Marvin Williams works in construction, but he was wielding a clipboard Downtown on Friday afternoon, encouraging passers-by at the corner of Penn Avenue and Seventh Street to sign a petition in support of public funding for public art.
"I do heavy construction and residential," he said. "But I'm looking forward to" future employment on public art projects, he said.
The city requires that any municipal construction or renovation project costing more than $50,000 set 1 percent aside for public art. Under the provision, the construction trades would garner the majority of the public art budget, said Carolyn Speranza, an interdisciplinary artist who organized the rally and petition drive on Katz Plaza.
The city's law has been on the books since 1977 but with a spotty record of compliance. The county has had a 2 percent requirement since 2005 but has not implemented it. In February, when the petition drive began, Amie Downs, spokeswoman for Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said it "will be reviewed to determine the steps to move it forward."
One example of a public art project will happen with the rebuilding of the Frick Environmental Art Center. The city is working with the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy to include a sculptural artwork designed for stormwater management as part of that project.
Morton Brown, the city's public art manager, said the city's provision includes a clumsy vetting process that will be improved in the city's comprehensive plan, which is in progress.
Ms. Speranza said the campaign has about 1,000 signatures so far. PGH4ART has a link to the petition.
Citing online comments by petition signers, she told a sparse crowd that public art funding is not a burden on taxpayers but an opportunity for employment and an incentive for creative people to come to and stay in Pittsburgh.
The rally featured more than 20 students from the High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, Downtown, including a jazz trio. Ms. Speranza designed the presentation with the theme "All Eyes on Art."
Behind eyeball-themed sculptures in Katz Plaza, one group of students in top hats held cut-outs of eyeballs mounted on sticks in front of their faces, reminiscent of the avant garde group The Residents. Another group represented artists, complete with paint stains and paint brushes, and a third group wore hard hats to represent construction workers.
Shannon Pultz, head of the art department at CAPA, said that if art provision is enforced, it would provide opportunities for the school's graduates to stay in Pittsburgh.
"Art as part of the social landscape has a profound impact on communities," she said. "Study after study shows that the amount of art equals the amount of vibrancy of city life."
Ms. Speranza said many people think public art is expendable when funding is tight but argued that we sacrifice it at our own peril.
"Public art is a legacy for the ages," she said. The 1 percent law makes us "not dependent on foundations or the good graces of developers. It gives monetary backbone to art. The question is not how or why, the question is when."
The question might really be: Does the public care enough?
Working alongside Mr. Williams, Lee Salih, a mixed-media artist and photographer, called out from the corner like a mantra, "Sign our petition for public art!" as one after another person made an apologetic hand wave or ignored him completely. A few stopped, one asking that his signature not get him on a list: "I don't want to get spammed," he said.
"I've worked in enough call centers to know it's the law of averages," Mr. Salih said. "If you ask 100 people, you get 25."