Pittsburgh could become an international center of contemporary art
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Girl Talk is the name adopted by Pittsburgh native Gregg Gillis, who creates "mash-ups" -- musical compositions made from samples of other people's songs. And he has become an international phenomenon -- first on the Internet, then in mass media and now in sold-out performances, including two recent shows in his hometown.
Mr. Gillis's trajectory underscores the enormous change taking place in how culture is made and consumed.
As it has for centuries, technology is transforming our world, making it smaller, but that transformation now moves with ferocious speed. And while globalization can promote homogenization, it also can have the opposite effect, allowing individuals anywhere to change the way people everywhere think about and experience art.
Contemporary technology allowed Mr. Gillis to rise to prominence from Pittsburgh. What would it take for the entire Pittsburgh region to gain international renown as a center of contemporary art?
First, we need to attract and keep talented visual artists. Pittsburgh, with its low rents and large spaces, its vibrant cultural institutions and active alternative art spaces, is well placed to nurture a visual art scene of consequence. We are near enough to New York to be convenient and far enough away to experiment freely without worrying too much about critical fallout or marketplace pressures.
Pittsburgh's universities bolster a strong intellectual environment and provide cutting-edge technology that offers artists the latest tools for creation, communication and interdisciplinary exchange.
Then there are Pittsburgh's museums.
Andrew Carnegie founded Carnegie Museum of Art to bring the best contemporary art to Pittsburgh in the Carnegie International exhibitions. This introduction of international culture into the local environment is vitally important because the art world is defined by constantly changing, multifaceted discussions about the nature of art, philosophy, culture and history. The more immersed local artists are in that discourse, the more likely they are to create work that "speaks to the field."
The Internet provides broad access to art and audiences, but does not allow for full sensory experience of artistic expression. Museums, galleries and alternative spaces do, while exposing artists to the latest ideas in their fields. And when a museum enhances its reputation by engaging and shaping contemporary discourse, it can elevate the artists -- regional, national and international -- who show there.
This "mash-up" of the global and the local will be much in evidence at Carnegie Museum of Art over the coming years.
For instance, the museum next month presents "Paul Thek: Diver," the first U.S. retrospective of this influential mid-20th-century artist who lived in New York and Europe. Created with the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Paul Thek exhibition opened to critical acclaim in New York and travels after Pittsburgh to the UCLA Armand Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. By working with institutions of this caliber, Carnegie Museum will change the way the world considers this artist, bring ground- breaking art to our region and raise Pittsburgh's profile in the art world.
In March, we will present the first U.S. museum exhibition of Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartensson. At 34, he is literally and figuratively a rock star in Europe. His work encompasses video and live performance, and the Pittsburgh presentation will include a world-premier concert.
We also will take local art to the world by creating exhibitions that travel.
This fall, we open "Teenie Harris, Photographer: An American Story," which presents the work of Charles "Teenie" Harris, who documented African-American life for the Pittsburgh Courier from the 1930s to the 1970s. In early 2012, we will create with the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City "Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Arts at the World's Fairs, 1851-1939," an exhibition of local and global innovations in decorative arts.
Without the local, the global can become generic. Museums can address this problem by including the works of local artists in serious curated shows. When the talent and sophistication is there -- as it is in Pittsburgh -- and the work speaks to its time, museums with significant reputations can bring previously little-known art to national or international prominence. When enough artists from a particular place become widely known, it brings attention to the region as a whole.
Complementing the Teenie Harris retrospective this fall will be "Downtown Now," presenting the work of nine Pittsburgh-based photographers, who, with funding from the Heinz Endowments, are documenting our city and the people who live and work here. This exhibition will provide a contemporary counterpoint to Harris's historic images.
We will, of course, use the latest technology to publicize these and other upcoming projects, including in 2013 the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh annual exhibition and the Carnegie International.
Carnegie Museum of Art also seeks to encourage more art collecting in Pittsburgh, which, in turn, would support more commercial galleries and expose more of our citizens to the best art from here and elsewhere. We are forming a group dedicated to contemporary art and photography predicated on the idea that you do not have to be wealthy to collect serious art.
A vibrant visual arts scene is not just nice to have, but necessary leverage for a region trying to attract the best and the brightest. Arts and culture are economic boosters. Cultural tourism and new small businesses, including housing and hospitality, crop up in neighborhoods that welcome artists.
The transformation of Pittsburgh into an internationally recognized art center will require years, if not decades, and a strong collective will to make it happen. But it can happen. At Carnegie Museum of Art we are poised to do our part.
First Published January 30, 2011 12:00 am