As the weather warms, two new groups, Busker Street Union and BuskPGH, hope to enrich Pittsburghers' daily lives by facilitating a lively, high-quality street-performance scene.
BuskPGH, a project of the Pittsburgh Downtown Community Development Corporation, plans to partner with the Port Authority to place performers in Downtown and North Side T stations. "We want to put performers there during peak travel times," says PDCDC communications director Hadley Pratt, who says an estimated 20,000 commuters use those stations daily. Performers, from musicians to magicians and balloon artists, will be screened for quality, given background checks and required to possess performer insurance. PDCDC hopes to launch the program by the end of March, pending final Port Authority approval.
Busker Street Union takes a broader approach, working to provide support and advocacy for buskers throughout the area. BSU's Eric Sloss sees misunderstanding over laws as one of the biggest challenges facing buskers. "I think there's still confusion on what's public and private," he notes. While busking is legal in the city's public spaces, it can be difficult to differentiate a privately owned "public" space (like PPG Place) and a city-owned public space (like Market Square). As a result, buskers sometimes find themselves being harassed by police and business owners, even when acting within the law.
Sloss also hopes to encourage arts groups, theater companies and musicians to see public spaces as viable performance arenas.
Both groups have roots in Busk-Pittsburgh, a program that started in the early 2000s with support from the Sprout Fund and GroundZero Action Network. Sloss was involved in the original formation, and Busk-Pittsburgh was later taken on by Sean Miller, who describes it as a regional "clearinghouse for busking events." (Miller has been in touch with BuskPGH to help facilitate that project.)
Both of the newer groups hope to educate the public about the importance of public performance. "Part of our goal ... is to have buskers seen as part of the Downtown tapestry and culture," Pratt says.
"It's a centuries-old tradition," says Sloss. "There are very sophisticated performance artists out there that are doing really creative and entertaining programming in city streets all over the world."