Sunday, March 13, 2005

Phipps Conservatory Pittsburgh. Kowinski photo
 RUNNING ON ICE: State of the Arts, Pittsburgh 1991
by William Severini Kowinski

Except for her paintings propped against the walls, the living room of her Friendship apartment was bare. Twenty-one year old Christine McBride sat crosslegged in the meager November sunlight that slanted through a small window, and talked about her next move towards an arts career. She wants to go to New York.

She was busy working on her portfolio that would mark her graduation from the Pittsburgh Institute of the Arts, while she prepared her first gallery show at the Turmoil Room in Wilkinsburg. Meanwhile, every late Friday night she adds her acting energy to a comedy improv group that plays to enthusiastic crowds in the Cathedral of Learning basement studio theatre.

outside Carnegie Library and Art Museum,
Pittsburgh.  Kowinski photo.
Christine grew up in Edgewood, where her father had a dry cleaning business. She started taking Saturday art classes at the Carnegie when she was ten, and began acting in community theatre at thirteen. Now she can't conceive of a life that isn't centered on painting and performance. "This is how I understand things. I do this because I have to. I don't know much about the art world. I'm inspired by the world around me---things take hold of me and I can't shake them. I get fascinated. Painting makes me really happy. Acting is part of who I am. This is what I'm good at, what I have to offer the world."

But now school was almost over, her parents were nervous and Christine was facing decisions. She had visited a Pittsburgher she knew in New York, an art student at the Cooper Union. It opened her eyes. "New York is this mythical, magical place. You think all kinds of wonderful things are going to happen. But when I was there I saw it was a lot of hard work. But if I go and I last six months there, I last six months. I'm going there not expecting anything from the city except to learn from it."

But feeling that she lacked the formidable means to survive in New York on her own, Christine decided to apply to Cooper Union for the fall. Meanwhile she'll stay in Pittsburgh and work, probably as a waitress.

Her friend and classmate, Sharon Majorien, was also applying to study art in New York, but first she concentrated on starting her commercial career. "I came to art school because I love to paint, I love to draw. But the question is, how to eat?" She rigorously researched advertising agencies with New York offices and invited their local representatives to her portfolio review. Her resume in the style of an ee cummings poem begins, "independent freethinker for hire."

"Pittsburgh is a good place to start out but not a good place to stay," Sharon said. "I'm not saying I'd never come back here, but as an art student you need to expose yourself to different experiences." Sharon wears a colony of tiny gold earrings on one ear, none on the other. On her feet are a handsome pair of wingtip shoes. "I know the lifestyle in New York would be hard, and things like marriage and children run through my head. But I'm very, very young. I need to be jarred. to grow as an artist and as a person you can't be comfortable."

Derek Walton is a founding member of the improv group Christine belongs to, and a founding member of the Young Company at the Pittsburgh Shakespeare Festival. With an MFA in acting from the University of Pittsburgh and almost qualified for his Actor's Equity card, he would seem to be a prime candidate for New York. But he isn't going.

"The actors from New York who came to the Shakespeare festival told me not to do it," he said over coffee, on his day off from selling clothes at a downtown store. "Half of them are afraid for their lives. Actors get rejected for parts if they're an inch taller than the producer wants. I don't want to sacrifice my integrity or my standard of living. I don't want to be afraid and alone."

The dreams and fears of these young and aspiring artists, the textures of their idealism and pragmatism, the choices they face, suggest the outlines of Pittsburgh's place in the United States of the arts, as well as what it's like to be an artist today. There are elements of the classic search for success and fulfillment, but there are also new wrinkles in the struggle to balance art and life, the ways and means of survival, the relationship of artists in Pittsburgh to New York, and to Pittsburgh itself.

Pittsburgh is part of a new national arts context. Beset by high costs and a deteriorating urban environment, New York is declining while the arts have been growing phenomenally almost everywhere else. Some cities, like Chicago, Seattle and Minneapolis-St. Paul provide new opportunities that are in some ways superior to New York.

This growth implies and depends on a change in the artists themselves, who typically are now as well-educated as members of most professions. However, artists have the distinction of being in the only profession that fails to pay a living wage to those it qualifies, credentials and employs.

Even in Pittsburgh, the work of artists generates prosperity. More people attended performing arts events in 1989 than saw the Steelers, Pirates and Penguins combined. The growth of the arts in America has created new careers in arts institutions, universities and corporations, but the financial security of artists has not noticeably improved. While controversies rage over all the arts should be financed, it is a salient but often overlooked fact that the arts in America are subsidized chiefly by the artists themselves.

Artists are often viewed as frivolous and impractical---perhaps more so in Pittsburgh, with its combination of corporate and working class cultures. But in this era, each artist typically has three careers: the art, the business of the art, and the job that pays the rent.

The business of the art is about getting work commissioned, sold, shown, published or mounted---or for performing artists, getting to work at all. Especially in recent years, this aspect consumes more time, energy and attention, as has making a living.

To try to be an artist at all is to invite insecurity and hardship. To try this as a Pittsburgher in Pittsburgh can resurrect working class attitudes of self-doubt, self-subversion and social pressure against those with different dreams. They also face the assumption that artists are supposed to suffer, and so exploitation is justified; their internal struggles aren't enough.

So why do artists stay in Pittsburgh? For even though many leave, many do stay, and more are arriving from elsewhere. These are not necessarily often seen at the Carnegie or the Benedum or Heinz Hall. Their work may not fill museums or theatres for years to come, if ever, and therefore they are the artists with the most delicate relationship to society. But their presence, their creativity and their survival helps to enliven and define Pittsburgh as a city.

The New York Question

by David Goldstein
 Born in Ambridge, David Goldstein has been painting and showing in Pittsburgh for about fifteen years. He lives on the South Side, across the street from the Carson Street Gallery, where he most often exhibits. In fact, for a month in 1989, he moved his furniture into the gallery itself, and lived there among his paintings for the run of his one-person show.

He saw the banner strung across the Carnegie façade that year, advertising the Andy Warhol show: "Success is a job in New York," it said. He doesn't buy it.

He has a friend, another Pittsburgh artist who moved to New York two years ago. "He was happy here," David said. "He was broke all the time but he painted all the time, and his work was very well regarded here. But in New York he has not painted at all, because he's so busy making a living so he doesn't get thrown out of his apartment. He's had art-related jobs there, but the only time he's done any of his own work is when he's come back here and used my studio."

David respects New York as the historical Mecca of American art, and likes to visit the city. But he wonders about the effects on artists of the extreme financial pressures there, and the resulting need to make it big very fast just to survive.

"New York is a little tarnished for me now because it seems to be so fashion oriented," he says. "Artists produce work in order to shock people or grab their attention, because it's a tough place to get noticed. So I often wonder about the sincerity of what they're producing. I don't think that makes for the kind of art that lasts, that has value. I often wonder if New York really has the best artists anymore. I almost tend to doubt it."

Paying heed to the horror stories from New York is easier when there are prominent examples of Pittsburgh artists (like ceramic artist Ed Eberly), playwrights (Arthur Giron, Frank Gagliano) and actors (Lenore Nimitz, Tom Atkins) who manage to hold onto New York careers while living in Pittsburgh. And it's better still when there's a steady stream of dancers (Judith Leifer, Douglas Bentz, Maria Rendina), actors (Larry Myers) and even a performance artist ("Animal X") who've escaped to Pittsburgh from Manhattan's madness.

But there are lots of caveats: most artistic immigrants are already successful, and come for specific positions in established organizations or academia. For Pittsburghers without prior contacts, there is considerably less chance of gaining international recognition while living here. There is still a prejudice, both outside the city and inside it, that defines anything produced here as "regional" or otherwise limited in nature or quality. Often that attitude lessens an artist's success even within the city, where its infamous inferiority complex causes it to ignore anyone whose achievements haven't been recognized elsewhere---and even then, Pittsburgh residency makes that success suspect.

Most of the artists Pittsburgh likes to claim for its own did not live here in their productive years. So why do we have artists here at all?

Their stories are different. As composer Virgil Thompson observed, "The outcome of everything is the way it happens, and the way it happens is the story of your life." But there are a few common elements, perhaps symbolized by David Goldstein's month-long residence within the exhibition of his paintings: Pittsburgh's artists are trying to find better ways to bring their art and their lives together. Or as Goldstein put it, "My art should enhance my life---not drive me crazy." For artists trying to manage three careers when even one of them is almost all-consuming, such considerations are important.

The Life of Art

Many talk of the quality of life, lower costs, and slower pace of Pittsburgh that allows them more of a life outside the pressures of their art, and its attendant business.

Playwright Melissa Martin, whose plays have been produced at the Pittsburgh Playhouse and other western Pennsylvania theatres, moved here from Chicago when she married a Pittsburgher. "It was the smartest thing I ever did," she says, "and the dumbest professionally. But you can only bring to your work what you are as a human being. This career is unpredictable, and I've had problems with the art-management side of it. But when you bottom out as I did, you realize that a life of grace and dignity is best. Theatre successes come and go, but I have a husband and child who keep me alive. I won't look back at 65 and say, I didn't make it in the theatre, so nothing ever happened to me."

For artists on their own, Pittsburgh's more modest cost of living still requires sacrifices, which loom larger when social respectability is more expensive, and artists have middle class expectations. Avi Wenger, a mixed-media performance artist, left New York because of its economic pressures, and returned home to Pittsburgh. He does financial analysis for a living, but worries about the future. "When I got serious about my performance pieces, my upward mobility ended because I had to let my business slide. Right now a new car is out of the question. But I'm struggling with that now. I've got to decide what to do for the long term."

Although not yet as bad as New York, living costs often still require more time and better jobs than the old stand-bys of waiting tables and driving cabs. Wenger's last work, performed in February, was a collaboration involving actors, singers, artists and a musical composer. "We've become a company, an ongoing unit, so we accumulate and use this common experience. One reason we can do that is that no one has financial problems---everyone owns or partly owns their business."

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

The balance and integration of art and life is crucial to why many former New Yorkers come here. Before coming to Pittsburgh, dancer Janet Popeleski had a career that started in New York with the American Ballet Theatre, and became international. She had residencies in several European cities, and (before the fall of the Shah) in Iran. "They used to say I was the only ballerina between Tel Aviv and Tokyo."

She joined Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre as the company's prima ballerina for both professional and personal reasons. "To grow as a dancer, you have to dance," she says, "and I liked the repertoire, the director and the company, and the number of performances. I also wanted to put down some roots after traveling around so much. I feel at home here. It's a civilized city. And now I'm engaged to be married---so I'm getting more roots than I thought."

Managing Clarity

Helena Ruoti 
 It isn't just a matter of making life better that attracts artists to Pittsburgh---it's giving their art a chance to be better. Even though Helena Ruoti, perhaps Pittsburgh's most prized actress, moved here from Philadelphia to be with her husband and raise a family, she works here because Pittsburgh gives her the opportunity to fulfill her artistic goals.

"My ambition was for a career in regional theatre," she says. "To be able to do good roles with good people is what I always wanted to do. That I would be able to do this in Pittsburgh is something I didn't know."

Her list of credits---lead roles in plays by Shakespeare, Ibsen, Tom Stoppard and Lanford Wilson, among others---plus an artistic home at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre and good parts in two Pittsburgh-based Hollywood movies, all add up to a career that would be the envy of any serious actress, especially one who in Manhattan must endure humiliating rejection if she's an inch too tall, or whose credits tilt towards soap operas and Draino commercials.

by Kathleen Mulcahy
 With this premise of integrity and quality, artists manage their three careers in different ways. Nationally known glass artist Kathleen Mulcahy recently stopped teaching, and she uses the business of her art to give her more time to dream, develop her ideas and work at her art. "I have more control over my time now," she says. "I need to concentrate fully on my work, not be interrupted. I never could say no to my students. And without all those responsibilities, I'm free to show more across the country and sell my work." She can also accept interesting local commissions, like the installation she and her husband, artist Ron Desmett, are doing for the Temple Rodef Shalom in Oakland.

But Derek Walton uses his day job to protect himself from becoming too dominated by the need to have a consistently profitable acting career. "If you 'businfy' yourself too much---make yourself into what succeeds---you lose your spark," he says. "It's not you anymore. You aren't an artist---you're a businessman."

Art of the Future

What's missing in Pittsburgh that its artists need? More galleries and especially people who buy art. More performances and performance spaces. More knowledgeable critics. At least one professional theatre that develops playwrights as well as directors and actors. Day job employers who are less intimidated by artists...These are among the items on artists' wish lists.

Perhaps the most vital question for the future of Pittsburgh's artists is whether the arts here will attain a certain critical mass, a high enough level of activity, energy and community to move Pittsburgh up a notch among civic centers of the arts. It's not inconceivable---and it could happen quickly.

"I just spoke to a friend in Seattle," says Bob Hoffman, Assistant Producing Director of Pittsburgh Public Theatre. "There was a lot going on when I was there five years ago. But he says it's doubled since then."

There are some encouraging signs here. At least for actors, the prospects for livelihood here may be improving. Lamont Arnold, a McKeesport native who has managed to make a living ("not a great living") primarily by acting and theatre-related activities in Pittsburgh for the past ten years, points to increasing film and television production as the key to the future. "That's giving actors a strong base to stick around here, and their presence will help stimulate small theatres and other activity, because actors want to work and be seen. And this becomes a good regional base---for New York, Chicago, Washington, Toronto, whatever."
In fact, Pittsburgh is virtually unique in being within five hundred miles of all of those cities.

The completion of the Cultural District with smaller and more locally oriented facilities, the forthcoming Andy Warhol Museum, the health of the Public Theatre and the expansions of the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts and the City Theatre (which moves into the steadily growing arts district of the South Side) all help solidify an institutional base. Meanwhile, places like the Mattress Factory, the Artery and Metropole are more receptive to new and multi-art work, fostering a certain entrepreneurial openness.

The next step would be an actual artistic community, a perennial dream of artists and a major part of the New York myth (though New York artists lament that it no longer exists there.) "Things are beginning to jell," as Melissa Martin observed.

Attaining that critical mass depends in part on larger factors. When Pittsburgh was officially the most livable city, it still lost population. But Seattle, its most livable successor, is growing fast, and so are its arts. Among Seattle's new citizens are such ex-Pittsburghers as playwright August Wilson and best-selling novelist Michael Chabon.

But one thing Pittsburgh can do now is a better job of honoring its own. After all, for Andy Warhol, success was in fact a job in New York---he was not successful here. Neither was August Wilson, despite writing plays about Pittsburgh now known around the world.

This Pittsburgh penchant for ignoring its own unfortunately continues. The latest case in point is Pittsburgh playwright Elvira DiPoalo, whose "Bricklayers" was selected for the most prestigious play development workshop in the country, the Eugene O'Neill National Playwrights summer. It was produced by one of the most prestigious theatres in America, the Yale Repertory. Soon it will be part of an exchange program with Russia. But no Pittsburgh theatre has plans to produce it: this play about Pittsburgh by a playwright who still lives here.

The Art of Success
Even in the recent past, aspiring artists could see their prospects in a more romantic glow. What is remarkable now is that despite their new pragmatism, they still insist on trying to become artists. Their reasons for doing this are even more remarkably echoed by those Pittsburgh artists who've achieved some success, but are still struggling.

While living here, playwright Margaret Thomas Kelso's first professional production was in New York. Pittsburgh affords her opportunity to work in interactive drama with the Carnegie Mellon Computer Science department, edit radio dramas for WYEP, have a short play done on short notice at the Artery, and obtain an occasional commission, such as her play for the Pittsburgh Regatta a few years ago. But she must also continue to try to find time to write and seek productions, while earning a living teaching and freelance writing.

"I started later than most, but when I finally discovered playwriting, I fell in love with it," she says. "Now I tell students, if you can do something else, do something else. People are in this who have to be in it. Maybe you'd like to have a different life, but if you have to do this, you take the life that comes with it."

"You have to have that desire, that want," says Kathleen Mulcahy. "There is no logic in it. This is what I have to do." And the internal struggle never stops. "I reject failure as a concept," Melissa Martin says. "The only failure is not taking a risk."

Young artists who leave Pittsburgh may or may not return, but in the increasingly fluid United States of the arts, others will come for significant parts of their careers. Whether they will be the best artists---and not simply the best able to survive and manage their other two careers---will depend in large part on the understanding, respect, acceptance and support they find.

The city already benefits from the presence of its artists. "In Pittsburgh, art isn't just what's on the wall," says David Goldstein. "There are artists here, and they are available to everyone. You can know them. This is a wonderful thing---what chance would you have to meet an artist in New York? You certainly can't call them on the telephone as you can here. And artists are real interesting people."

How to be an Artist in Pittsburgh (and elsewhere)

"For young artists, different experiences are so vital. You have to go away to encounter different things, and then you can come back or not."
---Kathleen Mulcahy

Lamont Arnold, City Theatre, Pittsburgh, 1989  

"I wouldn't advise every black actor to stay in Pittsburgh. There are places you can get a lot more positive experience. I'm kind of an exception in the skills I have and in having a support group rooting for me, and I've been lucky in the people I've worked with. But I know a number of very talented black actors who were forced to leave because they got pigeon-holed in a situation where they couldn't find work here."
---Lamont Arnold

"It's so important to have someone who believes in you. There's a prominent theatre agent who won't even take a client who doesn't have a 'life partner' because it's just so difficult without emotional support."
---Margaret Thomas Kelso

"If you're a playwright, a university is where you need to be. Then New York may happen." -Melissa Martin

"Even in a form as new as performance art, it's important for young artists to know what's come before so they can build on it. If they don't, their work is often simplistic and can't compete."
---Avi Wenger


This article was commissioned in 1991 by Pittsburgh Magazine, but the magazine changed editors and it was never published. I'd been living in the city of Pittsburgh for a few years, and for awhile I had three jobs: my first real job in awhile as a senior writer for an editorial agency, a weekly column in the In Pittsburgh tabloid, and I taught a course in magazine writing at the University of Pittsburgh. By 1991, I'd lost or left all three, (the separation from In Pittsburgh being a story in itself) but remained in the city as a freelance writer and editor until 1996. I'd grown up in a town less than forty miles away, so western Pennsylvania and its people were pretty familiar.

So I knew some of the people in this story when I began it, and several I met remained part of my life in Pittsburgh, some pretty prominently. Margaret Kelso (who I'd met less than a year before this article) became my partner, and I moved to California with her. I'd met her at a Carnegie Mellon Drama Department event. I'd rather unexpectedly gotten a public reading of a play I'd written several years before, at one of Pittsburgh's home-grown theatres, while I was in my last months at the editorial firm. (That no one from the company came to the reading made it a lot easier to leave it. And ironically, given the themes of these articles, the people who ran the theatre advised me to take the play to New York. Indeed, somebody at Joe Papp's Public Theatre wrote me a nice letter about it---it was a rejection letter however.) So when I was free of daily job obligation, I decided to put more energy and attention into becoming part of Pittsburgh theatre, as a playwright. Meeting the CMU folks and other theatre people was part of that.

One of my first efforts was a short script for an art event called "Luxus" at the Artery. I directed it as well, and Christine McBride was in it. I don't recall how I met her. But I do remember that in reporting this story I went to the Turmoil Room gallery with her to help set up her show. Just hours before the opening, the place was locked up. We had to essentially break into the basement, and I'm afraid I was the lead breaker. Got a little too involved in the story, it seems.

It was at about that time that Ted Hoover, a long-time local playwright and the theatre critic for In Pittsburgh, and several others put together a playwright's group and several productions of short plays. Ten minute plays were just beginning to be the rage, and my first was called "Naked Under Their Clothes." Margaret also had a play on the bill, and later she asked to direct the script I'd written originally for the Luxus event: "A Brief History of Light." It was done at the Birmingham Lofts, with two excellent CMU student actors (Maduka Steady, who had a featured part in the film, "Lorenzo's Oil," and worked as an actor in New York theatre and television.) I knew it was a special night for me, though I didn't realize it would be the high point of my life in the theatre. (I did win an award and a little production for a one-act from the Pittsburgh new plays contest the next year.)

In any case, this is how I'd met Melissa Martin, along with other local playwrights, like Tammy Ryan. In 2001, Melissa directed a feature film, released on DVD as "A Wedding for Bella" but also called "The Bread, My Sweet." Her husband had quit his corporate job to take over a small bakery, and the story was based on real people in Pittsburgh. Melissa had joined up with a former producer of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood (a Pittsburgh production) and they continued to pursue film and TV projects.

I met Helena Ruoti at Pittsburgh Public Theatre receptions. Since this interview, she's continued her prominent acting career in Pittsburgh and other regional theatres. Lamont Arnold has been seen in several feature films shot in Pittsburgh, including "Bob Roberts," "Lorenzo's Oil" and "Silence of the Lambs."

Elvira DiPaolo's play "Bricklayers" did get a Pittsburgh production, and a very prominent one. It was the first production at the new City Theatre, a beautiful facility on the South Side. But Elvira stopped writing, and if I may venture an opinion, I think it was the success of this play that stopped her. She was clearly uncomfortable with so much attention, and I recognized the immigrant working class inferiority complex at work. It must have all seemed phony to her, and she may have felt undeserving and phony herself. I've felt those feelings, in any case.

Ron and Kathleen in a more recent photo
 I met Kathleen Mulcahy while doing this story, and she became a friend, particularly to Margaret. We prominently display one of her "Spinners" glass sculptures (as well as several ceramics pieces by Ed Eberly, who we met at about this time.) Kathleen and her husband Ron continue to work in their art forms and sell nationally, and remain important art community figures in Pittsburgh.

On the net, there is an Avi Wenger listed with Allegheny Investments in Pittsburgh, and an Avi Wenger credited with some song lyrics. So maybe he's continued with feet in both camps. As I recall, Christine McBride did leave Pittsburgh and returned, probably more than once (not uncommon in western PA), but I don't have any fresh information on her or her friends quoted in the first part of the piece.

I've only been back to Pittsburgh a few times since 1996, though I miss it quite a bit. Tey Stiteler, who I'd worked with at In Pittsburgh, is publicity director for the Carnegie now, and she brought me up to date on Melissa and Ted Hoover (who has stopped writing plays, she said, but he's done that before) and others. Tammy Ryan is an active playwright in the city, and there is much more of a thriving playwrights group.

And as the first decade of the 21st century ends, there's a new August Wilson Center in Pittsburgh. The city continues to honor its own greatest playwright also with new productions--in 2010 alone, a much-lauded remounting of his first play, Jitney, and a production of his last, Radio Golf.
The Pittsburgh Public Theatre moved to a new facility in the downtown cultural district, and from what Tey said, there's even more vitality in Pittsburgh arts these days. But the city continues to lose population, and the city government is officially bankrupt. Some corporation have moved their headquarters away, and the once promising growth in high tech businesses seems to have stalled. The U. of Pittsburgh's medical facilities have expanded, taking over many of the old steel mill sites on the South Side. But I'm told that's been the only economic bright spot. Still, Pittsburgh has been counted out before. I wouldn't count it out now.