Art for Us with Rivers of Steel

Jon working at the Community Plaza in July 2019


Art for Us with Rivers of Steel

Author: Jon Engel, Milton Fine Museum Profession Fellow at Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area – Summer 2019

How can art serve the community it exists in? When it comes to securing grants, the visual arts often promise to act for the public good. What would it like for artists to act for that good more directly? This past summer, I worked with Rivers of Steel Arts (RoSA) to develop a new series of monthly events called Homestead First Fridays. Homestead – a majority Black neighborhood with a median household income of about $25,000 – is an area which the fine arts sector rarely touches, except to buy up its buildings for studios and galleries. As such, our goal with Homestead First Fridays was not just to facilitate art in Homestead, but for Homestead.

This seems like a timely goal. Just this past summer, the CEO of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust wrote that homeless people Downtown made the area less “safe” and demanded tighter policing on them. To him, the homeless and other “unchecked” elements undid the “reputation and achievements” that the arts brought to the city [1]. Intentionally or not, a clear statement was made. Art, we are to believe, is not “for” the homeless. If anything, it is “against” them. In the context of a gentrifying Pittsburgh and nationwide artwashing, this is a chilling idea. How, then, could Homestead First Fridays do something different?

We came up with a guiding vision. Every First Fridays event must bring money into Homestead to benefit the neighborhood and/or must be accessible to and oriented towards the residents that live there. From this, First Fridays was born as an evening of indoor and outdoor cultural programming that RoSA developed alongside local businesses, community groups, and artists. Our style was makeshift and guerilla, aiming to bring the event “to the people.” Everything was built on the main street of Eighth Avenue. We transformed the street visually, postering windows, dispensing maps, and wrapping graffiti-style plastic signs around light poles at high traffic intersections. Bars and restaurants held live music outdoors while empty lots and unused storefronts were filled with pop-up art activities.

To us, the heart of this was our Community Plaza, a lot we populated with tents of vendors, music, and free artmaking demos. This put money in the hands of our neighbors while also empowering Homestead residents to create. Here, art is not something “over there” done by “someone else.” Art is in everything that ordinary people do, from their industrial jobs to their weekend hobbies.

We also mounted several pop-up exhibitions in nontraditional spaces, such as an abandoned CVS. All were free and featured local practicing artists. I curated a show using this model – Fresh Air: An Ecofuturist Art Show – in a recently closed lawyer’s office. The show was a commentary on local environmental issues and ecosystemic collapse, concerns deeply relevant to the industrially devastated Monongahela River area. With an open door, a DIY aesthetic, and unconventional and interactive pieces, Fresh Air tried to break from the traditional confines of fine art. It encouraged the audience to participate in art and political conversations that have normally excluded and ignored them. Ultimately, this was the goal of First Fridays as a whole.

My work with Rivers of Steel provided me with formative experiences in event planning, organizational cooperation, and exhibit curation. More importantly, it was an attempt at art that serves its people. What I learned is this: to be radically accessible, art must be free, public, and locally created.



[1]. Belko, Mark. “Peduto clashes with Cultural Trust over Downtown safety concerns.” 2 August, 2019. Accessed 28 October, 2019 from

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