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Pittsburgh attracts young artists with a wealth of opportunities

The city sees a rising number of millennial creators as affordability remains central 

A version of this article first appeared in Pittsburgh City Paper. 

By Tyler Dague, Point Park News Service:

Bowen Schmitt didn’t recognize Pittsburgh. After five and a half years as a student at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art then and founding director of the Great Far Beyond modern art gallery, he decided to move back to the city where he had grown up.  

Bowen Schmitt working on a mural wall in his backyard in Highland Park. Photo courtesy of Bowen Schmitt.

“I feel like I came back to a new city after leaving to go to Philadelphia,” he said. He was impressed by the wealth returning to the city and the surge in young people here to expand their artistic repertoire rather than “buying fancy cars.” Schmitt said he saw a smaller yet vibrant arts community as a way to be heard sooner, reaching levels in years that would take decades in other areas. 

As a sculptor, Schmitt, 23, was able to rent out a two-bedroom house in Highland Park and use the second bedroom as a studio space. He claimed that he was paying the same amount for a one-floor apartment in Philadelphia. And that didn’t come with a decent backyard. 

Schmitt is not alone in moving to Pittsburgh as an emerging artist. In the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council’s 2016 survey of artists and arts administrators, 34 percent of the 187 respondents were 20-35 years old, the highest age percentage. And several arts community leaders have noticed an increase in the number of young artists moving to Pittsburgh for its affordability, collaborative community and willingness to expand. 

This trend arrives after the Census Bureau’s 2015 American Community Survey found 18-34 year olds comprise 37 percent of the city’s population, higher than its estimates for all other age groups, including those 60 and over. 

It’s a trend Mitch Swain, CEO of the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, wasn’t surprised to learn. “I think younger people are coming here or are more likely to return here because they’re seeing that this area has changed,” Swain said. “I’m hearing that from my own kids that are 24, 23 and 21. They refer to Pittsburgh differently than they used to.” 

Swain cited the number of well-connected colleges and universities in the area for providing the contacts and projects needed for artists just starting out to build their network and the prevalence of funders such as the Heinz Endowment and the Grable Foundation offering financial support for the arts. For instance, the Heinz Endowment’s Small Arts Initiative grants provide funding for small professional arts organizations or groups. The median Small Arts Initiative grant in 2015 was $14,000 out of a $500,000 budget. 

On July 25, the Arts Council reported a significant donation from the Hillman Foundation —$580,000 over two years — to the non-profit’s grant efforts. Of the donation, $300,000 will go directly to individual artists or small arts organizations. The donation will allow the Arts Council to allow for bigger grants, $5,000 to $20,000, instead of its current limit of $2,500, and contribute $10,000 to an artist emergency fund. The emergency fund is set aside for artists who have experienced sudden, unforeseen crises or accidents that would require prohibitive costs. 

“There is certainly more funding options here than in many cities of our size and even larger,” Swain said. “It doesn’t mean that it’s easy to get, but there’s more of it than a lot of other cities.” 

Esther Michaels, 26, also moved to Highland Park two months ago from New York City. She initially came to Pittsburgh to study photography at Carnegie Mellon University, but a dearth of options right out of school convinced her to move back to her much-bigger hometown. After graduating from a master’s program in museum studies at New York University, she decided Pittsburgh’s affordability was worth risking another chance. 

“It was a leap of faith for me because I did not have a job lined up, and I’m still working on a job, trying to make rent,” Michaels said. 

Although she wished there were more gallery events and openings, Michaels knew a few people her age who stayed in the Pittsburgh and did not relish the prospects of going home. 

“In New York if I was going to be making art, you end up being someone’s studio assistant or manufacturing their work to get by,” she explained. “Here it’s possible to allocate your time in a different way. You can make your own work in your spare time and still live your life comfortably as someone who’s not well-known as an artist.” 

Christiane Leach, artist relations manager for the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, said she knew of numerous young artists like Michaels who had moved to Pittsburgh in the last year. She cited access to resources and a network of fellow creators and administrators as crucial assets the city afforded for emerging artists. 

“Some people strike it rich,” Leach said. “But if you’re going to struggle, you should choose the place that’s relatively easy to struggle where you are able to connect with the community and still make work.” 

She recalled meeting several people who moved recently to Westmoreland County. One had a 4,000 square foot studio for a fraction of other area prices. Leach assessed the motivation of artists who choose surrounding counties for affordability and balance the lengthy commutes as “a different kind of hunger.” 

However, affordable studios in Pittsburgh are something Ryan Lammie has made his mission to provide. As executive director and founder of nonprofit Radiant Hall, he manages a wide selection of affordable workspaces for artists throughout the city. 

Radiant Hall is comprised of three separate locations in Lawrenceville, Homestead and Allegheny Center, all with varying space, flexible leases and a wide array of resources. 

Lammie is no stranger to moving back to Pittsburgh as a young artist. Growing up north in Gibsonia, he pursued his art degree at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. After spending another year in New York, Lammie described it as “a terrible place for making art” — too expensive, uncooperative and opaque. 

Back in Pittsburgh, he found a huge former social hall in Lawrenceville and moved in with an artist friend. Before long, he had several artists renting out studios, and Radiant Hall was born. Lammie decided to open up the organization in 2012 to provide space to artists of all stripes. Fast forward five years and the nonprofit is a thriving part of Pittsburgh’s art ecosystem with 69 studios so far. Full private studios currently are rented for $350 a month, but a half studio goes for as little as $135 a month. 

“If you’re trying things for the first time, you can actually fail here,” Lammie said. “People will understand that you’re just learning and going through a process whereas, in other cities, they’d just kick you out on the street and say, ‘You’re never going to work in this town again.’ ” 

Overseeing collaborative arts revitalization, Lammie, 29, decided to buck the trend of concentrating in one area in response to encroaching developers who follow the attractive arts community and raise housing prices. It was no accident that Radiant Hall’s three locations are in very different parts of the city. In doing so, the organization has caught the eye of emerging artists. 

“Within the last year, there has been a large number of artists who have emailed us to say, ‘Hey, I’m relocating to Pittsburgh. I’m trying to scope out the arts scene and figure out what’s available in the area,’ ” Lammie said. “It hasn’t really been until last year that artists have really begun to consider Pittsburgh as an option.” 

Currently, most of the Radiant Hall studios are rented, with just seven studios of various sizes listed as available. 

Similarly, Thomas Agnew, co-founder of nonprofit arts hub Boom Concepts in Garfield, found that Pittsburgh was in need of the kinds of spaces to keep the arts community grow. Within three years, Agnew and his partners have taken Boom Concepts from a two-person work area into a gallery and event space and a place for young artists to gain mentorship and develop skills. The organization has collaborated with the Carnegie Museum of Art on its Third Thursday events and the Andy Warhol Museum on a series of social and political works. 

Agnew also believes Pittsburgh’s arts scene is attracting other young artists but was concerned about the city’s growth without a firm plan for how to bring artists into the conversation. 

“When people come to visit, [Boom Concepts] throws out the red carpet, or we try to make sure that they feel welcome so they can come back,” Agnew said. “I think, if the city does that in a unified manner, Pittsburgh could become something.” 

He recommended putting more emphasis on outside publicity for the many small arts organizations bringing vibrancy to neighborhood business districts rather than continuing to harp on the city’s already high-profile sports teams. 

“We do a lot of self-promotion to ourselves and not to the world,” Agnew said. “We still have a lot of culture work to do and make sure we’re making it a pressing matter that people come and see what’s going on.” 

Artist/architect Ben Quint-Glick had a lot going for him as a young artist in the city. He was the artist-in-residence at Bunker Projects, a nonprofit art gallery in Garfield, and he was interning at Renaissance 3 Architects on the South Side. As he balanced both his creative and analytical sides, Quint-Glick said he was able to quickly build connections with the greater arts community. He soon moved in with other artist friends. But then he approached a wall. 

“I think in the arts you can find yourself always in the same circles, always doing the same thing pretty quickly,” he said. “To really support yourself only making art in Pittsburgh can be difficult. There’s a very clear limit to how high most people can go.” 

After his five-month residency concluded, Quint-Glick decided to pursue graduate studies in architecture at Parsons School of Design in New York, leaving behind the Steel City in 2016. 

“Most artists are people constantly in search of something, whether that’s personal development or general inspiration,” Quint-Glick said. “I could see myself in the future maybe coming back to Pittsburgh, but it’s not where I am in my life right now. There are a lot of museums and institutions, but there are only so many people that can make it there at one time.” 

In the Strip District, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre had already anticipated such a ceiling. PBT is approaching the first anniversary of opening the Byham Center for Dance there. In doing so, PBT provided $6.5 million worth of modern rehearsal studios for their professional company, their ballet school, and community classes. 

“It wasn’t because we were so cramped we needed the space. It was because we wanted to expand,” William Moore, a member of the corps de ballet at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, explained. “We wanted to give the opportunity for more people to come. I think things like that show that there’s not necessarily a market for it, but to look to the future — you’ll need that. That’s attracting people.” 

Moore also discussed the fact that there’s a sense of reciprocal support between artists of all types, a community he referred to as “tight-knit”. Often, he sees other artists at ballet shows, and he found potential in such an encouraging environment. 

“The age group that is doing well in Pittsburgh at the moment is the younger generation, in a sense that a lot of young chefs—they consider it art—food and art and young people talking and live music,” Moore said. “There’s support for young artists. I know lots of people who’ve found it here.” 

Throughout the city, young artists have taken hold in diverse areas. Expansion has served the Silver Eye Center for Photography in its new location in Bloomfield this summer. Executive director David Oresick, 33, now has room for video installations as well as photography books for sale. At the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, 15 students and alumni of Point Park University’s Conservatory of Performing Arts, many of the recent grads, participated both on and offstage during the summer season. 

Both Schmitt and Michaels said they knew of emerging artists who were either moving back to Pittsburgh or moving here for the first time. Schmitt, a graduate of Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts School, said many of his fellow classmates had also moved to Philadelphia to pursue creative endeavors, but Pittsburgh was calling their names. 

“It turned out that three or four of those close friends of mine were actually making the same leap,” Schmitt said. “I think a lot of it had to do with having more opportunity and room to expand an idea in combination with the fact that you can save money while doing it.” 

However, Michaels had a difficult time convincing loved ones back in New York City that going back was the right idea. It seems the stigma of the Steel City’s industrial past still colors the imaginations of some out-of-towners. 

“They have this vision of Pittsburgh that’s way different than what it is now and over the past few years has become,” Michaels said. “I think that a lot of people thought that I was making a mistake.” 

Schmitt plans to find a location for his Far Beyond Gallery in Pittsburgh and recommit to its original ethos of showing student and emerging artists. The current location in Philadelphia suffered a fire shortly after he moved away and is now temporarily closed. Schmitt and his associates have agreed to open a new venue or satellite gallery here. Despite the setback and transitions, he remains confident that he can push forward with his art. 

“I just hope it continues in a positive way,” Schmitt said. “And we’re able to grow our community with everything else that’s growing in Pittsburgh.” 

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