Renee Piechocki leading a public art tour with BikePGH. Photo credit: BikePGH
Public art is a diverse field that requires varied approaches and perspectives.
It is rare to find someone in the field that embodies the breadth of knowledge and expertise of the complicated public art field.
That's where Renee Piechocki shines.
Renee wears many hats. She is an artist, public art manager, consultant and former studio manager for Vito Acconci.
Renee attributes her current success to her many roles over the years. “I can see a project from many different points of view—artist, administrator, owner, visitor."
She recently ended her 13-year tenure as Founding Director of Pittsburgh’s Office of Public Art where she fostered significant opportunities for artists and community-driven art projects.
Janet Sarbaugh, Senior Program Officer at The Heinz Endowments said, “Renee Piechocki has forever changed the way Pittsburgh thinks about the connections between artists, public spaces and neighborhoods.”
The list of public art accomplishments in Pittsburgh during Renee’s tenure is long and impressive. She led the development of the Pittsburgh Artist Registry, crafted multiple editions of the Pittsburgh Art in Public Places Downtown walking tour book, and helped secure a $200,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts for The Office of Public Art to further a public realm initiative which paired artists with organizations that serve immigrant communities.
And, Renee is the 2018 Public Art Network (PAN) Award recipient. The Americans for the Arts award celebrates her leadership excellence in the public art field.
Renee also has her own art practice. She is part of Two Girls Working, a collaboration with Tiffany Ludwig. Their multimedia project Trappings was part public art installation, traveling exhibition, and a book, Trappings: Stories of Women, Power and Clothing.
Now, at the start of her two self-proclaimed gap years in which she is working on her own creative projects, Renee took the time to share some of the lessons she has learned after 24 years in the public art field.
There are actually very few people (less than two-thousand) who work in public art management in the United States. How and why did you enter the public art field?
I studied Studio Art at Hunter College and was lucky enough to be a part of the Public Services Scholar Program. The program set the stage for my career in public art since it exposed me to a broad range of critical issues in our society.
I never saw myself working in a gallery or museum environment. It wasn't a good fit for me, even though I love visiting those places.
During my fellowship, I learned from Tom that one of the key roles of a public art manager is to support artists and help them make their best work. We also help facilitate what is a very complicated process and bring out the creativity in a room of people that may not see themselves as creative. It is our job to solve problems creatively.
Renee Piechocki with Jennifer McGregor and Meg Thompson working on a public art plan for Laramie, WY
What is public art to you?
Public art is any opportunity that an artist has to engage with the public realm. It can be anything from a sculpture in a public plaza to Jon Rubin and Dawn Weleski's Conflict Kitchen. It is about artists making a conscious effort to engage and collaborate in the public realm.
I love how broad the field is.
What’s one of your favorite public art projects?
There’s a lot. I can’t choose a favorite amongst my children.
OK, let’s rephrase, why do you continue to work in the public art field after 24 years?
The public art field burns people out, but I can’t seem to get enough.
It is really exciting to feel like you are a part of positive change in a place. I love that.
At a time when some cities and suburbs are becoming more homogenous and high-end luxury real estate is becoming the norm across the country with no street vibe, how do you counterbalance that? For me it's working in public art.
The public art field is made up of meaningful partnerships and relationships. It’s an opportunity to truly collaborate with a wide range of people in a the decision-making process about what a site should be like. That's what keeps me wanting to keep working in the public realm.
For instance, I love Janet Zweig’s work 7:11AM 11.20.1979 79°55'W 40°27'N in Pittsburgh. That project team was one of the most successful collaborations I have worked on. Every person was dedicated to making a magical space and a meaningful project. It’s a commemorative project, but the people that visit don’t need to know the history of the person who inspired it in order to appreciate the beauty of the place.
Janet Zweig’s 7:11AM 11.20.1979 79°55'W 40°27'N Photo Credit: Joe Seamans
What advice would you give to an emerging public artist?
Keep applying. Don’t get distracted by the rejections. Hundreds and hundreds of people apply to a project.
I’ve served on countless selection panels. We reject many incredible artists at every panel. There is a good chance that the panel believes the work is great, but it is not the best fit for a particular project.
If you’re thin-skinned and sensitive to rejection and feedback, you will not be prepared for a career in public art. You need to develop a love of hearing feedback about your project from people who do not have any knowledge of art, but they are experts in their communities.
Make your own opportunities. Tiffany Ludwig and I self-funded Two Girls Working in the beginning of the project. We did not wait for a grant to get started.
Just make sure you’re picking a project within a scale you can afford whether that be time or financially. There’s a lot of touch points for artists once you walk out the door of your studio.
Don’t be afraid to engage with a community and start a project yourself.
What recommendation would you give to artists trying to stand out in an RFQ?
First, follow the instructions. If an RFQ says don’t come up with an idea, then don’t propose an idea. At the Office of Public Art our policy was that if an artist pitched an idea in an RFQ, we blacked it out so the panel could not see it. In an RFQ, you are not looking for projects developed in isolation. You are looking for artists to come up with an idea in the context of the project and with the community.
And, if you pitch an idea it says “I don’t follow instructions” and “I didn’t engage with nor think of the community.” That makes you stick out, but NOT in a good way.
What do people often forget to include in a public art plan that you find essential?
People often forget to leave room for change. You want to plan for your own obsolescence. Remember that one community at one specific time shouldn’t have the final word about every single public space. It’s wise to build in opportunities for desired change.
Questions to ask are: What can be changed? How can you grow? Are you going to continue to take care of the work? Don’t fake it! Be earnest in considering a new forum for the community.
I look at the current national discussions of monuments and memorials through this lens. The group that initially erected the monuments said, “this person and that event are meaningful,” but their decision should not necessarily be the artwork that we live with for future millennia. Communities and perspectives change. Let’s embrace our evolution.
Am Art Bike Tour led by Renee. Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Office of Public
You’ve created multiple editions of the Public Art Walking Tour Book for Pittsburgh. What advice would you give to public art administrators creating a tour and other programming for their collection?
I was spoiled in Pittsburgh. I had the resources to publish a beautifully designed book. The most important thing is to come up with engagement tools or strategies that will inspire curiosity in the art in your community.
You don’t have to go big if you don’t have the financial or staff resources. You don’t have to make a book or a mobile app. Find other ways to share art in public places with residents and visitors. You can do something once a year and partner with other organizations to lessen the workload and reach out to broader audiences.
One strategy is to be the “public art part” of events that are already going on in your community. You can create a tour that builds off of other peoples’ programming. Here is a list of the Office of Public Art’s past events.
For example, Pittsburgh already has an event called Bike Week organized by a great nonprofit called Bike Pittsburgh. We did a public art bike tour during that week. Bike Week promoted it and 75 people showed up.
Pittsburgh also has a Gallery Crawl four times a year organized by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. We organized a public art scavenger hunt during the Gallery Crawl. We photocopied a list of things to go see; people would check off the works and come back and get candy. That’s it! A lot more people participated in that than we expected. It was a popular activity.
Another idea is to invite artists in your own community to lead tours. If you have anxiety about what content would be for a tour, then invite artists to talk about their work and the other work in the community. Of course, you should give the artist and all of your guest speakers an honorarium.
Do something that works in your community. Be flexible. Don’t think you have to put on a wedding; it can just be a date.
Tell me about the Artist Residencies in the Public Realm program you helped to establish.
I’ve been thinking about Artist Residencies in the Public Realm for a long time—since 2000. For example, I attended a meeting with Rick Lowe when he received a Heinz award in Pittsburgh. One of the other guests asked him if he would do Project Row Houses in Pittsburgh and he said, “No you have to come up with your own Project Row Houses.” That stayed with me.
The program I set up in Pittsburgh does not have a Percent for Art allocation. We have to come up with other ways to engage artists in the public realm. We have to be nimble and responsive to Pittsburgh’s needs.
Knowing that we didn’t have an existing funding source and that we had to raise money, I created a pilot. We studied methods on how to connect artists with communities and we wrote a resource guide, Artist Residencies in the Public Realm: A Resource Guide for Creating Residencies and Fostering Successful Collaborations.
The system we came up with is a two-year program. In the first year, the artist is paid a substantial stipend to get to know the entity. They develop community engagement strategies to get to know people in a creative way. The artist is not supposed to come up with an idea until about the end of the first year. The second year is all about implementation of a creative project. We don’t let the artist submit a project until at least 8 months into the process because a project changes based on how much time you have with a community and the community’s needs.
Edith Abeyta was our first resident. Her project, Arts Excursions Unlimited, started four years ago at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh - Hazelwood, and she is still an artist in residence at the library.
The Residencies continue today. We received an Our Town grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and it funded four artist residencies that connect artists with organizations that serve refugees and immigrants in Pittsburgh. We organized a call for organizations to participate. After the organizations are selected, we work together to select the artists. It’s open to visual, literary and performing artists. The application is very clear that the artists and organizations cannot have a preconceived idea since the purpose is to collaborate together and come up with an idea for a creative project.
Route 28 Public Art Site Visit with Sallyann Kluz (new Office of Public Art Director) and Greg Cerminara, Michael Baker. Artwork "Behind Every Wall" by Laurie Lundquist in the background.
The legacy continues
In Tom Finkelpearl’s book What We Made: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation, he establishes that there are two ways that artists engage with communities. First, people participate in a platform that the artist makes, like Paul Ramírez’s Key to the City and Two Girls Working’s Trappings. The other way is for artists and communities to make the platform or creative project together, and they don’t know what it is until they create it.
And that’s the legacy that Renee will leave in Pittsburgh—a career in which she nurtured collaborations between artists and Pittsburgh communities to create meaningful, impactful and delightful works in the city for all types of audiences to enjoy.
Learn more about ways that public artists and administrators are shaking the status quo within public art in Public Art Trends: Old Materials in New Ways.