Artists Bridging Social Distance in the Public Realm Initiative

The Office of Public Art launched the Artists Bridging Social Distance in the Public Realm initiative (ABSD) in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This program supports artists at a time of critical need, when social distancing is causing widespread isolation and creative projects have been canceled or indefinitely postponed.

Two rounds of support for artists have been announced, with another one anticipated in Summer-Fall 2021. Both rounds support projects that promote social connection while also following guidelines for public health and safety. Submissions for projects in all media and disciplines (including digital, analog, and event-based) were sought but proposed projects had to be widely shareable, whether through digital and virtual platforms or other means. After selection, OPA worked closely with the selected artists in each round, assisting with project development, implementation strategies, and outreach plans.

In the face of containment measures that restrict gatherings in the public realm, these projects bridge social distance, increase community well- being, and provide avenues for intellectual and emotional engagement.

Round One: Black Dream Escape, Deb Monti, Sculpture Support System

The first round was launched on March 30, 2020, just two days prior to Governor Wolf’s announcement of stay-at-home orders for the State of Pennsylvania. In May 2020, a group of independent, Pittsburgh-based arts professionals selected Black Dream Escape, Deb Monti, and Sculpture Support System for the three commissions. The artist projects were launched in June 2020 and continued to unfold over the summer.

Round Two: Naomi Chambers, Lena Chen, Jessica Gaynelle Moss

In October 2020, OPA launched the second round of the initiative. In response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the second round specifically supports artists who identify as Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). The disproportionate illness and death rates of Black and brown community members due to COVID-19, the continued and traumatic murder of Black people through police brutality, and waves of xenophobia against people of Asian American descent have only intensified the need to amplify the voices of artists from these communities and more.

Artists Naomi Chambers, Lena Chen, and Jessica Gaynelle Moss were selected by an independent panel of Pittsburgh-based BIPOC arts professionals and community members for three commissions. These projects respond to the current state of the crisis and propose new approaches to bridging social distance in the community(ies) with which the artists identify. The artists projects will launch in the spring and summer of 2021 and continue to unfold in the following months.

The arts and the creative practices of artists are some of our most powerful tools in addressing the vast needs that have been exposed by the pandemic and highlighted by civil rights protests around the world. When faced with earth-shifting events such as these, art can build community and increase social connection.

Project Funding

The first round of ABSD was made possible by OPA through earned income revenue, utilizing money earned from our public programs and technical assistance projects to directly pay artists. Subsequent rounds of ABSD are made possible through the Investing in Professional Artists program of The Pittsburgh Foundation, The Heinz Endowments, and Opportunity Fund. A total of four rounds of artist projects will be commissioned.

Image credits

Top to bottom, left to right:
(1) Artist Deb Monti, photo courtesy artist; (2) Visitor to The Quarantine Companion, photo courtesy artist; (3) Black Dream Escape artwork courtesy artist; (4) Self-portrait of artist Jessica Moss for Dear Mama, photo courtesy artist


Black Rest ThoughtPathways by Black Dream Escape

An online video series dedicated to Black and Indigenous rest practices, each 30-40-minute session was uploaded to YouTube every Wednesday over the course of June 2020.

Screenprint of two people embracing

One Last Thing by Deb Monti

This correspondence-based public art project was aimed at giving Pittsburgh area residents the opportunity to share, via postcard, the one thing they regret not saying or doing for a loved one before the Covid-19 crisis.

Candy dispenser on the sidewalk

The Quarantine Companion by Sculpture Support System

When the quarantine began, an artist team led by Sharon Massey and Sean Derry began distributing “kits” consisting of needle, thread, googly eyes and instructions for how people could create their own companions using leftover fabric and other scraps.

Headshot of Naomi Chambers photo courtesy of the artist

HerShe by Naomi Chambers

A live online showcase and sale of artwork by Black Pittsburgh artists that builds relationships with new patrons and fosters connections within the arts community.

Journey of the Hungry Ghost by Lena Chen

This participatory, site-specific Chinese cultural ritual honors Chinese ancestors and celebrates early Chinese migrants to the Pittsburgh region.

Dear Mama by Jessica Gaynelle Moss

Through the intimate act of letter writing between Black mothers across the United States, this project celebrates Black motherhood, nurtures connection, and encourages rest and self care.