Dan Onorato may or may not be a regular at art soirees, but as of this week, he has become a prominent defender of public art.
The Allegheny County executive ordered a halt to the removal of artwork from county-controlled facilities pending a case-by-case review. The moratorium will remain in place until a committee is formed to weigh a work's artistic merit versus the commercial interest in a particular space.
Mr. Onorato's action was prompted by the desire of the county airport authority to remove an iconic work of art from an interior wall at Pittsburgh International Airport.
Airport officials wanted to replace with an advertisement Peter Calaboyias' 78-foot-long, 8-foot-high "Silver Grid Wall," which has hung above the main escalator in the Airside Building since 1992. Siemens had agreed to lease the spot from the authority for $360,000 a year, an irresistible sum in an era of shrinking budgets.
Fortunately, Mr. Onorato understands that there is more at stake than an infusion of quick cash. When the public's interest in maintaining a respectful forum for art comes into conflict with more commercial considerations, money shouldn't be the final word.
Mr. Onorato's insistence that all questions about the removal of public art come before a committee of experts is a good one. Pittsburgh's airport is held in high esteem around the country, and how it handles space and art is key to keeping its crowd-pleasing image. A committee that understands this is likely to maintain the values that make the community aesthetically attractive and intellectually adventurous.
Those who would replace art with advertising in public spaces should have a higher hurdle to clear, especially when the art is integral to the overall design of a space, as it has been at the airport. While advertising may be easier to accommodate, a work of art says more about us as a community than a billboard. Let's keep it that way.
First published on February 20, 2009