Petition urges including art in public building projects

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With an online petition, artists and art supporters are urging the city and the county to enforce ordinances requiring funding for public art in budgets for new and renovated public buildings.

Interdisciplinary artist Carolyn Speranza initiated the campaign at www.signon.org several days ago. Twenty-four signatures on Thursday had grown to 112 by Friday morning.

"At some point between now and the Democratic primary," she said, the petition will be sent to city and county officials and candidates for council seats.

For more than four decades, the city has required that at least 1 percent of the budget for any municipal construction or renovation of more than $50,000 be used for public art. The county requires 2 percent for the same project cost. That requirement was established in 2005.

"It is true that they are not enforcing these laws," said Renee Piechocki, director of the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council's Office of Public Art. She added that the city's comprehensive planning process, which includes a public art category, "is looking at whether percent-for-art is the best way to fund public art."

"It's not the only way," she said. "Some cities have a percentage required" of private developers.

Amie Downs, spokeswoman for Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, said the ordinance "was never implemented" under former county Executive Dan Onorato, "but it will be reviewed to determine the steps to move it forward."

Morton Brown, the city's public art manager for four years, said the city has cited economic reasons, but it has incorporated public art into some projects. One was a specially designed covering of opaque glass in the Zone 3 police station in Allentown. City officials also pushed and got funding from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation for the pedestrian bridge from Ellsworth Avenue to the Eastside shopping center, which Mr. Brown said "is not a percent for art; the whole thing is art."

The city also is working with the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and public works to include a sculptural artwork designed for stormwater management as part of the rebuilding of the Frick Environmental Center, he said.

"We have had some successes," Mr. Brown said, adding that the law is badly written. While requiring the 1 percent, it also requires that pertinent department heads seek approval from the art commission. "Without someone watching every project going through the city and then nagging, it doesn't work well."

He said the city's comprehensive plan will seek to institutionalize a workable public art provision.

Ms. Speranza said the petition advocates for art and jobs. About 60 percent of the money set aside for public art pays carpenters, plumbers, electricians, tile installers, welders and cement workers.

Sculptor James Simon works by private commission, but his name was the second one on the petition.

"It would be so good if we had a program that allowed more possibilities for artists and all the people they need to hire," he said. "Quality public art could make the city grow."

The petition's recipient list includes all candidates vying for the council seat of mayoral candidate Bill Peduto, whose district is home to many arts organizations and artists.

Mr. Peduto said Pittsburgh didn't build many new public buildings for a number of years until recently. He said he would like to expand the scope of any public art provision "to look beyond structures" and cited opportunities in the overhauling of the Highland Avenue bridge between Shadyside and East Liberty and reconstructing Brookline Boulevard.

"With public art, we can enhance a neighborhood business district," and larger projects can include public art to benefit the whole city, such as art works that divert stormwater, he said.

Asked if lean economic times justify lack of enforcement, he said, "Funds will always be tight. Even when they aren't, we'll say they are."

"There are many laws that are not enforced," Ms. Speranza said. "We know we have fair wage laws that are not enforced, that many environmental laws are not enforced. We as citizens have to make our government enforce our laws."

neigh_city - region

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.


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