Chicago. Barcelona. Singapore. Philadelphia. These are the sorts of cities that come to mind when thinking about the locations of the world’s greatest public art. Would you believe that Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—a former steel town with a tiny population somewhere in the 300,000 range—is home to hundreds of works of art in public places, created by some of the country’s most uniquely talented artists? It’s true.
One of my favorite ways of exploring a city involves a pair of comfortable shoes and a lot of walking. Try following that recipe in Pittsburgh—especially in its compact and easily walkable downtown core. As long as you keep your eyes wide open, you’ll be rewarded with intimate views of some of the most inspirational and unexpected art in the city. And the best part? You won’t have to pay so much as a dime for the privilege.
Because the vast majority of Pittsburgh’s public works of art aren’t exactly internationally known, we’ve put together a brief guide to make sure you get started in the right direction. Enjoy Pittsburgh!
If possible, begin your walking tour at Welcome Pittsburgh, a gift shop and the main branch office of the city’s tourism bureau. It stocks more free brochures and maps than you’ll know what to do with.
Ask for a complimentary copy of “Pittsburgh Art in Public Places,” a fantastic mini-guide published by the city’s Office of Public Art. Since the mini-guides are a little hard to come by, you might want to consider downloading a digital copy. (Click on the “Walking Tours” link, where you’ll also find a public art bicycle tour of the city’s historic North Side.)Would you believe that Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—a former steel town with a tiny population somewhere in the 300,000 range—is home to hundreds of works of art in public places, created by some of the country’s most uniquely talented artists? It’s true.Sitting diagonally across Liberty Avenue from Fifth Avenue Place (where Welcome Pittsburgh is located) is the PNC Legacy Project. Although it looks like one of the Cultural District’s contemporary art museums, it’s actually a multimedia exhibit that packs a good hour’s worth of interactive curiosity into its otherwise minimalist space. By way of handsets hanging from the ceiling and video displays, you’ll learn the largely unknown histories of some of the region’s most important personalities.
Next, walk one block east along Liberty Avenue until you reach the Wood Street T (subway) Station, home to the second-floor Wood Street Galleries. You’ll find an LED lightbulb installation by artist Jim Campbell on the Wood Street Station’s façade, but don’t bother going inside unless you’ve got a train to catch, as the gallery’s entrance is on the outside of the building. A permanent (and enormous) Sol Le Witt installation can be found on the mezzanine level. The gallery occasionally hosts temporary installations or contemporary art shows, so check the website to see if anything interesting is on the roster.
From Wood Street Station, cross Liberty Avenue again and take just a few dozen steps east until you come across the tiny Tito Way; it runs alongside the Crazy Mocha café at 801 Liberty Avenue. While it may appear to be nothing more than a cramped urban alley, Tito Way is also a miniature open-air art gallery that features work commissioned by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.
“Cell Phone Disco” is probably Tito Way’s most popular piece. Viewers can manipulate the 16-foot-high LED light screen by placing or receiving a call on a mobile phone. Also located in the alley is “Momento Mori,” a series of existential billboards that contemplate the dual themes of life and death. Unfortunately, the alley’s Shepard Fairey murals are gone, but there is an impressive Fairey mural outside the South Side’s Beehive Coffeehouse at 1327 East Carson Street.
When you reach the end of Tito Way, hang a left on Penn Avenue and walk one block to reach Tony Tasset’s “Magnolias for Pittsburgh,” a small corner parklet featuring bronze magnolia trees with hand-painted petals. Some of the trees are real and others aren’t, but you’ll need an up-close look in order to accurately deduce which is which.
If your feet are begging you to take a bit of a breather, simply cross over Seventh Street and wander through the intersection’s other small park, Agnes R. Katz Plaza. There you’ll find a series of creepy public benches that resemble enormous human eyeballs. Those benches are the work of artist Louise Bourgeois, who also created the plaza’s large bronze fountain, which operates year-round. The noted architect Michael Graves was the plaza’s designer.
If you’re up for a brief detour, wander your way back through Tito Way and cross over Liberty Avenue to enter Strawberry Way, downtown’s other alley-turned-gallery. Among other installations, you’ll discover a sound-and-solar panel here designed by artist Jeremy Boyle. Known as “V24/7/365,” it cranks out an odd and nonstop sonic score based on Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.”
As soon as you reach Smithfield Street, you’ll see a hot dog shop called Weiner World right across the way. Cast your glance slightly skyward, just above Weiner World’s red neon sign, and you’ll be looking at “The Two Andys” by Tom Mosser and Sarah Zeffiro. The pop art-inspired mural features two of the Steel City’s most beloved sons—Warhol and Carnegie—who happen to share the same first name.
To view one of the downtown area’s most beloved murals, the retro-futuristic “Yesterday’s Tomorrow” by Pittsburgh painter and designer Brian Holderman, hang a left on Smithfield Street after leaving Strawberry Way, and then take a left on Seventh Avenue. Located where Seventh Avenue meets Liberty, the transportation-themed piece is impossible to miss; it stretches the entire height of a seven-story parking garage.
If you’re in the mood for a more traditional art-viewing experience after soaking up the grandeur of the Holderman mural, turn left on Liberty Avenue and stop by SPACE, a popular contemporary art gallery at 812 Liberty Avenue. Alternately, you could turn right on Liberty Avenue and make your way to ToonSeum, one of only a few cartoon art galleries in the country.
Holding court directly next door to ToonSeum are three monstrous musicians designed from cast concrete. Known, appropriately enough, as the Liberty Avenue Musicians, they’re the work of artist and sculptor James Simon.
If you’re ready to leave the grit and grime of downtown behind but haven’t yet exhausted your daily intake of public art, consider crossing one of the Three Sisters Bridges to the North Side on foot; the view of the Allegheny River is breathtaking.
Once you’ve reached the North Side, wander west toward the Sixth Street Bridge (aka the Roberto Clemente Bridge). Beginning there and stretching westward is the North Shore Riverfront Park, a $35 million development project that spans 11.25 acres along the Allegheny and boasts a fine collection of relatively traditional public art sculptures.
If you’ve got the energy, make your way toward the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Heinz Field and look for the phenomenal “Tribute to Children.” Created by sculptor Robert Berks, the piece’s brick archway shades a 7,000-pound bronze statue of Pittsburgh’s gone-but-never-forgotten favorite neighbor, Fred Rogers.