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Impressions of Pittsburgh: what the arts delegates had to say about our city

When you’re a city hosting 1000 artsy types from all over the country, you better look darn good.

Two weeks ago, with the Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival in full swing and the fountain in Point State Park cranking again, Pittsburgh never looked better. Evah.
Great timing since the spotlight was on the city with the Americans for the Arts (AFTA) national conference which took place at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center June 13 through 16. The art delegates not only came to town, they experienced it.
They danced with “Martha Graham” during Bricolage’s celebrity walking tour to the Warhol Museum. They visited the Union Project, Love Front Porch, Uptown Partners and City of Asylum/Pittsburgh—all in one afternoon.  And they exploded with applause when Pittsburgh’s Cello Fury, Texture Contemporary Ballet, Sean Jones and Vanessa German brought audiences to their feet at the Convention Center.
It was pure sensory overload, at its absolute finest. 
Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council’s Mitch Swain joined forces with AFTA’s Robert Lynch to host the four-day convention and celebrate the infinite ways that the arts are transforming this country.  Yet it was Pittsburgh that took center stage, time and again, by shining its light on the diverse arts community that makes our city so impressive. So said the delegates who visited. We asked a few to share their impressions:
Kristy Callaway, Executive Director, Arts Schools Network (Key West, FL)
I work for a national consortium of arts schools, so I have a lot of experience visiting different locations, venues, arts groups and entities.  What’s really exciting about Pittsburgh is that the arts are considered an economic engine in the downtown and are high quality, high caliber and accessible.  Everything is within walking distance.  From the theater troops we’ve seen to the musicians we’ve heard from the Symphony—it’s all top-notch.  I really am grateful to have discovered Pittsburgh.  It’s a treasure.
Olga Garay-English, Executive Director, Office of Cultural Affairs (Los Angeles, CA)
The stuff that Bill Strickland is doing at Manchester Craftsmen Guild is compelling, entrepreneurial and has had an impact on so many people’s lives to the extent that it truly has become a national, and now international, model.  That’s a homegrown hero that you have here.  One of the other things that is amazing about Pittsburgh is that not very many people think about the merger of nature and the arts.  A great example is the Three Rivers Arts Festival.  It’s just such a wonderful celebration of the natural landscape you have here, as well as a multi-disciplinary celebration of the arts—visual art, public art, music, theater and dance.  It brings those two natural life forces together.
Tracy Hudak, Director at Large, Arts Impact (Ventura, CA)
Full disclosure: My family is in Cleveland and I am a Browns fan, but I’ve never been to Pittsburgh!  I am totally invigorated by the warmth of the city.  I’ve been bussing and exploring, and having a great time interacting with all different parts of the city.  The arts scene feels really alive.  Visceral.  I get a sense of innovation and connecting people to place. The Warhol Museum. The dance performances at the street fair at our reception.  All fantastic, alive, soulful stuff.   And when I asked some young kids what they loved about Pittsburgh, they said, “There’s enough great stuff happening that you can be a part of something that feels really alive and relevant.  At the same time, it’s small enough that if you want to make a difference, you can make an impact.”  I think that for a city and youth in a city to be able to say that is a really powerful thing and is indicative of Pittsburgh’s success and its friendliness.
Anna Huntington, Community Outreach Specialist, Destination Rapid City (Rapid City, SD)
I think Pittsburgh is an exceptional city and you should actually start tamping down your promotion of it!  If I had known about Pittsburgh fifteen years ago, I would have wanted to move here and raise my kids.  It is an amazing place in terms of human capital and infrastructure.  I have met so many incredibly creative, energetic, turned-on people here.  And I saw the Shady Liberty Bridge, which was described as the first artist-designed piece of infrastructure to come to Pittsburgh in recent memory.  It was just beautiful—an amazing symbol, a wonderful connection to this city of bridges and a bridge into the future. 
Selena Juneau-Vogel, Program Director, Fractured Atlas (New York, NY)
I’ve wanted to see the Mattress Factory forever.  During my first visit to Pittsburgh, I dropped my bags at the hotel and sprinted across the bridge to see it in the last hour before they closed.  I was lucky enough to be the only person there.  Honestly, it was one of the best art experiences I’ve ever had!  My background is in visual arts so that is what generally excites me. I think the Mattress Factory is a unique space; the artists that they carry and bring in seem very contemporary and in tune to what’s happening in culture and society, and it’s also fun, engaging and immersive.
Paula Kerger, President and CEO, PBS (Washington, DC)
Pittsburgh is an extraordinarily rich cultural community, both with the visual arts and performing arts.  But in public broadcasting, we think of Pittsburgh as being one of the centers of public broadcasting…having been the home of Fred Rogers for all of the years he created Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.  And now, with his company and the work that we are doing moving forward, it gives me such joy to know that the legacy he created will extend for years to come.
Gary Knell, President and CEO, NPR (Washington, DC)
What has been done physically in the Cultural District, and been accomplished by the non-profit and business communities, is truly visionary. It is an example of civic leaders coming together to create something that is now one of the most livable cities in America. Every time I come back here I am doubly impressed with how great Pittsburgh has become.
Robert Lynch, President and CEO, Americans for the Arts (Washington, DC)
The arts are a secret treasure for America and Pittsburgh is a secret treasure for the arts.   We wanted to let the nation know what a spectacular arts destination Pittsburgh is…and we have!  I am so excited to be here now and even more excited to come back.
Pepper Massey, Executive Director, Rapid City Arts Council (Rapid City, SD)
I haven’t been to Pittsburgh since the ‘80’s and was pleasantly surprised. I must say: it is a fantastic place! I was here for the AFTA pre-conference and we wandered through the arts district, met shop owners and visited the theaters—what an incredibly creative space!  And last evening we were at the Warhol Museum, but were led there by actors through this lovely underground, twisty path alongside the river…then walked back and witnessed the cityscape against the rivers and the bridges.  Beautiful.
Cookie Ruiz, Executive Director, Austin Ballet (Austin, TX)
There’s a vibe in Pittsburgh that is amazing…it’s in the streets and embedded in the architecture of the buildings, which are so beautiful.  I come from dance and they seem to almost dance to me.  It is an amazing thing that in this city—known for many, many things—that you feel that presence of arts and culture. I always feel at home in Pittsburgh.  As someone involved and engaged in the arts, I know that we are in this District and it is a valued thing here.  Clearly there is a presence and respect for arts, culture and creativity in this city.
Steven Tepper, Faculty, Curb Center for Art, Enterprise & Public Policy, Vanderbilt University (Nashville, TN)
The bones of this city are amazing.  When I came in at midnight, I had forgotten that you go through the hills, come through the tunnel and see this amazing city.  I don’t think there’s anything like it: that introduction…that welcome mat to a city.  I admire CMU, obviously a great institution with some of the most innovative work around the arts and technology.  I love the architecture, the theater district, the small theaters that have still maintained their architectural integrity and the bridges that are all so iconic.  Nashville is obviously a great city, but Pittsburgh feels a bit more put-together.  It’s like someone who has already been to the ball…and has the right attire.
~ Cally Jamis Vennare is principal of Cally Jamis Vennare Communications
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