Sprout Fund supports new ideas citywide

Art, environment prime beneficiaries

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From its first grant of $900 for a temporary art gallery in the Skinny Building, Downtown, the Sprout Fund has become a powerful little engine on Pittsburgh's road to artistic and environmental innovation.

Small "seed" grants have been that fund's pulse -- $6,000 here, $7,500 there, giving legs to hundreds of ideas, projects and passionate bands of advocates.

The Sprout Fund is celebrating its milestone 10th birthday by funding a signature piece of public art with its largest grant ever, $100,000. The winning artist or artists will install work on the Law and Finance Building on Fourth Avenue, Downtown. The finalists will be announced this month.

In 10 years, Sprout has supported 450 projects at a value of $4 million from more than 100 funding sources. Now, Sprout is poised for a transition.

"It's unclear to me where we will go after this signature art project," said Cathy Lewis Long, who, with Matt Hannigan, founded Sprout, itself a seed of the New Idea Factory that former county Executive Jim Roddey launched when he was elected in 2000.

Mr. Roddey said he put Ms. Lewis, then a fellow with the Coro Center for Civic Leadership, in charge of the idea factory of three dozen young people. One idea was bike racks on buses, he said, "and now I read that all the buses have them."

He called Sprout's impact "enormous" and said the economic benefit from $4 million dispersed over 10 years is "probably 10 times that. It's grown in reputation and popularity, it's been a marvelous success, and I'm really proud of her."

The Richard King Mellon Foundation has been the most enduring and largest supporter and was one of the original donors -- R.K. Mellon and the Heinz Endowments gave Sprout its start with $87,500 each. Every year, Sprout requests funding from foundations that averages about $1.3 million.

Sprout's public art program became its public face in 2003. Since then, it has fostered 55 neighborhood murals, all designed with feedback from residents and sometimes installed in rough places.

"That was community revitalization with a different bent," said Mr. Hannigan.

Morton Brown, the city's public art manager, was Sprout's first public art program manager. An artist who had worked in the Philadelphia Mural Art Program, he got on board for a one-year pilot project that took off.

"We started getting more and more funding, and it started working," he said. "Sprout was very interested in engaging emerging artists from the region and attracting young people through art.

"The inclusion of the community in the design process was very special. It's a process many people had never been a part of in the past."

He said Sprout "has always filled a niche here" by giving people a chance, "people who wouldn't normally get a big grant from a big foundation but who just need a leg up."

"They completely helped us get our start," said BikePGH co-founder Scott Bricker.

"I think before we got the bike rack grant our budget was $500."

BikePGH went from "a couple of guys with a great idea to being the go-to agency for everything bike related," said Ms. Long.

"The ambition they came to us with are the things they're now getting done," said Mr. Hannigan, noting BikePGH's role in the city's hiring of a pedestrian-bicycle coordinator in 2008, initiating a network of bicycle lanes, pushing bicycle parking legislation and promoting bike racks on city streets from the original 10 to 300.

Sprout Fund's beneficiaries have included Steel City BioFuels, Burgh Bees, Bare Bones Productions, Tree Pittsburgh, the Carnegie Science Center, GTECH Strategies, Urban Hike, ArtUp, Encyclopedia Destructica, Puppets for Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh Signs Project, the Bricolage Staged Reading Performance Series, the Zany Umbrella Circus, filmmaker Chris Ivey's "East of Liberty" documentary series and Creative Life Support Records, to help young musicians get local gigs.

In 2009, a class from Carnegie Mellon University proposed to open Conflict Kitchen, a politically themed, educational take-out window of real food on the side of the Waffle Shop in East Liberty. Sprout granted $7,000.

Conflict Kitchen has so far featured a signature food of three countries in conflict with the United States and is one of the Sprout projects Mr. Hannigan said "may have enduring value."

Quirky is a recurring characteristic of some grantees. One young artist got $1,000 for an exhibit featuring lost gloves found in the streets. The One-Glove Project reunited 14 people with their gloves.

The benefit may be lost on some, but the creative inspiration served to promote connections, Ms. Long said.

Most Sprout awards are small, a few thousand dollars, but some have been heftier.

In the last three years, Sprout has granted $900,000 to encourage tech-based early childhood education experiences through its "Spark" program.

In 2007, $20,000 from the Sprout Fund gave GTECH [Growth Through Energy and Community Health] an early boost in its land reclamation planting projects on three East End lots. GTECH also won $10,000 to buy a truck, convert it to run on used cooking oil, collect the oil and promote renewable energy.

A $5,830 grant in 2004 helped create a monster when a group of friends conceived a fair for crafters called Handmade Arcade.

"I was totally unaware of any DYI [do-it-yourself] arts scene," said Gloria Forouzan, who founded Handmade Arcade with friends at her dining room table. "About eight of us committed to do it then realized we needed start-up funds and that few people would understand what we were trying to do.

"We had the sense that Sprout would get it, and they did," she said. "Their funding took us through start-up, outreach and an education phase."

Handmade Arcade had its first fair at Construction Junction with 30 to 40 independent vendors and a crowd of 600 to 800, she said. "We were bowled over. It was a phenomenal success."

Today, Handmade Arcade is held in the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

"Virtually no one had heard of this concept when we started, and now 10,000 people come. There are many spin-offs and a [traveling] circuit for vendors."

Among the variety of projects Sprout has funded, Louis Fineberg was granted $8,500 to produce his bike explorer's guide to Pittsburgh, "3 Rivers on 2 Wheels."

"Sprout really filled a niche. These are the kinds of things that bring people here," he said.

Sprout has shown its enduring belief in bicycling advocacy. Since its original grant to BikePGH, it has returned with support, including the first Bike Fest, an annual fund-raiser that broke even the first year.

On its own since, Bike Fest raised about $35,000 this year, Mr. Bricker said.

BikePGH celebrates its own 10th birthday in February and now gets support from the big foundations. It has more than 1,500 dues-paying members and four full-time and three part-time employees. It contracts with a bike-lane engineer to meet with city planners and public works staff.

With the city's oversight, BikePGH will be designing bicycle facilities and installing bike lanes in Pittsburgh, which has 15 miles of bike lanes and plans another 20 next year, said Marissa Doyle, a spokeswoman for Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.

"We would never have gotten to this point without that first Sprout grant," Mr. Bricker said.

Last year, with $300,000 from the Pittsburgh Foundation, Sprout awarded $20,000 and $5,000 grants to winners of its competition for ecological stewardship and biodiversity projects.

Among the $20,000 winners were Tree Pittsburgh to establish a nursery for reforestation and land restoration; Blackberry Meadows Farm in Natrona Heights for a seed bank and nursery for heritage plants; and the Garfield Community Farm for a bioshelter greenhouse.

At last year's spring awards, Pittsburgh Foundation CEO Grant Oliphant said, "If we're going to make environmental change, this is the way we start to do it: lots of people taking on the challenges we face and making them personal and making them local."

Today, he said that quote sums up "the work that Sprout does."

"They have used small grants as a mechanism to engage lots of people to come up with lots of ideas to solve problems," said Mr. Oliphant, "so they really get at ideas that are non-traditional but wonderfully inventive.

"The ultimate benefit is there are new ideas bubbling up," he said.

"The more ideas we solicit and the more people we engage, the better off we will all be."

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk . First Published October 2, 2011 4:00 AM


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