A New Year of Opportunities to Connect and Collectively Strengthen Our Sector

As we prepare to transition from 2023 into 2024, I thought it would be advantageous to highlight some of the changes the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council went through in 2023, some of our key areas of impact from this past calendar year, and some of the next steps we are excited to take in 2024.

Staff Changes

In the spring of 2023, Mitch Swain retired as the CEO of the Arts Council. Mitch shepherded the establishment of the organization in 2005 after ProArts and the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Alliance merged to form the current iteration of the Arts Council. For 18 years, he worked diligently to grow the organization and serve the arts community in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

Three polaroids. On top, a group of people stand smiling while a man holds up a city proclamation. The second photo shows a screencap of a WESA article with a photo of a white smiling man and the words "New Pittsburgh arts leader grew from punk-rock roots". The third shows a smiling Black woman with pink glasses and short curly light brown hair holding up peace signs with her fingers
Highlights in 2023 included Pittsburgh City Council declaring March 30 "Mitch Swain Day," Patrick Fisher being named CEO in June, and Mia Hooper's promotion to COO in October.

In June 2023, I joined the organization as the new CEO. Previous to moving to Pittsburgh, I served nearly five years as the leader of Erie Arts & Culture. I also previously worked for the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville. Since stepping into the position, I’ve prioritized developing or refining internal policies, systems, and processes; right-sizing and building the capacity of the organization to deliver external impact by restructuring the team; working with the team to define programmatic pillars; and conducting an ambitious active listening tour within our community, dedicating time each week to multiple site and studio visits with our stakeholders.

In July 2023, we lost a valued member of our team when Sue Mencher passed away following a courageous battle with lung cancer. Sue had worked for the Arts Council since its founding and also spent five years working for ProParts. In November 2023, we also had another former team member pass away, David Pankratz. Needless to say, it’s been an emotionally challenging year for the team.

In October 2023, Mia Hooper was promoted to the new position of Chief Operating Officer (COO). When the Board of Directors supported the choice to create a COO position within our organization, Mia was the obvious choice for this promotion. Throughout her career, she has demonstrated a commitment to the arts and has developed a skillset that is strongly aligned with the duties and responsibilities expected of a COO. Establishing this position also supports future succession planning by cultivating a strong internal candidate when it's time for a leadership change.

At various times in the year, we also welcomed several new team members, including Clara Kent (Program Specialist), Lisa Cunningham (Director of Marketing and Communications), John Watt (Development Manager), and Ajani Powell (Advocacy and Communications Associate). In January 2024, we will also welcome Mona Wiley (Program Specialist) to the team.

Clarifying Who We Are, and What We Do

We recognized the need to more specifically define who we are and what we do as an organization. We also learned that it would be beneficial to share insights around how our role as a support organization differs from the role of presenting organizations. Through a collaborative team-wide process, we defined our four pillars of service that will guide our internal decision making around what existing programs we continue administering, and similarly which ones we sunset, and what new programs we should start. These pillars are intended to help frame the ways that we are uniquely positioned to make an impact in our sector and the broader community. Our newly defined programmatic pillars include:

  • Developing and Strengthening the Arts Ecosystem
  • Framing and Guiding Cultural Investment and Action
  • Grantmaking within the Arts
  • Facilitating Community Connections

Translating these pillars to action, in support of our mission and in service to our stakeholders, we:

  • Provide individuals and organizations with the financial and non-financial resources and support they need to thrive within Southwestern Pennsylvania's creative and cultural sector
  • Foster and support dynamic and expansive relationships within Southwestern Pennsylvania's creative and cultural sectors
  • Conduct research and publish reports on the opportunities and crises that are relevant to, or have an impact on, Southwestern Pennsylvania's creative and cultural sectors
  • Raise public awareness of the programs, initiatives, and events led by Southwestern Pennsylvania's creative and cultural sector
  • Participate in advocacy efforts at the local, state, and federal levels for arts-friendly public policy

Our website has been updated to reflect these changes, with the goal of improving the user experience when navigating the online resource.

Our Impact in 2023

Even in the midst of change, the team at the Arts Council showed up for our stakeholders in meaningful ways throughout 2023 and delivered measurable results. Some highlights include:

Saving $650,000 in Arts Funding

The Arts Council launched and led a local advocacy campaign that was successful in preventing the reallocation of $650,000 in funds that were designated from the American Rescue Plan to support arts-related pandemic recovery efforts. 

Four people stand smiling in front of a pair of wooden doors. From left to right is a white man with a dark beard wearing slacks and a patterned button-down shirt, a smiling white woman with long straight brown hair wearing earrings and a dress and holding an oversized yellow purse, a smiling white man with short dark hair and mustache wearing tan slacks and a pink T-shirt and a blue blazer, and a short Black woman with short gray hair wearing black glasses and white slacks and a dark gray shirt
Arts Council CEO Patrick Fisher (second from right) with City Theatre Managing Director James McNeel, Arts Council Director of Research and Special Projects Morgan Kasprowicz, and Arts Council Board Chair Veronica Morgan-Lee

The Arts Council is now working with the City of Pittsburgh to develop a plan and model for distributing these dollars in a manner that is effective, equitable, and impactful. We also expanded the conversation and planning process to include representatives from 1Hood Media, BOOM Concepts, Black Unicorn Library and Archive Project, Office for Public Art, and PearlArts.

Arts and Economic Prosperity

The Arts Council participated in a year-long research project with Americans for the Arts (AFTA) and other arts councils across the country to survey and compile data related to the economic and social impact that non-profit arts organizations and activities have on local communities. A synopsis of the results has been released by AFTA and the Arts Council, with a full report being published in early 2024. This report represents 172 non-profit arts organizations in Allegheny County and helps reinforce the impact the sector has on personal, community, and economic development.

Racial Equity in the Arts

The Arts Council executed a contract with Jazzspace Consulting to build upon our 2018 report, Racial Equity & Arts Funding. Working with a steering committee that includes Taliya Allen, Demeatria Boccella, Dr. Amber Epps, Pralhad Gurung, Sharnay Hearn Davis, Divya Rao Heffley, PhD, Diane Hunt, Kilolo Luckett, Amanda Neatrour, LaKeisha Wolf, TJ Young, Alison Zapata, and Mia Hooper, this five-year follow up will explore if, how, and in what ways arts grantmaking in Greater Pittsburgh has progressed toward distributive justice.

Small Grants, Big Impact

As the Pennsylvania Council on the Art’s Region 14 partner organization, the Arts Council awarded 26 grants totaling $50,000 to creative entrepreneurs in our region. The creative disciplines of awardees covered publishing, film and media, design, music and entertainment, and the visual arts and craft. As part of our commitment to equitable funding practices, fifty-one percent of the funds were reserved for Black, Indigenous, or persons of color (BIPOC), or individuals residing in low-income communities identified by the Small Business Administration. When reviewing awards, we exceeded our baseline and did not allow the minimum to become the maximum.

Though these grants are small, we know they deliver measurable results. Our 2022 grant reports indicated that 79% of grant recipients experience an increase in their annual revenue through their creative endeavors. Additionally, 37% of recipients reported that they went on to access additional capital funding to support their creative endeavors.

Leveraging Our Platforms to Benefit the Sector

We have leveraged the reach of our blog, social media platforms, newsletter, and personal conversations to help raise awareness of the incredible individuals and organizations that represent the sector. In doing so, we drew attention to the programs, assets, and activities that our community has the opportunity to access and take advantage of. In 2023, we promoted more than 600 individuals, organizations, events, and paid opportunities in our community.

Next Steps

Strategic Planning

The Arts Council executed a contract with Workhorse Collaborative to both facilitate our 2024-2029 strategic plan and conduct an analysis of what shared services would be of greatest value and impact to our sector. Workhorse Collaborative, a Pittsburgh-based firm, was selected because of their knowledge of and experience working with small and mid-size non-profit organizations. Their awareness of national trends will serve our strategic planning process while their past work with organizations such as the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, Handmade Arcade, the New Hazlett Theater, Pittsburgh Public Theatre, the Legacy Arts Project, Chamber Music Pittsburgh, PearlArts, and others will serve our shared service analysis. We anticipate our strategic plan and accompanying action plan to be shared publicly in late 2024.

Five people are shown mingling and standing around a table holding bottles of wines and snacks. Two Black women are shown on the right, three white people are shown on the right
The Creative Hive, a new monthly networking event, will launch in January 2024.

The Creative Hive

We’ve heard that there is a need to create opportunities for our sector to engage with itself. More opportunities to network will help dismantle silos, bridge divides, and support relationship building and potential collaborations. In response to this need, we will launch the Creative Hive in January, a monthly networking event that provides a friendly and casual space for artists, creatives, art educators, culture bearers, and arts administrators to establish and foster professional relationships. The recurring monthly meet-up will be held on the second Thursday of every month from 5:30 - 7:30 p.m. Meeting locations will rotate month-to-month to different creative and cultural venues within Pittsburgh.

Arts Leadership Collective

There is still a long way to go to ensure that the individuals comprising our sector are inclusive of people from all identities and lived experiences. As a sector, if we want to evolve who sees themselves as engaged by the arts, it’s critical that we have leadership role models who more accurately reflect the community we serve. As the Arts Council, we play a role in making sure that how we create, present, and preserve the arts is inclusive and equitable. We have a responsibility to empower, actively listen to, and nurture emerging leaders.

"It’s critical that we have leadership role models who more accurately reflect the community we serve."

In 2023, as part of our Arts Leadership Collective, the Arts Council welcomed Michael Carroll, Savionne Chambers, Kahlil Darden, Petra Floyd, and Ashanté Josey to serve as members of the Black Arts Action Committee (BAAC). 

Additionally, the Arts Council welcomed Sandra Bacchi, Tess Dally, Khaliah Guenther, Sarah Hurd, Eli Kurs-Lasky, Asher O’Briant, and River White as members of the Disabled Artist Creative Cohort (DACC). Members of each committee serve terms of two years and receive stipends for their time and contributions. During the duration of their terms, the Arts Council will work with each committee to acknowledge systemic issues that have restricted just and equitable access to resources, opportunities, and career growth; and then develop actionable plans to dismantle barriers and expand access.

COVID-19 ARPA PA Arts and Culture Recovery Program

It was announced on December 19, 2023 that the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council was awarded $264,000 from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania through the Department of Community and Economic Development to regrant to arts and culture professionals in Beaver, Allegheny, Washington, and Greene counties to help offset lost income resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Grant guidelines, including eligibility criteria and deadlines, will be published to the Arts Council’s website in early 2024.

Culture Counts 2.0

Building upon our 2020 Culture Counts report, which measured the health of the region’s arts and culture sector in comparison to nine benchmark locations, Culture Counts 2.0 will establish indicators that comprehensively measure the social, educational, and economic factors that represent the size, strength, and wellbeing of our sector. The initiative will establish shared metrics for the arts in Greater Pittsburgh, create opportunities for coalition-building within the sector, and serve as an advocacy tool for greater philanthropic and public support of the sector.

Key indicators will be gathered and analyzed over time to monitor the sector’s well-being and whether it's improving, declining, or staying the same. These metrics will help the Arts Council and our collaborators in deciding how to focus resources to improve the vitality of our sector, and then monitor the collective impact of our shared efforts.

Culture Counts 2.0 is one step in encouraging our sector to create a shared vision for the future, built on data.

Things to Celebrate

An Arts-Vibrant Community

In late October, SMU DataArts, the National Center for Arts Research, released its eighth Arts Vibrancy Index, which identified Pittsburgh among the 20 most arts-vibrant large communities in the nation. Sitting at no. 15, this is the first time since 2018 that Pittsburgh has appeared in the index.

Cultural Tourism

VisitPittsburgh reports that eight out of 10 tourists are visiting Pittsburgh to participate in leisure and recreation activities. They also reported that cultural attractions and attending local festivals and events are among the top two activities visitors enjoy while on vacation, making Pittsburgh well-positioned to meet growing visitor needs and interests. As reported through AEP6, Allegheny County saw an increase in cultural tourism by 35.8%, which goes against declining national trends.

In Closing

In a recent meeting with the President and CEO of the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, Dr. Steve Knapp, he expressed something rather prolific. Paraphrasing, Dr. Knapp said, Pittsburgh isn’t the city with the lowest cost of living. Nor is it the city with the highest concentration of arts events, amenities, organizations, and institutions. But of affordable cities, Pittsburgh has the highest concentration of these things.

We have the opportunity to be a globally recognized location for not just the presentation of art, but also its creation.

Existing at this intersection, coupled with the funding resources and talent present in Pittsburgh and our geographic location that positions us within a day’s drive of major eastern cities, we have the opportunity to be a globally recognized location for not just the presentation of art, but also its creation.

If you’ve stuck with me this far, thank you. I hope you can tell by this update that we have been very active as a team and we are set to hit the ground running in 2024. We have a lot of work ahead of us. As the year comes to a close, I ask that you please consider making a financial contribution to the Arts Council to support us as we embrace the work that remains before us. Your financial contributions will help ensure we have the resources necessary to respond to the localized needs of our sector while also supporting an arts ecosystem that is both globally relevant and competitive.

If you feel compelled to make a financial gift to the Arts Council, you can either make an online donation or mail a check to: Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council // 810 Penn Avenue, Suite 710 // Pittsburgh, PA 15222


Patrick Fisher CEO


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