Welcome to our new series: Conversation Starters. We’re asking a wide range of Pittsburghers to speak directly to our audience about the issues they’re tackling and the conversations they believe will move our city forward. First up is artist Samantha Black.
Pittsburgh is undeniably becoming a city recognized for arts and culture. That means, though the residents and a small “non-yinzer” artist community have recognized the city’s talent and niche for creativity, it has only recently stepped out of the cultural shadows to those who are not in artist circles.
Just like that ugly cousin on your father’s side who grew out of his childhood nickname, we are now losing unflattering labels such as, “Oh, the city August Wilson is from?” Or, “Oh, the city Wiz Khalifa is from?” Or, “Oh, the city where Steelers do stuff?” Etcetera, etcetera.
However, we are not as well sought out by creatives and consumers as New Orleans, New York, Los Angeles, Toronto nor any other of the “art mecca” types of cities North America has to offer. (That’s due, in part, to the housing policies in the city that damaged cultural enclaves like East Liberty and the Hill District). Though, in my personal opinion, we are well on our way to having our own national artsy fartsy event, like Coachella or Afropunk, that attracts the masses, from moguls to musicians.
A prime reason for that, and a recurring discussion among the arts community, is the lack of representation of black and latinx artists. Lack of representation leads to lack of opportunity leads to lack of financing leads to lack of platform leads to lack of representation. Issa cycle.
I know what you’re thinking. “I know so many black/latinx artists doing well for themselves!” To which my reply is, “Shut up, and listen.”
Let me ask you honestly: How many artists do you know who make a living from their artistry? Meaning they are financially stable and/or do not require another job. And from that number, how many are black and/or latinx?
Generally speaking, the first number is small in Pittsburgh. And the second? I think you’ll agree there’s no doubt it’s even smaller.
Our artists (such as photographer Art Like Us) are eloping with their art to cities that not only welcome them with open arms, but also put food on their tables, gas in their cars and paint on their canvases. Why? Because those cities have made a revelation we acknowledge, but have yet to embrace — you cannot pay artists in experience. Love does not pay the bills.
And yet compensation, I have found, is not as difficult or as pocket-breaking as one might think. Supporting or compensating an artist comes in multiple forms.
Though most (myself included) would prefer financial compensation, our city is known to barter and trade services, opportunities and time that are worth their weight.
Interestingly enough, the city is not vacant of talent. We have events, spaces and artists that would give the world goosebumps, quakes and those tiny little hiccups you get when you love something so much you just “can’t even.”
We have that! We have so much of that.
Beneath these skyscrapers and corporations led by “the usual,” we have predominantly black and latinx neighborhoods that are vibrantly pulsating. They are using whatever little they have been given to lead, create and master arts and culture. Neighborhoods with past, present and future generations intertwining themselves, as a forest of roots, branches and leaves would. Turning heartbreak into think-pieces (poet Jeremiah Davis), mud into watercolors (artist Natiq Jalil) and decrepit buildings into canvases (artist Kyle Holbrook).
Though today we may not have artists’ collectives like Good Children in New Orleans, a major recording studio like Capitol Studios in Los Angeles or artist contests like NPR: Tiny Desk Concert in Washington, D.C., we are well on our way.
A plethora of organizations and individuals in the city are purposeful in their search for diversity in the arts. From The Heinz Endowments to KRUNK Movement — the largest to the smallest — we are all working in conjunction to redirect our views on the arts.
But honesty is vital as we go forward. As a city, we must recognize that we have broken the hearts of many artists on our way. We have trampled many dreams, dissolved many hopes.
As for myself, CEO of Support Your Local Artist Pgh, I have faith in us, as a collective, to shape-shift — to use the national stage we have been given to spotlight the “anonymous” and the “unidentified” who’ve made the attractive neighborhoods they cannot afford to live in anymore.
We, as a city, have the solutions and we have the money. Now, we need a connector.