University of Pittsburgh

Revealing Art

For many university students, a night at the opera or a tour through an abstract exhibition can be perplexing. What to wear? When to clap, or laugh, or simply be amazed? Pitt is leading the way in connecting young adults to the enthralling experience of the arts.

Written by Jennifer Bails

Efe Oghoghome in a sculpture park outside the O’Reilly Theater in Pittsburgh’s Cultural District

Efe Oghoghome in a sculpture park outside the O’Reilly Theater in Pittsburgh’s Cultural District

Efe Oghoghome is taking the night off.

It’s a cold Friday evening in late February, and with midterm exams fast approaching, the University of Pittsburgh freshman faces a long weekend of studying ahead. As a premed bioengineering major, Oghoghome spends most of her time using the tools of math and physics to understand the intricacies of how the human body works. Usually, she’s punching the keys of a calculator and writing lab notes. Tonight, however, she picks up a needle and thread.

Sitting at a metal table in the basement studio of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh’s North Side neighborhood, she expertly stitches together two swatches of canvas, each the size of a paperback book. One piece is black, the other is the color of burlap.

Oghoghome is an avid seamstress who reconstructs store-bought clothes to better suit her fashion sense, so sewing a basic pillow is a simple, familiar task. But the questions it will lead her to explore about herself and her world are possibly more complicated than anything in her science textbooks.

An image of a half-full glass of water is screen-printed in ink on both sides of her pillowcase. Or is the glass half-empty? Does she see things as black-and-white or in shades of gray? What is her vision of utopia and dystopia? After finishing her pillow, Oghoghome debates these issues with several classmates over a burrito dinner in the trendy Warhol Café. They next embark on a guided walk through the museum’s “THE END” exhibition, which features the work of contemporary artists who have opted to examine the dark side of humanity and look at the power of art in troubled times.

At the center of one pitch-black gallery stands a vintage fire-call box in a large installation called “PULL,” created by digital artist Jane Philbrick. Oghoghome rushes to pull the lever, triggering a barrage of blinding strobe lights and deafening sirens—an artistic wake-up call to action.

“I’ve always wanted to pull a fire alarm,” she says with an impish grin, while other students cover their ears and ponder the meaning.

Within the span of a few hours, Oghoghome experiences an intellectually challenging studio arts project, the artful act of pulling a fire alarm, and an expert-led tour through one of Pittsburgh’s hottest cultural attractions—all at no cost to her or the 40 other students who are part of this museum excursion. She also enjoys a catered meal with newfound friends.

The event was coordinated by PITT ARTS, which connects the University’s students with Pittsburgh’s vibrant cultural life. Through the innovative program, almost 5,000 undergraduates participate each year in more than 100 “socio-educational” arts encounters like the recent Warhol outing. These well-choreographed events provide students with a hands-on arts experience, a live demonstration, or a behind-the-scenes look at a production and its stars—not to mention free meals, tickets, and transportation.

Any Pitt student can sign up for a variety of events and excursions through the program’s Web site ( Last fall, for example, one group of students attended a Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra performance by renowned violinist Joshua Bell and then had the opportunity to converse with the Grammy-winning artist during a dessert reception. Another group toured the tropical forest exhibit at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, tasted red curry, and learned how to make traditional Thai flower garlands.

Both graduate and undergraduate students take advantage of free admission to the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History, the Mattress Factory, and many other city cultural sites. Thousands of PITT ARTS participants—including faculty and staff—purchase deeply discounted tickets to the opera, symphony, ballet, theater, and more through the program’s Cheap Seats ticketing service.

PITT ARTS also brings culture to campus during its Artful Wednesdays events, which offer free lunchtime concerts, improv comedy sessions, and other performances at the William Pitt Union each Wednesday in the fall.

“This is a formal, systematized program unlike anything available at other schools,” says PITT ARTS director Annabelle Clippinger, an award-winning poet who teaches composition as an adjunct professor in Pitt’s English department. “The University is firmly committed to supporting PITT ARTS at the highest levels, and that is what really sets us apart.” One of the most enthusiastic supporters is Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg.

PITT ARTS—established more than a decade ago by Provost James Maher—gets at the very essence of Pitt’s academic core value of educating the whole student by providing learning opportunities in and outside the classroom, according to Robert F. Pack, vice provost for academic planning and resource management, who helped to launch the first-of-its-kind program.

It is also a realization of the University’s informal motto: The city is our campus. “We wanted to engage our students in the life of the city, to get them out and about so they could truly experience Pittsburgh and their urban setting,” Pack says. At the same time, he recalls, the University was searching for strategies to recruit all-star students and seeking new ways to retain students already enrolled at Pitt—and keep their talent in the region after graduation.

So, the notion of PITT ARTS was born.

An able negotiator and lifelong arts aficionado, Pack spent the summer of 1997 meeting with the city’s leading cultural institutions. Partners such as the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Pittsburgh Public Theater, Pittsburgh Opera, and the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild quickly came onboard. Pack discussed program approaches with Maher, who also had a keen interest in helping arts programs on campus attract student audiences.

Of course, there was the economic payoff, too: Last year alone, PITT ARTS contributed almost $270,000 in direct spending to arts nonprofits in Pittsburgh. More importantly, though, these organizations viewed the program as a way to address the long-term problem of how to attract young audiences.

Since the early 1980s, audiences for classical music, jazz, opera, theater, and the visual arts have declined nationwide as a percentage of the population. The percentage of these audiences ages 30 and younger has dropped even more precipitously, according to a RAND Survey of Public Participation in the Arts based on data collected by the National Endowment for the Arts.

The “graying” trend is further magnified in Allegheny County—home to the second-oldest population in the United States—where a recent study revealed that 45 percent of arts audiences are 55 and older.

“The challenge for all of us in the arts is to figure out how to reach more young people,” says Rose Piccioni, director of educational partnerships and audience development for MCG Jazz, Pittsburgh’s premier jazz performance space.

With grant funding from the Heinz Endowments, Clippinger has used PITT ARTS as a research laboratory to better understand the barriers to arts participation in young adults—and discover ways to overcome them.

College students bring with them considerable intellectual capital from their classrooms, making them uniquely suited to think critically about the arts and embrace new and challenging art forms, Clippinger says. Yet they also lead busy, hectic lives where studying, work, and extracurricular commitments keep them from doing everything they would like to do.

In her role as director of PITT ARTS, Clippinger conducts a range of research, including how to attract diverse audiences to the arts and how to develop enduring audiences. She found, for instance, that students are often unaware of arts events, or they are too intimidated to attend because they don’t know when to clap or what to wear. Ticket costs can be prohibitive, and public transportation in a large urban center like Pittsburgh can be daunting.

But the main obstacle keeping young adults from participating in the arts is inadequate K-12 arts education in America’s public schools, says Laura Zakaras, a senior communications analyst at the RAND Corp., an international nonprofit think tank that works to improve policies and decisionmaking through research. She is the coauthor of “Cultivating Demand for the Arts,” a report exploring policy options for declining public interest in the arts.

Cuts in education funding as well as federal requirements that emphasize reading and math test scores leave little space for arts instruction, Zakaras says. However, several studies indicate that children who are provided with little or no experience or study of the arts are less likely to become arts participants later in life: You don’t seek out what you don’t understand or appreciate.

“We are losing opportunities to draw young people into the arts and get them hooked early on,” Zakaras says. “And since arts learning in childhood is so strongly correlated with adult participation, once we lose them, it becomes less likely that we will recapture them.”

The stakes are high.

If demand for the arts keeps dropping, some arts organizations will be forced to close their doors, in turn shrinking the highly profitable cultural sector. Nationally, the nonprofit arts and culture industry generates $166.2 billion in economic activity each year, supporting 5.7 million full-time jobs, according to Americans for the Arts, a national arts advocacy group.

Then there are impacts that are harder to quantify. “The arts get us thinking deeply, make us laugh, cause us to question the world as it is, help us to build a diverse community, celebrate international awareness, beautify our world and nurture our spirits,” says Clippinger, warning that if the number of arts appreciators continues to dwindle, so too will these humanizing effects.

Pitt senior Sophia Cooper recalls attending a performance of Apollo, Balanchine’s oldest surviving ballet, by the Joffrey Ballet Company through PITT ARTS during her sophomore year.

“Our seats were in the front row of the balcony, and I remember crying,” says Cooper, an art history major and former dancer from Williamsport, Pa. “Apollo is just a beautiful ballet, and it was one of the most moving things I’ve ever experienced.”

Unless more is done to improve access for all students to arts education, experiences like these will only be available to a privileged few, Zakaras says, “and we will never manage to really democratize the arts to make them accessible to people from all walks of life.”

Clearly, PITT ARTS is doing vital work. “The program is fabulous because it is helping students play catch-up where their earlier formal education might have failed them,” says Susan Blackman, director of arts programs for the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, which represents dozens of cultural institutions across the region.

And by encouraging students to become audience members who are engaged and knowledgeable, the University is helping to create future generations of single ticket buyers, subscribers, and ideally arts patrons, Blackman says.

Asked in a survey if they would continue to support the arts after graduation, 87.3 percent of this year’s PITT ARTS participants said “Yes,” 11.4 percent answered “Maybe,” and just 1.2 percent said “No.” The program serves as a national model for how to foster lifelong habits of arts participation among students through experiential learning.

Take the example of Pitt sophomore Liam Sweeney, who has attended more than a dozen PITT ARTS excursions since discovering the program at an event fair his freshman year. “They would take us out to a nice dinner and pay for us to see a show, and as soon as I started going, I kind of fell in love with it,” says Sweeney.

Through PITT ARTS, the longtime jazz and blues fan has developed a new interest in flamenco music and classical theater that he plans to pursue after he leaves college. “The program is exposing me to more things that I normally wouldn’t be exposed to,” Sweeney says. “Now I will have a greater catalog to pull from after I graduate and have to do things on my own.”

Connections like these are being made at the University all the time. In helping to revitalize Pittsburgh’s cultural community, PITT ARTS also is making it possible for students like Efe Oghoghome to reconfirm their own vitality.

“Everything about that night was perfect,” Oghoghome says, recalling her arts encounter at the Warhol Museum. “And the fact that they brought me out there and gave me a taste of what is possible made it easier for me to want to explore the arts by myself.”

But her plans to spend more time at the museum over spring break were frustrated by the need to put in extra hours of studying to keep up in her challenging engineering courses.

While she toiled through her vacation, Oghoghome kept returning to the evening at the Warhol in her mind. The experience provided her with the escape she needed to put her academic difficulties in perspective. And by studying art that confronted death and disaster—and exploring these themes through her sewing—she realized that perhaps things weren’t so bad after all.

“I’m an optimist, but I’ve been getting pessimistic lately,” Oghoghome says. “That experience reminded me that there’s always a bright side to everything and that I could still get through the semester.”

Afterward, she decided to take apart her handcrafted pillow and re-sew the canvas patches on a hoodie sweatshirt to wear as a reminder of her experience at the Warhol Museum.

Lives transformed through art. What could be more powerful?