Richard Parsakian came to Pittsburgh in 1971 as a young VISTA volunteer, hoping his newly-earned degrees in architecture and building science from New York’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute might help him generate positive social change.
He started at the literal grassroots level, designing playgrounds in Homewood, Perry Hilltop and other underserved neighborhoods. A half-century later at age 73, he’s still a prolific change-generator for his adopted hometown in a myriad of extraordinary ways that his 22-year-old volunteer self could barely have imagined.
Following his VISTA service with the Pittsburgh Architects Workshop, Parsakian ventured into local media and co-published the city’s first LGBTQIA+ newspaper, The Gay Times, from 1972-76.
A longtime fashion enthusiast, he sold vintage clothing from his home before officially opening Eons Fashion Antique in 1986, a cozy Shadyside emporium stocked with a wide range of men’s and women’s attire spanning the 1880s through the 1980s.
Eons was a rapid retail success and became the go-to resource for Pittsburgh theater costumers and visiting Hollywood film and television productions starring Jodie Foster, Debra Messing, Denzel Washington, Helen Mirren, Billy Porter, Viola Davis and other A-list actors.
Having at hand a ready stock of diverse and sundry wearables also gave Parsakian the opportunity to expand his talents as an event designer and producer for dozens of nonprofit organizations from the Persad Center and Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force (now the Allies for Health + Wellbeing) to the Mario Lemieux Foundation and Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy.
His decades of advocacy and volunteerism have garnered frequent honors, including a special proclamation from the Pittsburgh City Council declaring Oct 23, 2017, as Richard Parsakian Day in the City of Pittsburgh.
Currently, Parsakian serves on the boards of Pittsburgh Earth Day and the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, as well as on the Pittsburgh Dance Council’s advisory board, Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania’s fund development committee and the City of Pittsburgh’s LGBTQIA+ Commission. Since 2019 he’s been a member of the City of Pittsburgh Art Commission.
NEXTpittsburgh spoke with Parsakian about his work and how he believes public art can transform the lives of Pittsburghers.
NEXTpittsburgh: What is the purpose of the Art Commission?
Richard Parsakian: Anyone who wants to employ art to alter the physical nature of the City of Pittsburgh in the public right of way — or land owned by the city — has to come before the Art Commission for approval of their project. We hold monthly meetings, broadcast by Zoom at present and viewable on public access television. A project receives a careful review process, and it’s a very transparent process. There are seven members on the commission, each representing a different discipline such as architect, muralist, social activist using art, curator and so on. I fit several labels.
NEXTpittsburgh: The Art Commission has the stated mission to “improve the aesthetic quality of the City’s public spaces.” How do they go about it?
Parsakian: Sometimes the importance of public art doesn’t lie in what the object is, but in who is creating it and for what reason. You can find a recent example Downtown along Strawberry Way from Grant Street to Smithfield Street. It’s an artist-in-residency program arranged by Morton Brown and Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership with 36 Creative and Performing Arts students painting and drawing on two blocks of asphalt guided by two professional artists, Max Gonzales and Shane Pilster. The designs are fantastic, an incredible gradation of color, essentially the rainbow spectrum. It gives these students the chance to have a visible voice in their city.
NEXTpittsburgh: What is a key part of the commission’s review process?
Parsakian: Every proposal has its own evaluation criteria, but engagement with the community is always key. If you’re an artist putting forth a proposal, you need to have community input, meetings where you listen to people and learn how they see the project. Does the art speak to the community? Did the artist conduct a social discussion that was inclusive? We also look at sustainability. How does it affect the carbon footprint? Does it conform to the new Dark Sky ordinance and so on.
NEXTpittsburgh: So the commission looks at the big picture?
Parsakian: We look at the biggest picture possible. Each commissioner has a different viewpoint, but as a body, we want to make sure the art and the process of creating it include the voices of the community where it will live. Throughout history in every society, public art has told a story of the people in that society, and we don’t want people in our community to be left out of the discussion.
NEXTpittsburgh: Can public art make us better people in some ways? Help us understand each other a bit more, even if the understanding is partial or mainly symbolic?
Parsakian: We have to open people’s minds. Art does that, but it doesn’t happen right away with new art. When I go to an art museum, I might see “classic” art that’s been around for a few centuries. But when it originated, it was “contemporary” art, not classic, and many people of its time and place would not have understood or liked it. But now it’s accepted, and we call it “classic.” I like to go to a museum and be shocked and get a new way of looking at something. I don’t want to see a painting of tomatoes unless Andy Warhol did it. It’s good for people to have a visceral reaction to art. But also to learn about themselves and each other. Murals are a type of public art that do this very well. They capture history, they honor people who resonate with the community.
NEXTpittsburgh: It’s a fundamentally democratic form of civic discourse.
Parsakian: Public art allows a community to have a conversation. No matter where you are in that community, what your economic or education level, you can have a voice with public art, because it is public and, therefore, shared by many people in many ways. Public art can give a person pride in their community. It offers tangible recognition that “we are here.”