When you’ve lived in Smithsonian-packed D.C., it’s easy to get frustrated when museums in other cities expect you to cough up some cash to see some fossils or spaceships or art. Just because free isn’t the norm in other places, though, doesn’t mean that you have to cough up some cash to see a masterpiece — in Pittsburgh, they bring the masterpiece to you.
“People have been investing in art in public spaces here for over 100 years,” says Renee Piechocki, director of Pittsburgh’s Office of Public Art. “It’s part of that ‘city beautiful’ movement — you made your cities beautiful to make them more hospitable and show pride in them. That tradition has always been a part of what happens here.”
Pittsburgh has a massive public art presence, and it’s not just generals on horses. Walking through the city, you might see “a sound piece, a light piece, a project that uses community content. That’s not the same as putting a bronze statue up,” Piechocki says. “There’s room for experimentation, and Pittsburgh is a city of inventors.”
Wander anywhere in Pittsburgh and you’re likely to bump into some art. But if you want something more structured, the Office of Public Art has a website that lets you plan in advance by helping you create your own walking tour. There, you can arm yourself with more information on the artworks so you can determine the best order in which to see them (for example, an LED-lit bridge is probably more impressive in the evening). Should you want to make your public art experience even easier, however, we built a tour for you — see the route below and find it online at pittsburghartplaces.org.
1. ‘(Re)carstruction,’ Keny Marshall, 2009
Anyone can smush a car into a cube (well, not ANYONE, but you know what we mean). Here, Marshall took apart a 1983 Jeep Grand Wagoneer and rearranged it into a sphere that sits outside the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. The sculpture is interactive; a timer on the side activates solar-powered lights and portals, through which people can peek into the car’s interior.
2. ‘Cloud Arbor,’ Ned Kahn, 2012
A waterless fountain, this set of 64 stainless steel poles emits a cloud of fog every few seconds. Depending on the wind and weather, it could rise peacefully up or disperse immediately. Thanks to the constantly changing nature of the shadows and your viewpoint — you can wander around the poles — the artwork is both permanent and constantly changing.
3. ‘Magnolias for Pittsburgh,’ Tony Tasset, 2006
We’ve got our cherry blossoms; they have their magnolias — and some of them never die. Five live magnolia trees surround two bronze ones, each of which blossoms with around 800 individually painted petals. Even when Pittsburgh’s brutal winters shut down the real ones, these trees stand tall.
4. ‘Cell Phone Disco,’ Ursula Lavrencic and Auke Touwslager, 2010
Here, you’re the artist. The wall of LED lights is a representation of the electromagnetic waves of cellphones: Each call you make or text you send activates a different pattern in the thousands of lights. So when you text the selfie you took in front of the piece, you’ll be sending a picture of an artwork that no longer exists.
5. ‘The Two Andys,’ Tom Mosser and Sarah Zeffiro, 2005
Just one of Pittsburgh’s many, many, MANY murals, “The Two Andys” shows two of the city’s most famous residents: Andy Warhol and Andrew Carnegie, depicted getting their hair done (Carnegie is also getting ready for a manicure). There’s also a small shout-out to another well-known Pittsburgher: Warhol holds a copy of “Fences” by playwright August Wilson, whose most famous works are all set in the city.
6. ‘For Pittsburgh,’ Jenny Holzer, 2005
Try to arrive at this work as evening falls. The artist installed 688 feet of blue LED tubes across the roof of the convention center. Scrolling across them is text from books about Pittsburgh, including John Edgar Wideman’s “Homewood Trilogy” and Annie Dillard’s “An American Childhood.” As new books are written, more text will be added.
7. ‘Energy Flow,’ Andrea Polli, 2016
The Rachel Carson Bridge, one of Pittsburgh’s most famous, got a makeover for the city’s bicentennial. Sixteen wind turbines use the wind that whips across the Allegheny River to activate more than 27,000 multicolored LED lights that outline the bridge. At times the lights hold steady; other times it looks like a rainbow is trickling down the bridge. (And don’t worry if the air is still; the art is backed up by electricity.)
For a more underground experience, check out our guide to Luray Caverns.