Alisha Wormsley. Image courtesy of Alisha Wormsley.

There is public art in the future.

On Jan. 10, The Heinz Endowments and the Pittsburgh Office of Public Art announced a new artwork-in-residency program that will be managed by Pittsburgh-based artist Alisha Wormsley.

From now until Feb. 11, Wormsley will accept applications for community projects that promote strong civic and creative culture. Artists, educators and community activists from East Liberty and the surrounding neighborhoods are encouraged to apply.

If selected, participants will receive $1,200 to realize their plans, with the possibility of more support in the future depending on the needs of the project. While the standards are broad, the residency asks applicants for proposals that speak to the themes of Wormsley’s long-running “There are Black People in the Future” project.

Wormsley had been creatively inserting the phrase into a wide variety of objects, such as domino sets, American flags and shutter shades, for several years before fellow artist and CMU professor Jon Rubin approached her about adapting it to the billboard located above Highland Avenue and Baum Boulevard. Under Rubin’s management, the billboard had been home to work from a rotating lineup of artists since 2010.

Block letters with her signature phrase went up in April of 2018. After approximately one month, the text had been removed by the property owner and the backlash was swift.

The story gained local and national media attention, and was to many observers a potent metaphor for the way East Liberty’s longstanding African-American culture has been steadily displaced in recent years by the arrival of a tech industry that is predominantly white and male.

The building’s owner, Eve Picker of we do property, initially defended the decision, saying it came after complaints from the surrounding community. Picker eventually asked for the message to be reinstated after the ensuing backlash, but Wormsley declined.

At the time, the Office of Public Art was openly critical of the decision to remove the billboard and quickly reached out to Wormsley. The current partnership is the result of those meetings eight months ago.

“As OPA stated at the time of the text’s removal, Alisha’s work is a positive affirmation that Black people are part of our community, including the past, the present and the future,” says Sallyann Kluz, director of the Office of Public Art. “Placed in East Liberty, where change has come at a rapid and frankly disorienting pace, her work takes on new meaning.”

In addition to funding specific projects, the support from The Heinz Endowments will fund a variety of community meetings and events meant to foster discussions on key issues affecting communities across the East End of Pittsburgh.

“This initiative aims to foster critical conversation about the transformation of our neighborhoods and build effective avenues for advocacy, healing and activism,” says Klutz. “‘There are Black People in the Future’ makes manifest OPA’s vision for artist-led engagement in the civic, social and public realms.”

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.