A conversation with Renee Piechocki | Pittsburgh City Paper

A conversation with Renee Piechocki

The outgoing founding director of the city’s Office of Public Art discusses her tenure

If this year’s controversy over Oakland’s Stephen Foster statue was the final big public-art news of Renee Piechocki’s tenure, it was hardly the first. Piechocki, founding director of the city’s Office of Public Art (OPA), is stepping down this month. In her 13 years there, the office loomed large in Pittsburgh’s civic life.

The OPA, a public-private partnership of the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council and the city’s Department of City Planning, provides technical assistance and education about public art regionally. Piechocki, a public-art expert then newly arrived from New York City, helped launch it in 2005. OPA’s accomplishments during her tenure included starting the online Pittsburgh Artist Registry, which now lists more than 900 visual, performing and literary artists for potential clients and other interested parties. Other high-profile projects included Market Square Public Art, a series of temporary artworks Downtown including Dutch artist Allard van Hoorn’s 2016 sound installation “Mix-n-Match.”

The North Side resident is leaving the job to travel and pursue her own artwork. She’ll be replaced by Sallyann Kluz, an architect and urban designer who’s now OPA’s associate director.

“Renee Piechocki has forever changed the way Pittsburgh thinks about the connections between artists, public spaces and neighborhoods,” says Heinz Endowments senior program officer Janet Sarbaugh in a statement.

CP recently sat down with Piechocki to discuss her tenure. Following is a lightly edited transcript.

What was the public art scene like here when the OPA was founded?
I’ve always worked in public art my whole grown-up life. Because I ran this national program [the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Public Art Network], I had a really good bird’s-eye view of where the field is, and what makes commissioning art in an ongoing way possible in a government or a civic-design setting. Pittsburgh didn’t have any of that infrastructure. There was no one entity, there was no predefined funding stream, there was no artist registry, there was no way to publicize artist opportunities.

For the first six years, seven years, eight years of the 13 years I’ve been here running this program, that’s what we did was we built that infrastructure. Starting the Pittsburgh Artist Registry and the artist’s-opportunity list were all part of getting us ready to where we are right now.

When the OPA was new, was the job was very different?
It was me eight hours a week. Now it’s me and four other full-time staff people. … But we’ve really stayed true to this core mission of, “OK, let’s work with as many entities as we can in the public and private sector to kind of build an infrastructure here.”

Early on, you worked a lot with the city’s Department of City Planning?
We helped the city find their [art] collection and make a database for it, because there was no record [of], “Well, where are things and what condition are they in?” We helped write by-laws for the [city’s] art commission. They didn’t have a good set at that time.

[We helped] them realize that they really needed a full-time [public-art] person. If they wanted the city to have a real public-art presence, they needed a staff member. … Now they have two people, they don’t really need us anymore.

You also worked with Pittsburgh International Airport?
It’s been one of my most fun agencies to work with. … We’ve been providing technical assistance to the airport since 2009. And it’s really cool, because in the next year, six months, they’re going to be hiring an arts and culture manager, a full-time staff person.

What has that meant for artists here?
As an individual artist in Pittsburgh, you can make an application to do a project at the airport. That’s kind of radical. … It evens the playing field.

Did you have to change any fundamental ideas about what public art is?
People had this idea that, “OK, public art is murals and freestanding sculpture.” I think we really have helped make it clear that artists can kinda do anything. I really believe in artists. That’s what made me want to stay here for 13 years.

And that gets back to why Pittsburgh is so great: It’s because there has been, I don’t know if it’s tolerance and enthusiasm for the ideas that my team and our other collaborators have come up with, but there’s a willingness to try to take a risk. That’s kind of awesome. You don’t get to put artists in residence with organizations that support refugees and immigrants [as in a current OPA residency project] everywhere. That idea has been supported in this community.

People were really willing and interested in the knowledge and skill set that I brought to the table.

Pittsburgh is not always associated with risk-taking.
The truth is, I came during a lull. I came at a right time when we were ready to go up again. Because when you look back at Three Rivers Arts Festival, I think has an amazing history of commissioning incredible artists to do temporary projects. When you look back at the history of who’s been here — Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Fred Wilson, Mel Chin, Jackie Ferrara — people who are now like my heroes, right? And then you look at the work that Carol [Brown] did with the [Pittsburgh] Cultural Trust, and the T projects. Like there’s a Sol DeWitt in a train station in Pittsburgh? That’s kind of crazy. There is a Louise Bourgeois-Dan Urban Kiley collaboration? That’s kind of crazy.

And then … it kind of slowed down. People had gotten into this pattern — the artwork is a sculpture, it goes here; the artwork is a mural and it goes here — and not really keeping up with what artists have been doing integrating systems and becoming more like social-practice artists, and thinking broadly about what artists bring to the table as collaborators and design team members. 

And the city’s percent-for-art projects, the early ones, there’s some really cool projects. Like there’s that piece at Jack Stack Pool [in Brighton Heights]. That’s an artist-designed shower in the shape of a kinetic sculpture. … I think we helped push the boulder further up the mountain.

What are your biggest accomplishments with OPA?
I think that OPA will continue to exist, and it’s not a cult of personality. … Our motto at OPA is, “How do we help artists make their best work?” That is kind of a cool thing to be thinking of, because it means we are there to facilitate artists making work in the public realm. And that means it can continue to evolve into all kinds of stuff.

I set up a system that can be positioned facing the future, and not locked in a medium or space.

The second thing, I feel like getting to be part of the team that removed that Romare Bearden mural [“Pittsburgh Recollected,” in the Gateway T station] and not letting it get destroyed was huge. Jerry Marinzel was the [North Shore Connector project manager] at the Port Authority at the time. ... He cared passionately about maintaining that. 

And maybe the third thing, we’ve had great collaborators. Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, the airport, PennDOT, Neighborhod Allies. I’m proud of that. We have worked with a wide range of people who have cared about the public realm.

How else did you try to broaden opportunities for artists?
Leah Donatelli and I created the Artists Opportunities list. I think we started that in 2006. It was an email blast that went out and some space on our web site. There was nothing in place where we had an artist call where we could advertise it. ... I wanted it to be more fair, that anyone could hear about this. You don’t have to be a member of an organization to get the news, right? … We advertised national and regional calls too. We realized, “We may not be able to get every artist in Pittsburgh a gig, but we can certainly be growing the careers of Pittsburgh artists.”

[T]he Pittsburgh Artist Registry, which was first funded by the NEA, we could have just made that for visual artists, and for artists who work in public art. But it doesn’t cost us any more money to make it be for visual, literary and performing artists. … 

When the [airside-terminal] floor opportunity opened up at the airport, we got people to join the artist registry and looked at people on the registry for artists for those calls. We do training for artists, we do Public Art 101. Last year, I think, with Sallyann Kluz’s leadership, we started Public Art 201, and that was to help local artists meet fabricators in our region. … [As an artist,] you have to be able to pitch. You have to be able to explain what you want to do to a non-arts audience. 

What about the Pittsburgh Art Places photo book?
One of the first things OPA did was make that guidebook. Our advisory committee was “Oh, like, it’ll just take you a couple months, there’s only 30 artworks in Downtown Pittsburgh.” … We walked up and down every single street Downtown, inside every single building lobby, and we included the North Shore, and then we included the North Side. There’s over a hundred places in that book. … People didn’t really know, have a conception of the investments that have already been made. Pittsburgh has a very long history of art in public places.

OPA worked with PennDOT on the new Route 28 murals, “Behind Every Wall”?
The first chance that we had to work with PennDOT was on the East Liberty pedestrian bridge, the Shady-Liberty Bridge. Because PennDOT had to review the project. … Dan Cessna was our engineer, and I think Dan was a phenomenal collaborator. … We just kept being present and being a thorn in his side: “Hey, you got anything you want to work on?” And watch what you wish for, because he called and said, “Hey, the last mile of Route 28 is a really big deal.” He really saw that as a gateway to the city and wanted public art to have a presence there. … We had to find someone very fast, and everything had to be a hundred percent integrated into the construction documents. … We put a short list together of five people, and Laurie Lundquist, who’s based out of Tempe, Arizona, she wound up winning.

She landed on a project which is basically documenting places that PennDOT has taken away in the construction of Route 28. It was really brave for PennDOT and for Dan to do that project. 

What challenges remain for OPA and public art in general?
An ongoing funding stream that is not foundation-based is incredibly key to this. … Even though I have been really lucky and my staff has been really lucky to have foundations that are interested in our work, you are at the mercy … of what their interests are.

What about the city and county’s percent-for-art laws, which have not been enforced in recent years?
A funding stream is part of the boulder that [the city’s public-art manager, Yessica Guerra] has to push up the public-art mountain. …

I think something like that would be great, especially if we can think about how private development is included in that as well. Because who’s building in Pittsburgh? Imagine if every time UPMC builds a hospital, what would happen if they had to set aside a portion of their funding for art on that canvas?

[We’re] not necessarily saying our goal is to put public art in every neighborhood in the whole region. Whose job is that? That’s government’s job. Government is supposed to be working for all the people. And so I think a great thing for our mayor to work on would be to consider an ongoing funding stream for public art that comes out of government, to complement what the private sector is doing. … And if you don’t have money, you have space. So I think for not just the city of Pittsburgh, but for many municipalities in our region, to look at Market Square Public Art as a model for how to do temporary public art.

What’s your vision for temporary public art?
Imagine if there were a hundred municipalities, cities or towns, in the 13-county region, that said, “You know what, we want to do temporary art there, too.” How amazing would that be for artists in our region? If there were then a hundred things they could apply for. And it may not be you get a big fat commission like you do with Market Square Public Art, a $75,000 project. But if artists just knew that they could apply to put something there, maybe it would be helpful. Kinda the way the airport is. You’re not going to get any money out of the airport, to make a pitch there. But you are going to get a venue. That’s the challenge.

What did the debate over the Stephen Foster memorial say about public art in Pittsburgh?
I am really proud of the job that the city did in setting up that [discussion] process. … They set up a process and advertised it so people could participate. It wasn’t a decision by a few people behind closed doors about what was going to happen there. What does that say about Pittsburgh? Like maybe we’re ready to grow up and not be a good-old-boy network town anymore? … Maybe there’s enough people who believe that in the right places [that] more public dialogue can happen.

What is so interesting, not just about the Stephen Foster memorial here, … I think through the Civil War-monument discussion everywhere, is it shows you that public art is very important, and people can get very passionate about it, and it really does have meaning. … Like how what happens on public space matters. 

This is partly a function of having public art that is permanent.
What you want is not what people are gonna want a hundred years from now. … There is an opportunity at the Stephen Foster site to do something like what has happened in Market Square — where you’re not trying to then make a memorial that is supposed to be the contemporary memorial, that in 30 years is then the past. What if that place becomes a site that is always rethought and reconsidered?

If you look at Schenley Plaza, there’s the Magee Memorial, there is “Song to Nature,” Mary Schenley Fountain; there’s “Light Up,” by Tony Smith; there’s — Dippy’s not an artwork, but there’s Dippy. Those things are always going to be stuck in the past. What if there’s something that’s always changing, that helps us be future-focused?

One of the lessons of the [Foster memorial discussion] is that context changes, and we are always reinterpreting ourselves and our history. And there are multiple points of view. Maybe is the city going to come up with a way to embrace that, as a positive value, rather than stopping the conversation?

What if all the municipalities across the region were like, “Yeah, we want temporary art too”? And they all came up with a way for artists to be doing temporary projects? It would become this interesting time where we’re all really re-examining our public spaces. 

Are there other advantages to temporary public art?
We’re working with Neighborhood Allies right now on these six temporary projects, and one of the reasons why they’re temporary ... the artwork budgets are only $28,000. What can you really do that’s permanent?

Two, it’s really hard to saddle an organization with the maintenance and care of an artwork over time. The SEA [Sports and Exhibition Authority] and the Cultural Trust do an excellent job at maintaining their artwork. It’s part of their operating budget. It is really difficult to give a small community-development organization an artwork that they’re gonna have to have to maintain for the next 30, 40, 50 years. Raising money to conserve artwork has been in my experience here the hardest artwork to raise. 

Why are you leaving?
There’s a couple reasons. I think, one, I want to be myself. I want to spend some time working on my own creative projects and getting a bird’s-eye view of the world again, so I’m going on this big trip.

Also, for better or for worse, part of what the Office of Public Art became is an entity that was willing to speak up, and to maybe say things that were not always popular. One of the difficult things about Pittsburgh is, even if you’re nice about it, which I hope I was always as nice as I could be, that’s not always an easy place to be. Constantly being the person who says, “Is this really the best we can do? Or really, are you fucking kidding me?” … So, you gotta go. Because you burn people out. … And that’s not just personal. It’s not just for me to recharge, but it’s for everyone else to recharge from me. 

What do people get most worked up about?
Most often, the [issue] is … representation: how is a person or group of individuals or an event being represented. And when certain people feel that that is off, or they’re not being represented appropriately, is when you have a lot of arguments.

The other thing that comes up a lot is, “Is X space the right thing for Y? Is this particular space too sacred, whatever that means in a secular public space, is it too sacred for something like this?” Or, “Why are you putting it here? This space is a nothing. We hate this space and you should too, let’s not make it better.” Like, “Why do you want to put art at a sewage-treatment plant? Why do you want to put artwork on the highway? We hate the highway.”

One thing you were criticized for was favoring keeping public-art commissions here open to artists from anywhere, not just Pittsburgh. Critics said local tax money should go to local artists. What’s your thinking?
The first point is I think that opportunities should be open to everyone. And that I want artists in Pittsburgh to be eligible to compete for projects wherever they want to work. Wherever their desire or artistic interests take them. And once you build a wall around your community and say local artists only, it encourages others to build the same. And I think that that would be a shame for artists. Why do we put a restriction on where artists can work, and not other industries? To me that doesn’t make any sense.

My other point is, I have served on hundreds of selection panels, and I have seen firsthand that what inspires community members or project representatives isn’t always the geography of the artists that they’re interviewing, or that they’re reviewing. There’s something about that person’s work. It could be the content of their work: Maybe they dive deep into a subject matter that means a lot to a project, or to a space. Maybe they just make things that are aesthetically appealing to a group. And so I don’t see why a community should restrict their own artistic vision by geography of the people who live in their area as well. 

And third, there’s a natural border on a project, and that’s budget. You’re not generally gonna have artists from very far away competing for smaller budgets, or competing for projects that require a ton of on the ground work. Those things are naturally usually going to go to artists who live within the region.

To switch gears, what about the “cap park” in the Lower Hill, which would cover I-579 and the Crosstown Boulevard?
The cap park’s a really interesting story to me, especially when you look at it maybe in comparison with the Stephen Foster. When the Stephen Foster statue [which includes the form of a barefoot black man playing a banjo] was put in [in 1890], black women in America couldn’t vote. No women could. … Now you have the cap park, where you have four artists who work on that team, three of them are African-American artists who live on the Hill, who are designing the physical place. So talk about representation. Like how you’re being represented is being decided by people who are nothing like you. Versus three people — Kim Ellis, Lakeisha Bird, Amir Rashidd — who  live in the Hill now and are designing that place. I think that’s awesome.