Onorato orders halt to removal of artworks

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A controversy over an attempt to replace a sculpture with advertising at Pittsburgh International Airport has prompted Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato to order a moratorium on the removal of any artwork from county-controlled public facilities.

Mr. Onorato is expected to announce the moratorium today. It is expected to stay in place until a committee is established to review requests to remove or replace public artwork on a case-by-case basis.

The moratorium not only would affect "Silver Grid Wall," the Peter Calaboyias sculpture at the center of the airport controversy, but artwork at all county buildings and parks, as well as buildings overseen by county authorities, including the Port Authority.

"The airport is a wake-up call for all of us to preserve the great artwork that exists in this county," the county executive said.

Mr. Onorato said the proposed review committee would include representatives from local arts groups and architectural firms. While the panel would review requests to remove artwork from public facilities, Mr. Onorato made it clear that, as he sees it, such requests would be granted only in rare instances.

"You start with the assumption that the artwork stays. You've got to meet the burden of removal. The idea is to preserve artwork," he said.

The review process "doesn't prohibit [the removal] 100 percent, but you've got to hit a pretty high standard to remove art," he added.

The moratorium comes after Mr. Onorato ordered the county airport authority more than a week ago to stop removing "Silver Grid Wall" from its prominent spot above the main escalators in the airport's Airside Building. The sculpture has occupied the space since the terminal opened in 1992.

Airport Authority officials notified Mr. Calaboyias on Feb. 3 it was being dismantled to clear the way for advertising.

At first, they would not say who the advertiser was or how much it would pay for the space. The authority later disclosed Siemens had agreed to pay $360,000 for the right to advertise in the spot for one year.

The move is now on hold while the authority and Mr. Calaboyias try to find another space at the airport for the piece, which is 78 feet long and 8 feet high. With the moratorium, and if another location can't be found, the sculpture will stay in its place, said Kevin Evanto, Mr. Onorato's spokesman.

"It was put there for a reason. It was part of the original design. You have to put a lot of weight into that," Mr. Onorato said. "That's one reason the airport gets high rankings, because of the detail put into that building. [The sculpture's] one of them."

Airport Authority spokeswoman JoAnn Jenny declined to comment Friday on the moratorium, saying she knew nothing about it.

In an e-mail, Mr. Calaboyias said he supported the idea.

"At least the moratorium will keep this work in place, and I hope he makes it permanent. In the original planning of the airport these spaces were intended for art and should so remain," he wrote. "In my recent and only conversation with Dan ... I sensed that he is sincere in promoting and preserving public art."

The Port Authority also has grappled with the issue of public art in its construction of the North Shore Connector, an expansion of the T from Downtown to the North Side.

Mr. Onorato said the moratorium doesn't mean he is opposed to selling advertising in public buildings and other public places like parks and ice rinks.

In fact, he said the county is aggressively exploring such opportunities. But he believes there are plenty of spaces where advertising can be sold that won't displace existing public art.

"There are a lot of spaces out there where I think advertisers would love to be," he said.

He also said there may be "very rare instances" where a recommendation may be made to remove an artwork or where a piece may have to be moved because of construction.

But the goal is to keep public artwork in its place.

"I believe it's very important to have art in the public domain, in public buildings and public parks. This gives artwork the public protection it needs," he said.

Mark Belko can be reached at mbelko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1262.


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