Friday, June 06, 2008

Act as if you wanted to stay forever.

Like most people, I generally find myself socializing with people that are interested in the same things as me. For that reason it's easy to lose perspective on the broader issues around town. I had a chance to sit down with a couple of work colleagues the other night after seeing a great music performance. We got talking about the cultural strengths and weaknesses of Pittsburgh. We all agreed that there's a certain provincialism that prevails in town. Anybody who has lived here for more than a year realizes just how insulated 'Burghers get within their own neighborhoods. You'd think that crossing a bridge was a death-defying act. It's easy to believe that you have the finger on the city's pulse without even leaving your block. But that's a mistake.

As much whining as I hear among my artist friends, there's very little understanding of what other folks in Pittsburgh go through. We may lament that there are only 50-100 collectors in the entire city, yet we gloss over the fact that art events are generally well attended. This point was brought home to me in my discussion with my colleagues. One of them is a musician in a band that has been playing around town for years. As he is also involved in the visual arts, he is in a good position to compare and contrast milieus. He estimates that the art community is a full four years ahead of the music community in terms of involvement and promotion. Simply go out to almost any local band's show, and you'll confirm his contention.

It's really a shame that we can't get our act together and build a broader cultural scene. I'm as much to blame as anyone else, as I rarely socialize with musicians (let alone dancers, theater actors, etc.). Hell, I hardly ever go out to see local music anymore. I'm not exempting myself from criticism. But I'd be likely to do so if an event married local artists to musicians. Remember how much fun the FLUX series was? That was the best example of what I'm talking about. What happened to that? Was it only last year that they returned with a FLUX in Braddock, and plans to hold three each year? I haven't heard anything lately from the organizers. If anyone has any information on it, please chime in with a comment.

We still have the Three Rivers Arts Festival. Yet that mostly appeals to mainstream suburban tourists. They want to come downtown, buy a hot dog and a Coors Light draft, look at crafts, and see a national act. How many of them even know that there's a juried show of regional artists? How many of them care? No... I'm talking about more grassroots efforts. As much as I slag the Cultural Trust, I have to give them credit- at least for the SPACE Gallery downtown. Not only do they show Pittsburgh artists, but they often have a local band or deejay playing at their openings. There are also a few bars and venues that make an effort- check out the Garfield Artworks and the Brillo Box along Penn Avenue, for example. These places seem to "get it".

Maybe there aren't a lot of people in Western Pennsylvania that know that culture extends beyond sports. There's no lack of enthusiasm for the Steelers, the Penguins, and the Pirates (well, perhaps I'm stretching the case a bit with the Bucs). Still, what are we supposed to do, as fans of music and the arts? We can continue to sit around and complain about how Pittsburgh is a third rate city. Or we can get involved. You don't have to join a band, or make artwork yourself. It's a good start just to go out and participate in enjoying it. Tell your friends about cool things that are going on. Start a blog to publicize happenings. After awhile you might be inspired to organize something yourself. If you are going to stay in Pittsburgh, you might as well try to make it a place where you'd want to live.

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