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Group Seeks Public-Art Proposals To Span The Social-Distancing Gap In Pittsburgh

Staff from Pittsburgh's Office of Public Art meet recently by Zoom; Divya Rao Heffley is at lower right.
Ashley Anderson
Office of Public Art
Staff from Pittsburgh's Office of Public Art meet recently by Zoom; Divya Rao Heffley is at lower right.

In normal times, theater-goers, music fans, and dance aficionados sit elbow-to-elbow in darkened halls for hours. Art-lovers crowd into gallery openings, spearing cheese cubes off plates and sipping merlot poured from the same bottle, one after the other.

It’s been less than a month since nonessential businesses shut their doors due to the coronavirus pandemic, but already the familiar mingling that accompanied art experiences seems almost surreally a thing of the past.

Many arts groups – though hammered financially by the shutdown – have offered works new and old online, from virtual gallery tours to staged play readings. But those are individualized, even solitary experiences. Are there ways to make public art for the socially distanced?

Pittsburgh’s Office of Public Art, or OPA, wants to find out. OPA is requesting proposals for a new initiative called Artists Bridging Social Distance in the Public Realm.

“We’re looking for artists to propose projects that really help us deal with what’s happening right now, the widespread isolation within our communities,” said OPA associate director Divya Rao Heffley. “How can a project build community and increase social connection during this time?”

Proposals are welcome from any discipline, whether performing or visual arts. By necessity, this won’t be the kind of art OPA has supported in the past, whether interactive, please-touch installations in Market Square or residencies that immerse artists in particular communities for an extended period. But the projects do have to be “widely sharable” with the public, whether virtually or by other means.

Heffley said OPA didn’t have any precedents or models of what it is looking for, and that’s the point: The group is challenging artists to innovate.

“Now that we need to maintain at least six feet of distance in between us, how can we still support artists to do the work that we deeply believe they are uniquely qualified to do, which is bring communities together, increase sense of social well-being, community well-being, and just bring some joy into our lives?” she said.

An information session for the project takes place Monday via Zoom. The deadline to submit proposals is April 20. Three artists will be chose by a panel of arts professionals who will notify them by May 4, Heffley said.

Selected artists will receive an artist fee of $1,500 each to complete the project, and OPA will offer technical assistance. But time is tight: OPA wants to start rolling out the projects by late May, Heffley said.

For more information, or to submit a proposal, see the OPA website.