From Rust Belt to arts mecca

Pittsburgh reaps the benefits of its 20-year investment in a downtown cultural district - and in the vitality of its young people.

Cultural districts are popular ways for cities to reinvent themselves, especially older cities past their heyday as centers of industry. Nowhere has this been truer than in Pittsburgh, home of Big Steel. Now, the city is seeing impressive results from its 20-year experiment in designing such a district.

Unlike some cities that had to start from scratch, Pittsburgh already had a core of national-caliber institutions, and a philanthropic base laid by the Heinz and Carnegie families, among others.

The 14-block Cultural District was spearheaded by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust in 1984. By buying up derelict historic properties, the trust's first steps were to make the area viable. Now the goal is to nurture future audiences and young artists, and to do that, the trust will have to overcome some residents' resistance to the new.

"We're the town of Mr. Rogers and Andy Warhol, which speaks of what we are and what we're becoming," says Bill Peduto, a city councilman.

In place of X-rated entertainment shops and drug dealers, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust has fused art, theater, and design with New Urbanism, a movement that takes historic buildings and envisions how they might be used in new ways. Public parks replete with art have also replaced blight. The Agnes R. Katz Plaza, landscaped by the late Dan Kiley, features a bronze fountain resembling a spiraling pyramid and granite benches shaped like disembodied eyes by famed sculptor Louise Bourgeois.

A 140-foot section of an old building's wall has been transformed from faceless brick to a glowing panel of light. Architect Richard Gluckman and stage visionary Robert Wilson collaborated on "Light Wall," bathing a wall in a wash of violet light, split by a moving bar of radiant white. The light sculpture is an icon of the area's artistic enhancement, seductively veiling the old with the new.

"Our objective was to light hidden, offbeat spaces - to animate the street," says Carol Brown, the trust's founding director.

The project also needs to cultivate young people, as well as retain the well-heeled older patrons who have long been the district's backbone.

"We're developing two streams," says Kevin McMahon, president and CEO of the trust, "one for international and touring companies and one small and local." He hopes the expanded mandate will become "a new paradigm" for revitalization.

Bring in the late-night cafes

The initial goal to create sumptuous halls for opera, symphony, theater, and ballet was accomplished with spectacular success. Now, to attract younger audiences, they need a different kind of development, says Hilary Frost-Kumpf, who wrote the "Cultural District Handbook" for Americans for the Arts and teaches at the University of Illinois, Springfield. "That means for-profit, commercial activities like night clubs, restaurants, bars, galleries, and retail that stays open late."

The hope is not only to enrich the culture but to overcome a problem: brain drain. "We've done a lousy job of keeping young artists in Pittsburgh and young people in general," says Jerry Coltin, professor of arts management at Carnegie Mellon.

High-ranking Carnegie Mellon University has an enrollment of 8,000 and the well-regarded University of Pittsburgh boasts 27,000, but "the best and brightest leave Pittsburgh, contending there are no jobs," says Tom Sokolowski, director of the Andy Warhol Museum.

He faults the city's conservatism. "Pittsburgh's not strong on people who want to do things [in an] alternative [way]."

Barbara Luderowski, head of the Mattress Factory, a cutting-edge installation-art venue, agrees. "We've been whacking our way through the forest of Pittsburgh conservatism. The Cultural Trust was basically dealing with vanilla boxes," she says. "Our success encouraged the foundations to support more risky endeavors."

The trust has committed to sponsoring bolder cultural programming and a half-dozen grass-roots galleries to display edgy art. Its first large-scale effort is the three-week Festival of Firsts, which concludes Sunday, that coincides with the first three weeks of the Carnegie International, a showcase of contemporary art attracting visitors from all over the world.

The festival brings in European and Asian troupes to present American premières of spectacular, bizarre multidisciplinary performances. About 14,000 Pittsburghers watched a German group reenact the Titanic's sinking on a barge on the Allegheny River at midnight. Amid clownish chaos, actors constructed an 80-foot-high ship's skeleton, then collapsed the mishmash in a gush of 8,000 gallons of water, flaming rigging, and spinning firewheels.

The audience represented "a huge range of demographics, from people with Steeler vests and Pirates caps to trendy kids from the South Side. People are hungry for this kind of thing," says to Elizabeth Bradley, head of the Carnegie Mellon school of drama, She cites the need for a "mixed ecosystem" in the arts.

The 'boomerang generation'

The positive buzz generated by unconventional arts is what people are counting on to lure the "boomerang generation" - college-educated 30-somethings who left for Los Angeles or New York - back to Pittsburgh.

By attracting younger audiences and emerging artists, they hope to achieve density, diversity, 24/7 dynamism, and participation by people of all economic and social levels. The process is intended to leaven the "graying effect" evident in most highbrow music, opera, and ballet houses.

A program called PittArts gives free tickets to the opera, symphony, and ballet to University of Pittsburgh students.

At a recent production of the Verdi opera "La Traviata," "Pitt kids" sat in $125 seats beside subscribers in ball gowns and mink coats, a fusion that energized the scene.

The Cultural Trust's approach seems to be working. One million tickets were sold in 2003 to performing-arts events in the downtown anchor theaters, which are on course to sell 1.5 million in 2004, according to Mark Weinstein, general director of the Pittsburgh Opera. Sales for cultural events are up 25 percent in the last two years, revenue is up 35 percent, and tourism has grown 20 percent. The spiffed-up Cultural District now has the largest number of theaters in a square mile outside Broadway.

Cultural tourism has contributed $65 million to the city's coffers since 1999, according to Tinsy Lipchak, Pittsburgh's director of tourism and cultural heritage. The revenue is a boon, given that the city is experiencing crisis-level budget deficits and is "nigh on to bankruptcy," as Mr. Sokolowski of the Warhol Museum puts it.

Since the recession hit in 2000 "the Cultural District has been the bright spot in the city," says Mr. McMahon.

But, as Professor Coltin points out, "it takes more than just theaters. [Long-term] success comes from artists, not from arts organizations."

If any one organization can push such a dual agenda, it's the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.

"The trust is the 800-pound gorilla," says Deane Root, chairman of the music department at the University of Pittsburgh. "They have the ability to make this happen."

The trust also has the will, according to its director. Having established the Old Faithfuls of performing-arts institutions, it now seeks to ferment new growth among creative artists bubbling up below the surface.

Raising the hip factor

By adding a hip overlay, Pittsburgh hopes to put to rest forever the lingering negative image of Steeltown USA - a rusty, postindustrial city eviscerated by job losses. The city has cleaned up its notoriously sooty skies and rivers and now wants to rebrand itself as a happening place for culture.

"Those who come for events are amazed. Their jaws are dropping," Professor Root says. "Word is slowly spreading."

Professor Frost-Kumpf agrees. Of the 120 designated cultural districts in the US, she considers Pittsburgh "very sophisticated" and "one of the most developed."

At a recent Festival of Firsts performance of an avant-garde Japanese dance troupe, affluent seniors and middle-aged audience members streamed into the Byham Theater. Rubbing elbows with them were young bohemians of every stripe, with tattoos, pierced body parts, and hair in a rainbow of colors. Each group was equally impressed with the dancing, and their "bravos" at the end proved that a good performance - like a well-designed cultural district - crosses demographic lines.

In search of future 'Old Masters'

Twice a decade, the art world converges on Pittsburgh to check out the hottest developments in contemporary art. This year, the Carnegie International, a granddad of surveys (second in longevity only to the Venice Biennale) presents works that Carnegie Museum of Art curator Laura Hoptman says demonstrate a dramatic shift in artists' concerns.

Until March 20, this exhibition of 400 works by 38 artists from around the world showcases art powered by "an impulse toward the ethical," says Ms. Hoptman. It's safe to say that art of the past 30 years was more inwardly focused, and was more about experimenting with new media and formal strategies. Its outlook was more "micro" than "macro."

The most significant work of the past five years, according to Hoptman, takes a different tack, using art "as a vehicle through which to confront what philosophers have called 'the ultimates' - that is, the largest, most unanswerable questions."

Many of the works do wrestle with morality and mortality. The controversial Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan aroused ire with his 1999 sculpture of the Pope felled by a meteor.

His 2001 sculpture, "Him," was even more incendiary. In it, a childlike figure kneels as if in prayer, evoking tender sentiments. When the work is viewed from the front, a shock of recognition hits: The face is Adolf Hitler's. Cattelan forces the viewer to consider this symbol of evil as a human being.

His sculpture in the Carnegie show, "Now," depicts a life-size effigy of President John F. Kennedy in a coffin, clad in a suit, his feet bare and vulnerable. In the dim exhibition space, one feels suffused with loss.

German artist Isa Genzken began making diorama sculptures after witnessing the destruction of the World Trade Center, an event that may have catalyzed the sense of urgency that Hoptman detects.

A mixed-media work in her "Empire/Vampire" series includes an image of one tower's base, tiny tumbling bodies, ghostly smoke, and nested cups opaque as a tunnel with no light at the end.

The well-known German painter Neo Rauch's post-industrial landscapes seem like a Surrealist take on Realism. In "Zoll," coal tumbles from a uniformed man's torso, while another man stirs a suitcase filled with steaming bones. What looks like a rational world devolves into mystery.

The Turkish filmmaker Kutlug Ataman explores life on the margins of society. In "Kuba," 40 video monitors project soliloquies by real-life residents of a shantytown outside Istanbul. Their collective stories convey an attitude of tolerance and fierce autonomy, but the squatters pay a price in isolation and poverty.

American sculptor Lee Bontecou's fanciful objects, hybrids of the organic and mechanic, preach no message. Her pieces, she has said, evoke not current reality but are "more like things to come, in a positive and negative way."

That could be the Carnegie International's theme.

Pittsburgh's cultural attractions

Inside the district

Heinz Hall - home to the Pittsburgh Symphony

Benedum Center for the Performing Arts

Byham Theater - hosts dance, music, theater

O'Reilly Theater - new building designed by Michael Graves, home to Pittsburgh Public Theater

Harris Theater - screens independent and foreign films

Cabaret Theater - new space designed by Michael Graves for small audiences, opens in November

Future Tenant - exhibition space for Carnegie Mellon fine-arts grad students to get hands-on experience

Outside the district:

Carnegie Museum of Art

Andy Warhol Museum

Frick Art Museum

The Mattress Factory - well-known for installation art

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