The Steel City's Brilliant Art Scene

Pittsburgh’s thriving arts scene has made the city a regular capital of culture. Follow along as we explore its choice galleries and first-rate performances.

By: Carrie Hamblin

Photo By: Courtesy of Pittsburgh Cultural Trust / Agnes R. Katz Plaza

Photo By: GettyImages/Teenie Harris Archive Carnegie Museum of Art

Photo By: Dean Kaufman / Courtesy of the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh

Photo By: Randyland and Foo Conner

Photo By: Mattress Factory

Photo By: Andrew McKeon

Photo By: Courtesy of Pittsburgh Cultural Trust / Wood Street Galleries

Photo By: Courtesy of Pittsburgh Cultural Trust / Benedum Center

Photo By: Kevin Cooke / Courtesy of VisitPittsburgh

Photo By: Stephanie Sun / Courtesy of Contemporary Craft

Photo By: Courtesy of Pittsburgh Cultural Trust / Three Rivers Art Festival

Public Art

There is so much artistic energy in Pittsburgh now, it's pouring out of the galleries and theaters and onto the sidewalk in the form of public sculpture, murals and installations. You can thank the nonprofit arts organization Pittsburgh Cultural Trust for much of the outdoor eye candy, especially downtown. The Trust has realized its multidecade goal of transforming Pittsburgh's former red-light district into the Cultural District with a vibrant arts scene full of galleries, theaters and restaurants; attractive outdoor spaces; and regular community events. The Trust purchased old theaters and commissioned murals for the outside. It transformed abandoned lots into parks and installed world-class art in them. And functional art? Pittsburgh has the most intriguing water fountains and bike racks you've ever seen. The Trust has grand plans for the future, too, with a new Cineplex and more cultural urban amenities on order. Visit its website for a self-guided tour map of the Trust's public art projects specifically, and the Greater Pittsburgh Art Council's page for maps by neighborhood. Now, let's head inside and see what Steel City galleries have to offer.

Carnegie Museum of Art

Carnegie Museum of Art (CMOA) is one of four Carnegie museums in Pittsburgh and one of the first contemporary art museums in the nation. This spot is a do-not-miss for the rotating exhibitions of famed artists from around the world and its 30,000-piece permanent collection of painting and sculpture, including notables like Monet and Degas. The most boast-worthy of recent acquisitions is the Charles "Teenie" Harris Archive, comprising 70,000 of the Pittsburgh newspaper photographer's negatives from 1935 to 1975 chronicling the black urban experience. CMOA has a dedicated gallery to Harris's photography and the museum has been showcasing portions of his work in themed exhibits since 2011. As mentioned, Carnegie Museum of Art focuses largely on contemporary artists or, as they put it, “the Old Masters of tomorrow." For the Old Masters of yesterday — particularly early Renaissance painting and classical decorative arts – visit the Frick Art Museum about 10 minutes away.

The Andy Warhol Museum

Our next stop is the Andy Warhol Museum. The museum celebrates Warhol with the largest collection of his art and archival materials (seven floors plus a basement), spanning his entire career. It's all here, organized roughly by era: student works, the artist's pop art and his 1980s collaborations in the form of paintings, sculpture, prints, sketchbooks, film, even wallpapers and books. Four floors rotate selected Warhol works, one floor is dedicated to archives, another showcases other contemporary artists or "deep dives into the museum’s collection," and a fourth-floor permanent film and video gallery screens Warhol's bountiful films and videos. The Factory, the resident studio in the underground, allows visitors to make their own Warhol-inspired piece using his signature techniques in silkscreen, watercolor painting, acetate collage and blotted line drawing. The museum offers gallery talks daily at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Check the Warhol website for Factory hours, which differ from the rest of the museum’s.

Randyland

Continuing our North Side exploration, we head to the Mexican War Streets neighborhood for a stimulating afternoon. Our first stop is Randyland, artist Randy Gilson's self-described "house of happiness." For the visitor, this amounts to a magnificently colorful expression of Gilson's creativity, starting with the flamboyant building itself and spilling out into the courtyard in the form of reclaimed furniture and reimagined junk. Gilson has had a knack for seeing the unrealized beauty and potential in objects since childhood, repurposing old toys for his siblings and shaping neighborhood hedges into castles and animals. He started the Old Allegheny Garden Society in 1982, filling whiskey barrels with flowers and placing them around the Mexican War Streets neighborhood. In 1995, Gilson bought the condemned space that would become Randyland, made it his home and started painting. Now visitors from all over the world visit his cheery retreat. Though he welcomes donations to support his work, Gilson doesn't sell his art and his inspirational speeches are free. Stop by and prepare to be awed, and possibly hugged.

The Mattress Factory

A couple blocks from Randyland is the Mattress Factory, a museum that actually comprises three buildings on the block. Referring to itself as a "contemporary art museum and experimental lab," the Mattress Factory is less exhibit and more installation: think room-sized presentations that the visitor is invited to enter into, experience and react to. In fact, the visitor's reaction to the installation is often an integral part of the display. Sometimes edgy, always thought-provoking, the installations are developed in-residency, meaning the artist comes to the museum for a month or so and, supported by museum staff and resources, creates a site-specific installation that will be displayed for several months. The museum showcases a dozen or so temporary installations a year and has a permanent collection of 18, including Yayoi Kusama, Greer Lankton and three by James Turrell. Allow 2-3 hours to take it all in. Guided tours available through the education department and drop-in tours are free with admission on first and third Saturdays from 2-3 p.m.

The Garfield Neighborhood: Penn Avenue

Another neighborhood with a vibrant art scene is the East End neighborhood of Garfield. Restaurants, cafes and shops reside alongside district galleries, which include the fabulous nonprofit art centers Irma Freeman Center for Imagination hosting classes and camps, exhibits and concerts, and Assemble, a community space for artists and makers. At the far end of the neighborhood, Pittsburgh Glass Center has a gallery and a studio where you can take a lesson or watch live demonstrations. Garfield's numerous for-profit galleries often have a community component to their work and the small businesses here sometimes wear two hats: the tea bar gallery, for example, and the tattoo parlor café. You can choose to spend an afternoon in Garfield or save your first visit until First Friday and the Unblurred neighborhood arts crawl along Penn Avenue. Then you'll get more than a taste of the creative spirit of Garfield wandering through fine art exhibits and sometimes stumbling upon music and spoken-word performances. May through September, the Garfield Night Market vendors (from the community and elsewhere) join the First Friday party and hawk their homemade food, crafts and other wares along North Pacific Avenue. This neighborhood has a great selection of public art as well. And don't pass up the Penn Avenue Micro Gallery, a mysteriously arted-up telephone pole in the parking lot with the taco truck next to Spak Brothers.

Cultural District Galleries

We've skirted around it (literally) but now we've arrived in downtown Pittsburgh's Cultural District — the most heavily concentrated area for arts and entertainment in the city. The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust operates several free galleries here with works by contemporary artists. Visit 707 Gallery to see Pittsburgh-area creatives exclusively: the photographer Andrea London, for example, a Pittsburgh native with a studio in the Shadyside neighborhood. Head to Wood Street Galleries for multidisciplinary artists from around the world, such as recent exhibitor Miguel Chevalier, born in Mexico, currently living in Paris and internationally recognized as one of the pioneers of virtual and digital art. SPACE and the other Trust galleries are collaborative resources, offering emerging artists resources, support and the opportunity to get in front of the public. The galleries are a short distance from one another, have the same hours Wednesday through Sunday, and a visit to each could take an hour or less. Exhibits rotate every three to four months. Oh, remember the public art we were admiring earlier? Much of it can be found in this 14-square-block area.

Pitt Performance Art

The Cultural District is also the hotspot for Pittsburgh performance art. From ballet to Broadway, deep dramas to raucous comedies, there is a theater downtown providing the perfect excuse to get dressed up and let someone else make dinner. The Cultural District offers up a dazzling 2,100 events a year including live concerts and shows in nearly a dozen theaters and venues as well as performances by Pittsburgh Opera, the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and other city companies and troupes. The PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh series brings Broadway shows to the Pittsburgh public, including a few sensory-friendly performances from national tours such as The Lion King. You can get in on the act with Bricolage Production Company, offering the immersive theater experience, or magic shows at Liberty Magic, the BYOB speakeasy performance space on the same block where Harry Houdini appeared (and possibly disappeared) in 1916.

Cinema

If you like your performances prerecorded, there are a couple of impressive cinemas in Pittsburgh. Downtown's Harris Theater was Pittsburgh's first commercial movie theater, opening in 1931. Then, when the cultural district was a red-light district in the 1960s, the city's favorite pornographic one. Now it's art films featured on the marquee. No, really, art films — independent, foreign — you know, the deep stuff. And the theater is rolling out a new series this year that will include artist meet-and-greets and exclusive screenings. Visit the Trust website for the theater schedule and buy your tickets at the door. Another one-screen wonder is Row House Cinema in Pittsburgh's Lawrenceville neighborhood, which shows a few movies a week based around a theme, like Coming of Age, Oscar Preparation, Animation Classics. Row House offers attendees an appetizing array of way-better-than-usual concessions: craft beer and soda, all-natural popcorn and small-batch local ice cream, even vegan snacks. The proprietors have fostered a real community vibe with its active film club and fun screening events throughout the year.

Contemporary Craft

Contemporary Craft in the Upper Lawrenceville neighborhood is part gallery, part studio and all about public engagement. The art center's free exhibitions tackle political and social issues and feature homegrown and far-flung artists working in a variety of mediums and materials. Contemporary Craft hosts artist-led workshops, lectures and community events throughout the year that tie in with the exhibitions. Free, self-guided art activities at the art center's Drop-In Studio allow visitors of all ages and skill levels to experiment with an exhibiting artist's medium and style in an activity designed by that artist. And regularly scheduled Studio (not drop-in) workshops provide instruction on a particular media, process or technique under the guidance of a talented artist. A recent fave was local woodcut artist and printmaker Valerie Lueth's block-printing workshop. Crafts & Drafts — the most popular workshop on the calendar — is a 3-hour experience for ages 21 and up that combines local beer with learning a new craft medium, like tin-can collages or papermaking with hops. See Contemporary Craft's calendar for what’s on.

Festivals

It should come as no surprise that Pittsburgh is host to many creative festivals and fairs held throughout the year, with something for everyone. If it's music you're after, there are the genre-specific Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival and Rock, Reggae & Relief. Cinema buffs will enjoy Film Pittsburgh's offerings: the 11-day JFilm Festival presenting Jewish-themed films, the Pittsburgh Short Film Festival presenting the best in short films and ReelAbilities Pittsburgh, highlighting the artistic expressions of people with disabilities. There's Pittsburgh Fringe, a performing arts festival with theater, poetry, music and dance from local, national and international artists. And Art All Night is an awesome one: As you might have guessed it's an all-night (22 hours to be exact) free festival that presents uncensored, non-juried artwork from local artists and includes an art auction, art activities for adults and kids and live performances by bands and comedians. A Fair in the Park is the free artist-operated fine arts and crafts festival put on by the Craftsmen's Guild of Pittsburgh with more than 100 regional and national artists in a wide range of mediums presenting. The mother of all festivals here is the Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival, a free fest produced by Pittsburgh Cultural Trust that spans a whopping 10 days and includes an artists market and gallery exhibitions; music, dance and theater performances; and a bunch of eating, drinking and socializing all across downtown. Half a million people enjoy this annual festival that has been in operation for 60 years, making it one of the most celebrated free art festivals in the world.