Modern music is the bastard stepchild of the Pittsburgh's nonprofit arts scene.
Most museums and galleries here employ music as an afterthought to boost turnstile numbers -- often the milquetoast adult-folk, trad-jazz, classical and world-music genres that affluent public-radio baby-boomers can stomach.
The only bright spot in this grim scenario is The Warhol. Curator Ben Harrison endeavors to include "Pitchfork buzz" artists that audiences 18-40 are excited to see. But he operates under severe limitations. The Warhol isn't a performance space. It's a movie theater with no in-house PA system; non-removable seats limit capacity to a tiny 130.
And because of meager funding, Harrison is under pressure to recoup artist fees with ticket sales. There's no problem paying $1,500 to smaller artists, but avant icons like John Zorn or Autechre want well over $10,000 -- out of the question. Every laudable stab at Matmos or Tony Conrad is followed by predictable sellout gigs for indie chestnuts like Mountain Goats, Deerhoof or Joanna Newsom.
If Pittsburgh's dot-orgers want an answer to this dilemma, they should look to the Wexner Center on the Ohio State campus in Columbus, Ohio. It's America's top model for how modern music should be respected equally with the other "high" arts. Chuck Helm, Wexner performance director since 1991 (after eight years at Minneapolis' Walker Art Center) makes the reason clear. "Music is by far the most accessible to the greatest number of people," he says. "If you want to provide gateway experiences, this is where you introduce people to your organization."
Some tours come to both the Wexner and The Warhol, but many skip Pittsburgh entirely. The Wexner hosts a "Next @ Wex" series, and boasts three dedicated performance situations with amazing sound. Its audience goes beyond Columbus' huge student population, drawing fans from a six- to seven-hour-drive radius.
Imagine Pittsburgh as a driving destination for music. Harrison says The Warhol's moving in that general direction by partnering with the New Hazlett Theater. But until foundations pony up the bucks, such changes will be slower than molasses.
Helm, who visited Pittsburgh last year as a development consultant for the Hazlett, tells us to be patient. "They have to demonstrate that things will improve if they can allocate more money and resources... but [funders] also need to see that Pittsburgh can support it." In the meantime, plan many more three-hour road trips to Columbus, and see what you're missing.
Manny Theiner is an independent promoter in Pittsburgh and regular CP contributor.