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Selective History

click to enlarge Gallerist Tavia La Follette and her husband (and co-curator) Gary Huck in their exhibit "The Gritty 250" at 820 Liberty Avenue - HEATHER MULL
Gallerist Tavia La Follette and her husband (and co-curator) Gary Huck in their exhibit "The Gritty 250" at 820 Liberty Avenue

Pittsburgh's 250th-anniversary commission dropped some serious cash on its Community Connections initiative this year.

They spent $50,000 on seven "Pittsburgh-themed musical works," gave another $50 grand for a book "documenting and reflecting on signs from the 14 counties of Southwestern Pennsylvania," and, all told, funded 100 projects in the region to the tune of nearly $1 million.

So how much of that money went to promoting Pittsburgh's sooty and contentious workers' history? Some artists and advocates say not nearly enough.

"If you can give me one example of political art that came out of [Pittsburgh 250], I'd be shocked," says Gary Huck, political cartoonist and a curator of Artists Upstairs.

Consider him shocked: The Unseam'd Shakespeare Company received $5,000 -- through The Sprout Fund-administered Community Connections Projects -- "to collect oral histories and host community workshops in Braddock in conjunction with its Out of This Furnace 2008 production," a revival of a play based on a 1941 novel about steelworkers.

But that's it. Not one of the other 100 projects listed on The Sprout Fund's Web site ( explicitly deals with labor or unions.

There are, of course, several non-labor-centric political projects on the list: $5,000 for Chris Ivey's "East of Liberty" documentary; $5,000 for a film on race and sports; and $5,000 to help organize regional women's advocacy organizations.

And Pittsburgh 250 did give $50,000 to the Industrial Arts Co-op "to complete the final stage of the South Side Works Sculpture Project," which incorporates salvaged artifacts from the former J&L and LTV riverfront mills and pays homage to those who worked them.

But Huck says that the labor-rights movement and the people who launched it were left out.

"When we talk about political art, you're really talking about confronting the idea that there's something wrong with a class of people who work with their hands," he says. "They decided that the 250 [celebration] will be about the future. They aren't talking about the past."

To remedy that, Huck and his wife (ArtUp founder Tavia La Follette) are presenting The Gritty 250: The Art of Work in Pittsburgh, a collection of artwork depicting industrial work and working-class life to be exhibited Downtown (820 Liberty Ave.).

"I'm sure it's like having grit in the eyes of all the people who want to celebrate the coming condo culture," Huck says. The Gritty 250 will be open during First Night on Dec. 31 and the Gallery Crawl on Jan. 23.

"I don't think that there shouldn't be vision, but I also don't think that we should whitewash history," says La Follette, who this summer contributed to ArtUp's Magarac Attack!, a re-envisioning of the Joe Magarac steelworker legend, which was not funded by Community Connections. "We can change how [Pittsburgh] evolves as a city, but we're not going to change the history."

Most of the $982,340 Community Connections funds went to arts, outdoors, beautification or non-confrontational projects, such as $50,000 for a series of events honoring Fred Rogers.

Still, Bill Flanagan, the executive director of Pittsburgh 250, argues that the city's industrial past was not missing from the party. He points out that the Sen. John Heinz History Center, a "key partner" in Pittsburgh 250, recently opened Pittsburgh: A Tradition of Innovation.

"There are labor elements to that story," he says. "They're not ignoring the labor story in any way."

As for the Community Connections Projects, Flanagan says the anniversary commission tried to keep at an arm's length from the decisions, leaving it mostly in the hands of The Sprout Fund, which he feels did a "great job" in sorting through some tough decisions.

People "submitted almost 600 proposals into that project," he says. "They had enough money to fund 100."

Dustin Stiver, The Sprout Fund's program coordinator for Community Connections, says committees of regional leaders were convened to make decisions on the competing proposals, in an effort to encourage grassroots development.

"These were the folks that really determined which projects would be supported," he says. "Community Connections was designed as a broad, sweeping view of things that are important across communities. I think labor is in there, as are other issues."

Among Community Connections Projects, there were 12 regional projects -- which received $35,000-50,000 -- and 88 "grassroots" county-by-county projects, which mostly received $5,000.

A 35-member panel with representatives from 14 counties made the decision on the big-ticket items, and smaller, county panels selected the grassroots projects.

Panel members were chosen by The Sprout Fund based on outside nominations. Jack Shea, of the Allegheny County Labor Council, was a member of the 35-member panel. But so were five representatives from tourism or booster groups, and seven representatives from economic-development organizations.

"It was designed to be an organic approach," Flanagan says. The goal was "to create a framework and then work through partners to tell [Pittsburgh's] story."

A culminating event, Pittsburgh 250: Making the Connections, was held on Dec. 15, at the Carnegie Science Center. Prior to the event, Stiver said in an e-mail that he invites "those who are concerned that activities important to them weren't represented or think the program didn't adequately address negative/challenging issues to come to the event to make that determination themselves." The list of the 100 programs is still available online.

Stiver also says that Pittsburgh's early workers' rights movement "is a piece of our history that is engrained in all aspects" of the things that have come after it.

So, while there may not be funding for a documentary about the history of unions in Pittsburgh, he says, there is funding for things like a series of short narrative films on the city's neighborhoods, which inevitably reflect some part of its industrial past.

Still, some of the project supporters that didn't make the cut feel slighted, arguing that their rejections were based on a sunny-side bias.

"I think they were aiming at something that would be positive and pretty and light," says Steffi Domike, a communications coordinator with United Steelworkers.

Domike and USW requested $50,000 to create 52 Weekends, a printed and online calendar to promote the events of Pittsburgh 250, while also sending out period reminders "about something that the labor movement brought to [people's] lives, like the weekend."

"The history of Pittsburgh ... the development of the unions, and then the development of the middle class, this piece just had too much confrontation in it," Domike surmises. "Those of us who proposed pieces that actually looked at that history, that wasn't part of the thesis for this."

"Like all alternative history, if this gets lost and swept aside, there's a lot of young people that are not familiar with these things at all," says Russell Gibbons, of The Battle of Homestead Foundation, whose $2,500 request for a walking-tour guide of labor-history sites was denied.

He adds that he doesn't "think there's anything ideological about these people. ... [but] I don't think [my proposal] was in their MO for a positive reflection on what Pittsburgh had been or is today."

Domike says she's disappointed that so much of the official celebration this year focused on public art and beautification, as opposed to acknowledging the city's industrial roots.

"I love the projections on buildings," she says. "I absolutely love them. But those flowers, those trees, do they have anything to do with Pittsburgh?"

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