PITTSBURGH — A decade ago, Pittsburgh was the poster child of the Rust Belt: abandoned steel mills, run-down neighborhoods, and a grimy, moribund downtown.
No longer. Where soot-filled skies once represented its economic base, now the clean air of high-tech, medical, financial, and academic interests is the symbol of the reborn town. Residents grin smugly at visitors whose jaws ricochet off the sidewalks as they explore the "new" Pittsburgh.
The dowdy, dirty city is gone forever.
Nowhere is this more evident that in its embrace of the arts. The well-established Carnegie Museum of Art holds the expected classics: reproductions of Etruscan temples, Old Master prints, French Impressionists, and the annual exhibition of contemporary art.
But there's more.
Twenty-five years ago, when culture in Pittsburgh was defined by corner bars and church suppers, the Mattress Factory was considered doomed before it opened. But the very avant-garde gallery housed in an abandoned six-story, turn-of-the-century warehouse has developed into one of the top international venues for "installation" art.
These are "site-specific" pieces temporary, experimental works created exclusively for that location. Many of the pieces explore the merger between technology and creativity. They range from the profoundly inspiring to the just plain weird, depending on your artistic taste.
One thing they never are is boring. Unlike other museums, the Mattress Factory provides its artists housing and a stipend while they work, as well as financial and material support in the physical construction of the art.
Of the 500 artists from around the world who apply to work with the museum each year, curator Michael Olijnyk chooses only 15 or 20. They represent a wide range of individual visions, often inexpressible except on a visual level.
Its 25th anniversary calendar features several special exhibitions, including "Into the Light: James Turrell." Turrell is one of the few artists with work permanently displayed at the museum, and his deceptively simple pieces explore how light and shape change space. In this exhibition, which runs through April 30, 2003, the viewer experiences a series of light patterns flashing on round, white walls. The exhibition includes a room-sized model of Roden Crater, Turrell's much publicized life work in Arizona's Painted Dessert.
The city's most famous creative son was arguably Andy Warhol. The icon of modern art had no great love for his hometown, but it claimed him permanently after his death when it established the Andy Warhol Museum.
The famous soup cans and graphic portraits of celebrities are here, but so are many of his less famous (or less notorious) works. Seeing all the works together creates a time frame and context that put his work into perspective for visitors who are not artistically-savvy.
Warhol was also a compulsive collector of art and objects everything from 19th-century American furniture and native American beadwork to Fiesta Ware and cookie jars. Warhol used collecting as another way to explore history, popular culture, and consumerism all themes of his work.
The museum's temporary shows are no less controversial than Warhol himself. A recent exhibition, "Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America," was a stark display of 75 photos that documented lynching in the US through the 1950s. It anchored a program of public dialogues, lectures, films, and performances that used the exhibit as a springboard for examining the history and attitudes of justice and the African-American experience, then and now.
A regular feature at the Warhol is Good Fridays. It's an irreverent, weekly get-together with films, talks, live performances, and other entertainment sometimes tied into a museum exhibit, but just as often not.
The revival of performing arts is as dynamic as in the fine arts. Pittsburgh claims more cultural arts institutions per capita than any other city in the country.
Downtown Pittsburgh's 14-square-block Cultural District boasts five theaters. The classic Heinz Hall is home to the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. During intermission, theatergoers relax by the two-story waterfall in the courtyard. The restored Art Deco elegance of the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts originally built in 1928 as a movie palace hosts the Pittsburgh Opera, Civic Light Opera, Ballet Theater, and Pittsburgh Dance Council. The Harris Theater shows foreign and "small" films in an intimate setting, while the Byham is known for staging dance and musical productions.
The newest theater is the O'Reilly, home to the Pittsburgh Public Theater. The schedule is an eclectic mix of classics, contemporary works, and new dramas and comedies.
Galleries fill the spaces in the cultural district that theaters don't. The Wood Street Galleries concentrates on multidisciplinary artists from around the world, while the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh mounts exhibits of contemporary visual artists and maintains an extensive educational outreach program.
The Watercolors Gallery is dedicated entirely to work by area watercolor artists. It's financed and run by 75 members, who ignored advice that a gallery with such a limited medium could never succeed. In the first five months from its high-profile, "storefront" location, the gallery saw the sale of 85 paintings. The activity hasn't slowed down since.
With the annual Three Rivers Arts Festival, there's a deliberate attempt to include regional artists. It's another way of demonstrating Pittsburgh's emergence from its grittier past.
And who knows maybe one of the works will be a new poster for the new Pittsburgh, no longer a symbol of the Rust Belt, but of a city that's undergone a renaissance.
For more information, call the Greater Pittsburgh Convention and Visitors Bureau at 800-927-8376, or visit the website, www.visitpittsburgh.com.
"Strange Messenger: The Work of Patti Smith." She's a musician and poet who is also a visual artist. Her works fuse image and text. On view through Jan. 5, 2003.
"Americanisms: Shaping Art and Culture in the '50s." Includes work from Los Angeles's Museum of Contemporary Art and the Grey Art and Study Center at New York University. Now through 2003.
"Panopticon: An Art Spectacular" Panopticon is a space in which a viewer can "see it all" by turning around. It's a 19th-century style of displaying artwork from floor to ceiling and wall to wall. Runs through Aug. 23, 2003.
The ballet company will present a world premierè of the New Nutcracker, Dec. 7-29, taking audience members on a mystical journey back in time to 19th-century Pittsburgh.
"Drawn Toward the Avant-Garde: 19th- and 20th-Century French Drawings From the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Copenhagen." Now through Jan. 5, 2003. Works by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Jean-François Millet, Théodore Rousseau, Gustave Moreau, Auguste Rodin, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Édouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, Paul Gauguin, and Pablo Picasso provide a lively examination of the development of modern drawing.