Pittsburgh artist Alisha Wormsley received plenty of attention last year when her East Liberty billboard work, There Are Black People in the Future, was removed. It evoked outcry from those who saw the removal as an act of censorship and indicative of the gentrification taking over the neighborhood. Now, Wormsley has created a new program for local artists as a direct response to the controversy.
Wormsley, in collaboration with the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council’s Office of Public Art (OPA), announced the launch of the There Are Black People in the Future Artwork-in-Residence program. The program seeks proposals that explore the relevance of the phrase “There Are Black People in the Future” in various communities and is open to artists, teachers, and community members who live and/or work in East Liberty, Bloomfield, Garfield, Larimer, and Homewood.
“As OPA stated at the time of the text’s removal, [Wormsley’s] work is a positive affirmation that Black people are part of our community, including the past, the present, and the future. Placed in East Liberty, where change has come at a rapid and frankly disorienting pace, her work takes on new meaning,” stated OPA director, Sallyann Kluz, in a press release. “By putting the artwork in residence with the community, this initiative aims to foster critical conversation about the transformation of our neighborhoods and build effective avenues for advocacy, healing, and activism. As an artwork-in-residence, There Are Black People in the Future makes manifest OPA’s vision for artist-led engagement in the civic, social, and public realms.”
Ten applicants will receive $1,200 micro-grants to complete their proposals, along with funds for additional materials and related expenses, which will be rewarded on a case-by-case basis. Wormsley and Jon Rubin, the artist and Carnegie Mellon University professor behind The Last Billboard project that featured There Are Black People in the Future, will host a workshop for awardees. Over the course of the program, they will also organize several community gatherings inviting speakers, guests, and stakeholders to explore the meaning of the There Are Black People In The Future text and why the billboard was taken down.
Final projects will be presented and discussed in fall 2019.
Wormsley also plans to collect data from the program that will be used to inform the direction of a future art installation.
“When we held the community meeting to explain the events of the texts removal, it seemed that the censorship of the sign was almost a metaphor for the way community members felt they had been treated and unheard.”
The program attempts to generate something positive out of a situation that shook the Pittsburgh arts community and East Liberty. Neighborhood leaders and activists have expressed anger over Black, lower-income residents being forced out by development and rent increases. Those problems were only exacerbated when We Do Property, the company that owns the building atop which the billboard was displayed, removed it over objections to the content last spring.
We Do Property owner Eve Picker tried to justify the company’s actions in a statement to Pittsburgh City Paper saying they were contacted by people in the local community who “found the message offensive and divisive.” She added that There Are Black People in the Future violated the terms of a lease agreement stating that billboards could not be used for items that are distasteful, offensive, erotic, or political.
Although she was later invited to reinstall the work, Wormsley chose not to.
Wormsley was especially affected by a community meeting prompted by the billboard’s removal. Held at East Liberty's Kelly Strayhorn Theater, the event included a panel discussion and an open conversation about “art, public space, and how we talk about art as a community.”
“When we held the community meeting to explain the events of the text's removal, it seemed that the censorship of the sign was almost a metaphor for the way community members felt they had been treated and unheard,” says Wormsley.
Afterward, she recalls running into Pittsburgh musician and activist Blak Rapp Madusa, who commented on how tough the situation is because the Black community is “never given the chance to think about what they want.”
“That really stuck with me,” says Wormsley.
While the program serves as a reminder of what happened to her work, Wormsley wants to use the experience as a way to move forward and ensure that peoples’ voices are heard.
“I’m hoping that this project will start a precedent of listening to the community, thinking of creative ways to process and work together to find solutions that support what the community wants,” says Wormsley.
Those interested in submitting proposals should visit thereareblackpeopleinthefuture.com. Application deadline is Feb. 11, 2019.