How Philadelphia can learn from Pittsburgh: Using cultural storytelling to invigorate a city

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Balafon West African Dance Ensemble

This month, I attended the Americans for the Arts 2013 Annual Convention in Pittsburgh, where approximately 1,000 arts professionals from around the country came together to exchange ideas and experiences — as AFTA President Bob Lynch put it, to “explore all the ways in which the arts are truly transforming America’s communities.” 

The recurring theme at the convention was storytelling — how to create deeper connections through personal, authentic stories of your organization, your artists and your work. The arts are ripe with these vibrant narratives, and yet many organizations still seem to struggle with making their stories resonate. 

Much like Philadelphia, Pittsburgh is a great example of a city that has been truly reinvigorated by the arts; thanks to AFTA and the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, conference attendees had the opportunity to really dig in and get to know Pittsburgh’s impressive cultural scene, from performances at keynote lunches (my favorite was Balafon West African Dance Ensemble) and an opening party at the Andy Warhol Museum, to “ARTventure Tours” that explored various cultural hot spots around the city.

Our stops along the tour highlighted how Pittsburgh arts destinations are creating unique experiences and building connections with their visitors.  Philly has a thriving and innovative arts scene of it’s own, but we can still get inspired by how these Pittsburgh organizations are making their city come alive:

  • Our tour started at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. I was so charmed by this museum and its commitment to creating a space for children to explore and create in the art studio and the “make shop,” as well as be inspired by the work of local artists.
  • Next up was the Phipps Conservatory, which reminded me of our area’s Longwood Gardens. The chance to wander through the greenhouses, enjoying the flowers, the butterfly garden and the incredible art glass installations (including several Dale Chihuly pieces), was calming and rejuvenating.
  • Next, we got an up-close-and-personal look at glass making at the Pittsburgh Glass Center in the city’s East End neighborhood, an area being redeveloped with the arts as a foundation. We also talked with a gentleman who had been a scientific glass blower for decades and now uses the PGC space for his work. You really understand what you’re paying for in a handmade glass object when you see how it’s done.
  • It was a treat to end our day at LOCUS where we were greeted with a plethora of locally sourced food and sangria. LOCUS is a small gallery space showcasing eco-focused art. I had a chance to speak with an artist who had created a piece inspired by the movement of bees and the colors of honey and buy a handmade cookbook. 

These are excellent examples of firsthand visitor experiences that tell the stories of art making, of artists’ passions and of organizations’ missions in ways that create lasting connections to the work. Although this tour was a small group experience, organizations can learn from the more intimate experiences and scale them up.

Megan Wendell, Founder & President, Canary Promotion

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