• Today is: Saturday, January 16, 2021

Celebrating 100 years of original art at the Pittsburgh Public Schools

"Wilson's BBQ" by William Phfal, is part of the Pittsburgh Public Schools collection donated by The Friends of Art
Deanna Lee
April01/ 2016

One hundred years ago, a group of art lovers formed The Friends of Art here in Pittsburgh. With the mission of purchasing original artworks for Pittsburgh Public Schools, the group bought and donated several pieces of art every year for the last century — and it’s still going strong.

Each piece was produced by an artist who belongs to the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh (AAP)—a group of hundreds of working artists in the region and the oldest, continuously exhibiting visual arts organization in the country.

Friends of Art
Portrait #24 by artist Daniel Bolick.

Over the years, artworks purchased by The Friends have hung inconspicuously in the halls and classrooms of many schools. But in 2009, kids and teachers started paying a little more attention.

Dr. Patricia Sheahan, a lifelong educator and art enthusiast, and artist Adrienne Heinrich (who has a piece in the collection) were developing a program to celebrate the 100th year of the AAP, and they saw an opportunity with the Pittsburgh Public Schools’ art collection.

After receiving a grant from the Heinz Endowments and the Fine Foundation to fund their efforts, Sheahan and Heinrich began working in the schools with children and teachers, curating mini exhibitions, and using the artwork as a tool to help kids learn how to study art and write creatively and analytically about it.

“They began to really ‘see’ the work,” says Heinrich. “They began to have discussions about it knowledgeably with their school mates. They began to have personal knowledge of the artists and their work and relate to them.” In short, she says, interacting with the work provides students the opportunity to truly connect with how art impacts our world.

Sheahan and Heinrich’s work in the schools revitalized the collection, now in its centennial year. The next step? To make it available to even more people through an exhibition at the Senator John Heinz History Center, which will open in September.

Friends of Art
The Sisters by Robert Diskin, 1965

Before the exhibition opens, PPS is looking to find the artworks that have gone missing over the years. “There are a lot of reasons behind the missing art,” says Patricia Sheahan. “The collection has spanned 100 years, and the pieces were spread out over many locations during that time. So many of them were just misplaced. We’ve found them in file cabinets, storage rooms, closets.”

No one is interested in how or why these pieces went missing. The PPS and all those involved are focused solely on making the collection whole again. And in that spirit, they are offering amnesty of the return of the work or any information related to it, says Sheahan. “No questions asked.”

So far, five works have been returned. The hope is that they can continue to put the pieces back together. Sheahan adds that this collection is so important because it tells the story of the last 100 years in our region—offering historical and creative perspective on industry, geography, politics, culture and more. “This is a one-of-a-kind collection,” she says. “It’s historic, and in its completeness, it’s very rare. It would be wonderful to fill in the blanks.”

The exhibition at the Senator John Heinz History Center will open in September and continue through June 2017. And after that, the artworks will return “home,” to 13 different Pittsburgh Public Schools that will act as satellite galleries—each with its own curated collection. The next step, they hope, is for the schools to have student ambassadors who can learn more deeply about the collection and pass their knowledge on to other students.

Images of all the missing pieces are available on the Friends of Art Flickr page. Artwork or information leading to the return of it should be provided to Alison Oehler of Concept Art Gallery: (412) 242-9200 or [email protected]

Featured image: “Wilson’s BBQ” by William Phfal, courtesy of The Friends of Art.

Deanna Lee

Deanna earnestly covers all the people and events that make Pittsburgh the best place to raise a kid. When she's not writing, you might find her running the streets of the East End. cooking big meals in her tiny kitchen, and spending time with her family.