wants artists to be able to learn from the experience even if they aren’t selected for funding.

The result has been a significant increase in grant applications, says Mulgrave. “We’ve worked to increase transparency and faith in the process.”

The Arts Council has also worked to make the arts in Pittsburgh more accessible to people with disabilities.

Even if arts organizations know that they need to be open to people with different abilities, they may not have the knowledge, capacity, or budget to make that happen. The Arts Council determined that they would need to provide three things to such organizations: skills, peer support, and connections to community members with disabilities.

Since 2011, the council has offered workshops and a peer network focused on accessibility, which has grown to more than 70 member organizations. They also provide microfunding to help nonprofits offer accommodations to patrons or artists. For example, a theater company can apply to fund an American Sign Language interpreter for a performance. The Arts Council will reimburse up to $500 in accessibility-related expenses.

The accessibility initiative is pushing change on a larger scale, too. In June 2015, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra presented one of the world’s first full sensory-friendly symphonic performances. To accommodate people on the autism spectrum who are particularly affected by sensory stimulation, the symphony narrowed the dynamic range of the music. They also provided information to families ahead of time about what to expect.

Other sensory-friendly shows have reduced bright lights and loud sounds, kept the house lights halfway on, and have relaxed rules so patrons can talk and move around. Funding and advice from other nonprofits help organizations pull off such performances successfully.

The Arts Council’s accessibility work has also nurtured original art by and about people with disabilities. In 2014, the city’s Bricolage Production Company created the immersive show “OjO,” in which audience members were guided through a sequence of experiences while wearing tight, light-blocking eye masks. Bricolage’s artistic directors worked with two actors, one who lost her sight at 24 and one who has been blind from birth, to create a show that mimics the vulnerability of living without sight. The Arts Council hopes to see Pittsburgh organizations continue to involve artists and patrons with disabilities in innovative ways.

The council would like to see artists working on accessibility projects beyond the arts world, too. “The Americans with Disabilities Act is the only civil rights law that mandates creativity,” explains Mulgrave. “The disability community is so varied that there is not one solution, so you have to look at multiple sides of the situation and use creative problem-solving. The arts community is better than anyone at doing this.”

To launch the accessibility initiative, the Arts Council had to make an executive decision for Pittsburgh. “We did a survey to see how important this was in the arts community,” Wilhelm notes, and although there were a few organizations dedicated to the work of accessibility, it did not rank very high compared to other priorities for many organizations.

That gave the council an opportunity to reaffirm its purpose. “The Arts Council serves its arts constituency, but also has this important role of leading on issues where there’s resistance, where things are stuck,” Wilhelm says.

“One of the things that makes it work in Pittsburgh,” adds Mulgrave, “is we combine that leadership with an understanding that you can’t just tell people to do stuff, you have to provide them with the skills.” Wilhelm notes that beyond skills, the ability to build relationships so that there is a deeper mutual understanding of how people are impacted is essential to the success of GPAC’s programs.

The Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council will continue to be a leader in accessibility as Pittsburgh hosts the Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability (LEAD) Conference in August 2016. The conference offers professional development for arts managers, helping them learn the skills to work with people with disabilities.

For the Arts Council, it’s an opportunity to continue to share insights that are needed nationwide. “Whenever I talk to arts organizations, I use work from artists with disabilities to illustrate concepts of accessibility and to provide a perspective,” Mulgrave says. “I could talk to them all I want about disability etiquette, but when they see a piece of artwork, they get it much faster.”

For Christiane, artists as educators and leaders of social change is as it should be. “I think as artists, and as arts administrators, we have a duty to create the kind of world we want to see,” Christiane says. “It isn’t always just using art to complain about it, or to point it out. That has value, but we’re creative people: We have the power to create new systems.”