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North Hills Monthly

Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council Unifies Arts Scene, Provides Support during Pandemic

Jun 29, 2020 11:55AM ● By Hilary Daninhirsch

Artist Ramon Riley at GPAC's 2019 Annual Convening. Photo by Randall Coleman

Pittsburgh has a vibrant, active arts scene. Although art is a crucial component to Pittsburgh’s culture, perhaps it has never been as important as during a pandemic. Without art, it’s easy to forget that there is beauty in the world. The Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council is a nonprofit that aims to unify the arts scene and helps provide opportunities for artists, arts organizations, and art lovers in the region. We spoke with Mitch Swain, the organization’s CEO, about the nonprofit and how the COVID crisis affected the arts landscape.

North Hills Monthly (NHM): What is the mission of the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council?

Mitch Swain (Swain): Our mission is to expand the reach and impact of the region’s diverse and vibrant arts and culture community by providing leadership, advocacy, capacity building and connections. I really see the arts council as being a connector. Our goal is to connect everyone in the arts community and facilitate collaboration and partnership. We also connect artists and arts organizations to resources, elected officials, businesses and other entities that support the arts economy.

NHM: How many members do you have, and in what disciplines?

Swain: Our membership reaches nearly 600 today—this includes about 140 arts organizations and hundreds of individual artists throughout nine counties in southwestern PA. We don’t exclude anyone—if someone is doing creative work and wants to be a member of the arts council, they are welcome.

NHM: What are the benefits to members?

Swain: I think one of the main reasons to be a member is for the connection to the community, to be a part of something larger. We work closely with our members on arts advocacy issues and professional development for artists’ and arts administrators’ careers. Artists also receive access to services and events, gigs, grant opportunities, and discounts to various services that help lift up their careers. I think it’s about wanting to be part of something bigger and wanting to work with others.

NHM: What are some programs that you offer throughout the year?

Swain: We do a lot to promote arts and culture in the community and improve visibility of our vibrant arts scene. We host an arts events website called Artsburgh.org, which shines a spotlight on all the arts-related events happening in the city.

Prior to COVID, we held a number of classes, professional development events and workshops on a variety of topics for artists and nonprofits. Today, we’re still hosting many of these learning opportunities virtually.

Ever since we began in 2005, we’ve been a strong advocate for diversity equity, accessibility and inclusion—we have a number of peer networking groups in support of that. A new one opening soon is our Teaching Artists Initiative, a group focusing on arts educators at all stages of their careers.

NHM: In general, what is the arts scene like here in Pittsburgh?

Swain: We really punch above our weight as a city, with the breadth, variety and diversity of arts and culture we have here—it’s what you would find in much larger cities. A lot has to do with the fact we have really  good support from the foundation community, and we have the Allegheny Regional Asset District that supports our arts and culture community, along with other government, corporate, and individual support. The fact that we have strong infrastructure support really has a lot to do with the size of our arts and culture community and the professionalism and the variety of opportunities you can find.

NHM: How has COVID impacted the arts community?

Swain: It has hurt our community very badly. With the exception of virtual programming, it has largely stopped our activities. Almost 90 percent of our organizations have had to close or cancel activities. Because of this, organizations have lost hundreds, thousands and millions of dollars due to lost ticket revenue and other ancillary revenue opportunities that result from people coming to arts and culture programs. It has also caused a decrease in individual giving and the grants we have received, particularly from tax-based entities like the Allegheny Regional Asset District.

While it has really hurt us in a big way, we’re bound and determined to come back from that. We are happy that Allegheny County is moving to the green phase and will allow some museums and galleries to open up in a limited way.

NHM: In what way or ways has your organization been able to support artists during this time of crisis, including the Emergency Fund for Artists?

Swain: We’ve had the Emergency Fund for Artists in place for two and a half years now, to help artists that might have experienced fire, theft, or some sort of a loss that prevented them from doing their work. Once this pandemic took hold in mid-March, we shifted the focus of the fund, and started raising funds to provide assistance of up to $500 to support loss of income, cancelled contracts and gigs due to the pandemic. In doing so, we’ve supported more than 300 artists in the region. We’ve also been providing training and resources to our arts nonprofits on the new federal resources that have become available.

NHM: Do you think there’s now a greater appreciation for art as we navigate through the crisis?

Swain: I really do—I just know this from a few personal experiences. I’m a musician, I play drums, and I have been involved in online arts programming. I can see how grateful people are to have those living room concerts and other kinds of arts programs available. Parents are appreciative of online programming that has been provided to their children as they’ve been home.

I also see that as things are starting to loosen up, people are getting out and wanting to be around others—the arts are a great way to bring people together and have group experiences. There is a lot of pent-up demand, and I’m hopeful that over time, we will come back from this.

I think that being forced to go into virtual and online programming through this pandemic will provide some additional opportunities in the future. People have become much more accustomed to watching things online, so that potentially creates some performance opportunities we might not have had before. There are a lot of things we can learn from this, but ultimately, I do feel confident people are going to want to come back to theaters, museums and festivals when they feel safe.

NHM: Are you hopeful that the arts can bounce back from this crisis?

Swain: Yes, and I believe that because the arts community is working together to come back. We’re working together to determine best practices on how we come back from this and be as safe as we possibly can. I feel positive about the collective and collaborative atmosphere that exists in our arts community. I know firsthand that Pittsburgh misses the multitude of arts experiences, and I’m confident as we move forward in the future, however long it takes, that the arts community will come through this.