EMMY AWARD-WINNING ACTOR DENZEL WASHINGTON was in Pittsburgh, Sept. 26, 2018 to announce $5 million in fundraising efforts to help restore the iconic August Wilson House on Bedford Avenue in the Hill District. Also pictured is Terri Baltimore, left, with the Hill House Association, and award-winning playwright Mark Clayton Southers. (Photo by Emmai Alaquiva/Courier File)
Pittsburgh’s art scene has a legacy of highlighting and celebrating diversity that goes back decades—from the establishment of the country’s first Black opera company in the 1940s to the recent announcement of the Pittsburgh Paints Art Initiative. This history allows art fans in Pittsburgh to better understand the impact and contributions of artists of color throughout history.
Although the contributions of artists of color were often overlooked throughout history, Pittsburgh recognizes and celebrates this aspect of its culture. That makes it easy for residents and visitors alike to learn more about what these artists have brought to Pittsburgh and the entire U.S. through their artistic prowess.
From the Past
Pittsburgh has always had an outsized place in shaping the history of the U.S., dating back to the country’s earliest days. The same goes for the city’s place in the art world and noting the works of artists of color, especially Black artists.
For example, take August Wilson. The prolific playwright created some of the most lauded works in American theater, including Fences and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Today, his life and work are remembered at Pittsburgh’s August Wilson African American Cultural Center. The center highlights Wilson’s legacy and new artists and exhibitions that detail the challenges, culture, and triumphs of the Black community in Pittsburgh and beyond. This year, the center opened August Wilson: The Writer’s Landscape, the first-ever permanent exhibition dedicated to Wilson exploring Pittsburgh and its inhabitants.
In 1941, Mary Cardwell Dawson organized and launched the National Negro Opera Company. The opera hosted performances for more than 20 years in Washington, D.C., New York City, and Chicago. Although the company was disbanded after Dawson’s death in 1962, its legacy lives on as the first-ever Black opera company in the U.S.
To the Present
The city’s thriving jazz scene is arguably the most prominent of Pittsburgh’s art forms from the past that lives on today. The city was a popular stopping point for jazz artists in the early 20th century, with businessman and athlete Sellers McKee Hall working as the city’s first Black music promoter. He brought some of the biggest names in jazz to the city, drawing crowds of thousands.
Pittsburgh’s bars and clubs continue this legacy today, with some of today’s performers inheriting their talents directly from their ancestors who first put Pittsburgh on the jazz map. Every year, the city hosts the Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival to recognize this history and celebrate the artists of the present. The event is held every September and brings world-renowned musicians to the city.
Continuing the tradition of talented Black playwrights, local director, producer, and playwright Mark Clayton Southers formed the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company in 2003. Serving as a resident company in some of Pittsburgh’s most famous theaters, you can see the group’s 2022 shows at the Trust Arts Education Center and the August Wilson House in Pittsburgh.
Into the Future
Earlier this year, Pittsburgh’s First Lady, Michelle Gainey, announced a new initiative that continues to celebrate diversity in the arts. Pittsburgh Paints will exhibit art pieces in key, high-profile locations the city’s mayor, Ed Gainey, visits. The pieces will rotate each month and feature a theme dedicated to Pittsburgh’s diverse voices and local artists.
Plus, organizations like Advancing Black Arts in Pittsburgh award hundreds of thousands in grant money every year. The money funds the work of individual artists and collectives focused on topics like postpartum Black mothers, recognizing Afro-Indigenous women and artists with disabilities, and producing a full-length ballet to traditional African music.
The program also funds two scholarships for students pursuing advanced degrees in arts management.
The arts community in Pittsburgh has a wealth of legendary talent who continue to shape its identity.