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FYIWhere art lives in Pittsburgh

Everyday people also use the arts to express their faith, ideals, feelings, and ideas.

The Arts in Pittsburgh


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Pittsburgh has a rich selection of museums displaying art ranging from classic to comic to quizzical. The definition of a museum is a "permanent collection of artwork or artifacts." That's pretty broad, and by those standards, many facilities achieve museum status, including homes, galleries, gardens and even zoos (since the animals living there are part of a permanent collection!).

Many of the city's most noted institutions exist due to the philanthropy of industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who arguably did more than any other citizen to establish Pittsburgh as a cultural center. Facing limited educational opportunities as he was growing up, Carnegie was determined to create those opportunities for others, and in 1895 the Carnegie Institute opened its doors. With a library, art gallery, music hall, and museum situated on the grounds in Oakland (the middle of a corn field at that time!), a tradition of high culture and fine art took root in the city that continues to this day.

Cargegie Institute in Oakland, home of the Carnegie Museum of Art, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Carnegie Music Hall and Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh

Carnegie Institute
Tom Altany

Closer to the downtown area, a different kind of museum pays tribute to the work of famed pop culture artist and icon Andy Warhol. In a converted warehouse on the North Side (Warhol's home town), the Andy Warhol Museum has seven floors filled with Warhol's interpretations of everyday images. Visitors can see the artist's paintings and films, or browse through the collection of Warhol memorabilia.

Across several streets and closer to the river, you'll find a scrap metal shop owned by Andy Warhol's brother. Paul Warhola also works as an artist -- in between running the scrap metal shop -- and has presented paintings made by chickens walking across a canvas after their feet were dipped in paint. A quiet and unassuming man, Warhola also once created a giant sculpture made of scrap metal and other refuse -- although that was not the artwork he intended. According to Warhola, his artistic statement was made when he lit the sculpture on fire and watched it burn.

Similarly progressive art work and performances can be found at another North Side museum called "The Mattress Factory." Named for the business that once took place inside the walls of the building, the Mattress Factory displays highly conceptual sculptures and mixed media presentations. One outdoor installation includes an open grass field dotted by various greens. Hidden within those greens is a wooden chair. Another installation fills a furnished room with concrete. Another room holds an artist-in-residence, who can be observed interacting with and reacting to his or her material surroundings. The Mattress Factory is recognized around the world as a major art facility.

How does the art of the Mattress Factory compare to the Pittsburgh Children's Museum in Allegheny Square on the North Side? At first one might think they are wildly different. But each facility appeals to the unconscious and even whimsical instincts of its audience. For children, art themes may be less weighty than adult ones, but they are no less important. At the Children's Museum, children absorb a world of color and music and texture and performance, encouraging their imaginations and awakening their own artistic instincts.

The Pittsburgh Children's Museum's Luckey's Climber

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks

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Unlike some works of modern art, which are recognized for manipulating perceptions of reality, Clayton in the East End is recognized as a museum because of the attention it pays to preserving reality . . . or, preserving images of reality circa the late 1800's. That's when industrialist Henry Clay Frick lived in the mansion with his family. Curators have restored and maintained Frick's treasures, presenting a glimpse of what life was like for the privileged classes at that time.

Pittsburgh claims a long list of "permanent collections of art or artifacts," and these are just a few of them. It also claims an impressive roster of galleries housing temporary displays. Along Ellsworth Avenue in Shadyside, fine art galleries sit side by side with charming antique shops. On Carson Street in the South Side, galleries take on an eclectic flair.

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Libraries are another source for finding art, and one of the city's noted historic libraries is situated on the South Side between the Oliver Bath House and the Birmingham Bridge. The South Side Branch of the Carnegie Library was built in 1909 and during its first week it had more than 10,000 visitors. The library actually ran out of books! The library still sits in the same location today, and much of the building's architecture has been preserved, making the building as much a work of art as the writings inside.

Today, many communities have branches of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, or privately operated libraries, and they occasionally host story hours. Some stories may be geared toward children, but very often they hold appeal for all ages. In fact, storytelling may be one of the oldest of the performing arts. It was a way to pass along history to the next generations, contribute to legends that guide a community group, and help to preserve culture and traditions. It's still considered an art form, and whether you realize it or not, each time you repeat a favorite family legend or recall a much-loved anecdote to share with friends, you are performing the art of storytelling.

Cargegie Library of Pittsburgh in Oakland, part of the Carnegie Institute

Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh
Tom Altany

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Theaters and Concert Halls

Beyond storytelling, performing arts such as dance, music, and stage events are well-represented in Pittsburgh. In Oakland, the Carnegie Music Hall sits across from the Stephen Foster Memorial.


Carnegie Music Hall

Tom Altany

Carnegie Music Hall, Oakland, the first home of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

Across Forbes Avenue is the Stephen Foster Memorial Hall, where the University of Pittsburgh stages plays and concerts.

Stephen Foster Memorial
Tom Altany

Downtown, the Benedum Center and Heinz Hall host events ranging from classical to cutting edge. More intimate venues join the Benedum and Heinz Hall in a stretch of Liberty Avenue known as the Cultural District. They echo the old "movie palaces" and theatres that existed in the city in the early part of the 1900's.

Heinz Hall, home of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

Heinz Hall
Pittsburgh History & Landmarks

Intimate nightclubs and grand ballrooms provided the stages for other kinds of live performance. One of those grand ballrooms is situated on the 17th floor of the city's oldest hotel, the Willam Penn Hotel on Grant Street. There, one of music's great popular icons, Lawrence Welk, claims to have gotten his big break back in the late 1930s. Someone at a Pittsburgh radio station said Welk's music was so bubbly it was like champagne -- and Welk and his band liked that idea. Several years later, one of the hotel's engineers rigged up a crazy little device that made bubbles -- the prototype for what would ultimately become Welk's trademark bubble machine!

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Around that same time, several blocks uptown from the William Penn Hotel, Pittsburgh's Hill District was in the midst of a musical "heyday," and the jazz music "scene" was akin to such famous places as the Cotton Club and The Apollo. In fact, Pittsburgh's Hill District held the reputation of being the place for music between New York and Chicago. Notables from Sarah Vaughn and Lena Horne to Billy Eckstine, Dizzy Gillespie, Cab Calloway and John Coltrane appeared in music clubs in the Hill. Heavy-hitter big bands like Duke Ellington and Count Basie would perform at Pittsburgh's downtown clubs -- and then head to the Hill for after-hour shows that would last well into the night!

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It was an important part of the culture in the Hill District, and often residents would spend Friday and Saturday nights touring Wylie Avenue and visiting the bars to hear all the great performers. The Crawford Grill was one noted mecca for jazz music in the 1950's, and despite growing racial issues in the city, many of the attendees at these clubs' performances were white. The music played an integral role in identifying and establishing contributions of Pittsburgh's Black community.

In 1948, Hill resident Mary Dee approached radio station WHOD, noting that while they billed themselves as the "Station of Nations," they aired no programming for Blacks. The station manager challenged Mary to come up with a format and sponsors and they would give her airtime. Mary Dee met that challenge and went on the air with programming for the Black Community. Her format became so popular that she eventually worked her way up to doing 4 to 5 hour shows!

Where do you find art today?

Around the region, arts communities are creating and inspiring with works that range from traditional to outrageously unique. In your own community, artwork is alive in our churches and temples, museums and libraries, and on stages and street corners alike.

If you've ever attended a performance in the Downtown Cultural District, you may have seen a prominent symphony perform. And as you walked to your car afterward, you could well have witnessed a single person standing on the street corner playing a guitar. How are those two performances different? In what ways are they similar? It is an age-old question: Is "art" defined by the product, or by the intentions, of the artist?

Debate over that question will undoubtedly persist, as long as artists search for ways to comment on the world's events, communicate their human emotions -- and pay tribute to their observations in ways that wash away the dust from everyday life and reveal the soul that exists underneath.


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