This Program Has Turned 6,000 Newborns into Art Collectors

In 2006, while working as an adjunct professor in Pittsburgh, photographer Matthew Conboy was surprised to learn that the majority of his students had never visited the city’s world-class art museums. “Pittsburgh has a wealth of art museums—the Carnegie, the Andy Warhol Museum, the Mattress Factory—and they weren’t taking advantage of these opportunities,” he recalls. Around the same time, with the Pittsburgh Steelers en route to the Super Bowl (they won), the city’s hospitals were gifting newborn babies yellow rally towels, lovingly known as Terrible Towels, the kind fans enthusiastically wave in the air during games. “I put that into the back of my head, thinking about this gift and thinking about my students, who probably had a closet full of these towels by the time they reached college,” Conboy says. In the years that followed, keeping the hospital gift in mind, he developed a project that would engage Pittsburgh residents in the city’s art scene while also supporting local artists and exposing their work to new audiences. The result, born January 1, 2015, is Start with Art, an initiative that gifts newborn babies a limited-edition photography print by a Pittsburgh artist.

“I’m using a model that hospitals already had—giving these gifts, whether it’s a Terrible Towel or diapers or baby food, to new mothers and fathers and their babies—and using art instead,” Conboy explains. He works with 12 local artists per year, devoting one month to each artist’s work. Each month, after running off some 275 to 350 prints at his studio (with a printer donated from Epson), he delivers them to three area hospitals: Midwife Center for Birth & Women’s Health, St. Clair Hospital, and UPMC Mercy. Conboy says the hospitals agreed from the get-go to bring on Start with Art. Over the past two years, he has delivered art to some 6,000 babies, essentially making them art collectors from day one.

Conboy’s dedication to a new generation of art lovers is matched by his commitment to Pittsburgh’s artists. “I was thinking about how difficult it is for artists to engage new audiences, and the one demographic that I figured out couldn’t say ‘no’ was babies,” he says. “They kind of have to take that gift.” While Conboy holds an MFA in photography, his own multidisciplinary approach led him to expand the scope of the project beyond just photographers. Other artists he has partnered with thus far include printmakers, embroiderers, and even a poet, each receiving a modest honorarium.

“I’ve been working with a mix between artists I was already familiar with and people whose work I respect but maybe didn’t know personally,” he says. Before any artist takes on the project and submits a photograph, Conboy meets with them one-on-one to discuss Start with Art and to ensure they will be fully invested. He also provides a small note of direction. “I tell them not to pander to the babies. I want these babies and the families to enjoy these works as much today as in 30 or 50 years,” he says. “It doesn’t need to be a duckling or a lamb, it doesn’t need to be in pastels. I want it to be a serious piece.”

As such, artists are granted freedom in style and subject matter for the work they contribute. “It ranges from landscapes to abstractions to extremely conceptual artworks,” Conboy explains, pointing to a print featured this December that portrays a sculpture created in the woods by Danny Bracken. Artists can choose to share an existing work or create something new, a decision that often inspires artists to venture beyond their existing practices. “Some enjoy going out and creating something entirely new, and that’s usually most common with people who aren’t already photographers,” he says, noting that some of the artists shot on film for the first time in these works. This past July, for instance, he worked with poet Jessica Server, who included a printout of one of her poems in her photograph.

While in the first year he focused on emerging artists in their mid- to late twenties, more recently Conboy has focused on more established names, like Martha Rial, the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, and Lori Hepner and Dylan Vitone, whose works are being sent to the moon by Carnegie Mellon University. “We’re getting ready for our third year and nobody’s said ‘no’ to me yet,” Conboys says.

And just as artists and hospitals have been eager to participate, benefactors have generously provided financial support. While he began with a $10,000 grant from Crusade for Art, an award geared toward audience engagement, he has since earned significant funding from the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, the Opportunity Fund, and the Heinz Endowments—all of which covers the cost of the 2017 program.

He has also had conversations with like-minded peers to expand the program beyond Pittsburgh. Friends in Baltimore from the Maryland Institute College of Art are applying for funding to start the program there, and Conboy was recently flown out to Wisconsin to meet with the director of the Rahr-West Art Museum, who is also interested in building a franchise of Start with Art. Conboy hopes to expand within Pittsburgh as well. “Last week I just met with another hospital in town that would double the number of babies,” he says. “I think this third year is where we can start about thinking about expansion on a larger scale.”

Conboy has already collected countless affecting anecdotes from families who received an artwork—testaments to the positive effect the project is having on the community. One Bhutanese family was touched by their print from Terry Boyd, which, by chance, pictured a rice plateau in Bhutan that the family recognized. After receiving a print by Kara Skylling, another family was inspired to buy a new work of art for their child every year. Conboy connected them with Skylling, and they ended up commissioning her to do a work for the baby’s first birthday.

While families have yet to target these three hospitals based solely on Start with Art, it wouldn’t be surprising if the art-savvy and expecting crowd soon caught on. Rather humorously, some families have been so enthused about the print they’re scheduled to receive that they’re disappointed when their baby comes late, into the next month, leading them to receive a different print instead.

Beyond affirming that there’s an audience for this type of project, Start with Art has reinforced Pittsburgh’s strong sense of community. One of Conboy’s favorite prints, he tells me, was a photogram by April Friges, who created 275 silver gelatin prints by hand in her darkroom. “To make that kind of commitment for these babies, and the time involved, it really meant a lot to me,” he says. This investment in community has become a source of inspiration for Conboy, and it is likely what’s attracting other cities to get involved as well. “Pittsburgh is still in many way like a small city,” Conboy says. “Everyone knows each other or knows people who know each other. I think that’s the exciting thing: It feels much more like a community exercise than just an artistic project.”

WFRV CBS Green Bay Interview

On Thursday, July 21st, Green Bay's CBS affiliate WFRV featured me on their Local Five Live! morning show. I was accompanied by Greg Vadney, the Executive Director of the Rahr-West Art Museum in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. In addition, the work of Jessica Server, Casey Droege, Sue Abramson, Foo Conner, and Jake Reinhart was shown on the program. The segment can be seen here.

Local Pittsburgh

Start with Art: Creating Brand-New Art Collectors in Pittsburgh

Launched by artist and Robert Morris professor Matthew Conboy in January of 2015, Start with Art gives every baby born at The Pittsburgh Midwife Center, St. Clair Hospital, and UPMC Mercy a photograph by a local artist.  John Lawson, a poet and professor of English at Robert Morris, has also written descriptions of each photograph.

In 2006, Matthew moved to Pittsburgh from Athens, Ohio, where he was working on a doctorate in interdisciplinary arts at Ohio University. He was familiar with Pittsburgh and had been coming here since 2001 to visit the Mattress Factory and see the exhibits at the Carnegie and Warhol Museums. When he began teaching courses in art at Robert Morris University, he was shocked to find that he had students who had never been to a museum or art gallery. It was then he realized that he wanted to find a way to reach people and change their perception of art and culture well before they got to college.

Matthew had heard that St. Clair Hospital was giving Terrible Towels to all of their newborn babies as a part of gift baskets that went home with mom and baby. He imagined how many Terrible Towels were distributed to newborns throughout Pittsburgh, and thought about how giving children the gift of art and enabling them to begin life as art collectors could be life-altering. He developed the idea for Start with Art in early 2014.

“I had this idea that if I was going to give away art, it would be to babies who could grow into it. I could also support emerging artists and give them an audience that was exponentially larger than any they had ever encountered before,” says Matthew.

In 2014 Atlanta-based nonprofit Crusade for Art awarded him their $10,000 inaugural Audience Engagement Grant. Start with Art has also received help from a Pennsylvania Partners in the Arts grant and assistance from the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council.

This July, Jessica Server, writer, poet and instructor at CAPA High School will be the featured artist and Start with Art will give their 5000th piece of art to a newborn baby.  Mayor Bill Peduto will also present Matthew with a proclamation at a Pittsburgh City Council meeting this summer.

“The thing that excites me the most about this project is that I am sharing my love of art with an entire generation of kids in Pittsburgh. From the moment they’re born, they will be collectors of art and photography and that is something that no one can take away from them.”

If you’d like to make a tax-deductible donation to Start with Art, you can do so through New Sun Rising.


Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Program delivers babies' 1st piece of art

Born at 3:07 a.m. Dec. 20, Lorenzo Michael Narr became an art collector the very next day. 

Through the Start With Art program, every baby born this year and in 2016 at St. Clair Hospital in Mt. Lebanon, the Midwife Center for Birth & Women's Health in the Strip District and UPMC Mercy in Uptown receives a photograph by a Pittsburgh-area artist or photographer. The program was developed by Matthew Conboy, who teaches media arts at Robert Morris University. 

“I like it. It's a neat thing to have, and we can keep it forever,” says Ali Narr, Lorenzo's mother, who along with husband Michael happily accepted the gift, a documentary image by Lawrenceville artist Ryan Lammie. 

Lammie's artwork is a compilation of images of shipping boxes, in which he received vintage radios purchased on eBay. Each of the radios will be coated with shards of mirrored glass, for an installation piece he's working on. 

“A lot of my work has to do with old structures or mechanisms that used to serve a very important purpose, and no longer serve that purpose but still exist,” Lammie says. “The radio is a particularly important object to me, because it symbolizes bringing the family together and it used to be the center of the world for people, who would gather around it to listen to the news, stories, etc. The way that technology has gone now, we are being torn apart, and we have all become very insular at this point.” 

Ali Narr is hopeful that, “in the future, (Lammie) might become very famous.” 

Michael Narr says they plan to display the photograph in their eclectically decorated home. 

“We do have a different sense of style,” he says. “Most people put up family pictures, but we are random. We have a zebra in our kitchen that's all different colors and in our living room a 7-foot cow, also hand-painted in different colors.” 

As for Lorenzo's future as an art collector, Ali Narr says, “He's got some time. We'll go to the museum, and all sorts of stuff, so you never know.” 

Conboy is hopeful both baby and artist have a bright future. 

“I have to admit, the first benefit that comes to mind is that I get to interact with and get to know these artists, many of whom I didn't know previously, on a professional and personal level,” Conboy says. 

Conboy says the two things that amazed him the most from this past year was when he asked the hospitals and selected artists if they would participate, “their answers all came back to me within minutes. Not hours, or days, or weeks. But minutes,” he says. “And not a single artist or hospital turned me down. I think that says a lot about both the artists and hospitals, and their willingness to shape the future of Pittsburgh.” 

The program includes artists like Lammie (featured artist for December), who runs Radiant Hall in Lawrenceville and a number of other studio spaces for artists as well as his personal work, or Jake Reinhart (featured artist for January 2016), who has a law degree from the University of Pittsburgh, works as a trust officer at PNC and is creating one of the more introspective and honest photographic depictions of Pittsburgh. 

And then there are artists such as Terry Boyd, Seth Clark and Ivette Spradlin, who have won awards from the Three Rivers Arts Festival, the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts and the Magenta Foundation, respectively. 

But Conboy says the most important benefit for him might not happen for 18 or 20 years. 

“This is when I could potentially be teaching these kids at a university,” he says. “I would love to ask one of my classes in the future who their favorite artist is and hear them mention one of the artists that I've curated. So, yes, the best benefit I could imagine is leaving a legacy of a generation of Pittsburghers who have owned a piece of art since their birth.” 

In 2006, Conboy moved to Pittsburgh from Athens, Ohio, where he was working on a doctorate in interdisciplinary arts at Ohio University. 

“I just graduated from the department in May, and my dissertation was a re-photographic survey of W. Eugene Smith's ‘Pittsburgh Project' that I used to look at changes in the cultural landscape of Pittsburgh,” he says. 

He started teaching courses in art at Robert Morris. 

“I was shocked that I had students who had never been to the Carnegie Museum of Art, let alone museums such as the Mattress Factory or venues such as Space Gallery or Future Tenant,” he says. “On several occasions, I offered to buy museum tickets for my students, who rarely accepted this offer. It was then that I realized I would have to reach these students before college if I was going to change their perception of art and culture.” 

Sometime later, Conboy was told that St. Clair Hospital gave Terrible Towels to all of their newborn babies as a part of a gift basket for mom and baby. “I imagined how many Terrible Towels were dispersed to newborns throughout Pittsburgh, and I thought how life-altering a piece of art could be if it was given on the day a baby was born,” he says. 

Conboy came up with the idea for Start With Art in early 2014. But it wasn't until Crusade for Art, an Atlanta-based nonprofit, awarded him their $10,000 inaugural Audience Engagement Grant later that summer that he finally had the means to pay the artists for their work and for the supplies. 

“For 2016, I am still finalizing funding, but I have received help from a Pennsylvania Partners in the Arts grant as well as assistance from the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council,” Conboy says. 

In addition to having chosen the 12 artists for 2016, Conboy says he is working on adding two other birthing centers, UPMC Magee-Womens in Oakland and West Penn Hospital in Bloomfield, to the rotation. 

There are a couple of different goals for Start With Art. First, Conboy would like to create a culture of collecting art in Pittsburgh. 

“I calculated how many babies will receive this gift of art once UPMC Magee-Womens and Allegheny West Penn join this program, and the number is absolutely astounding,” he says. “By the time these Start With Art babies would be in college, the number of prints distributed would actually exceed the current population of Pittsburgh. 

“To imagine more than 314,000 people who have been given the gift of art is almost unbelievable. But I think this shows the commitment that the city is willing to make when it comes to our future.” 

Secondly, Pittsburgh has such an incredible wealth of talented artists here that Conboy says he wanted a greater citywide recognition of their work. By participating in Start With Art, each of these artist gains almost 275 new art collectors each month — and that only includes the babies. 

“Hopefully, each baby has two parents, and when extended family, neighbors, and friends are included, the audience for these artists has increased exponentially,” Conboy says. “For these emerging artists to gain that much exposure each month is truly special.” 

Thanks to the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council and their Access Microfund, John Lawson, a poet and professor of English at Robert Morris, has written descriptions of each photograph. These descriptions can be found on the photographers page of the project website (


Dear Pittsburgh

Featured Artist Matthew Conboy

In April, I was fortunate to be interviewed by Joanna Kemp over at Dear Pittsburgh, a group whose aim is to support creative communities in Pittsburgh by facilitating social collaboration. If you click on the link above, you will have access to the full 45 minute podcast where they interviewed me. Below is an abbreviated version of the interview.


JK: We know you as a photographer and teaching artist who just received a PhD in Interdisciplinary Arts. You’ve spent time studying and working in Washington DC, Virginia, and Ohio, can you talk about what drew you to Pittsburgh?

MC: The reason I moved here was my partner received the first job offer out of graduate school at Ohio University. That was in 2006. But truthfully I have been coming to Pittsburgh since 2001 to visit the Mattress Factory. I would do day trips up here, maybe once every 2-3 months to see the exhibits at the Carnegie or the Warhol driving from Virginia so about 5 hours each way. But that’s really what sold us on Pittsburgh, and convinced us that this was the place to move to.

JK: The Museums?

MC: Yes, the cultural life. 


JK: Recently, you’ve been working on some exciting new projects in Pittsburgh, like Start with Art. This is a program that gives every baby born at The Pittsburgh Midwife Center, St. Clair Hospital, and UPMC Mercy in 2015 a photograph by a local artist. What inspired this project? Do you consider it an artistic endeavor or a community outreach program? And why do you think it’s important for every child to “begin life as an art collector”?

MC: I’ve thought about this a lot and when I share this with artists that I want to include in the group, or talk about this project, I still have a tough time giving a direct answer. Part of it begins with my own teaching experience, where I teach media arts at Robert Morris University. I have students that have never been to the Carnegie Museums let alone the Mattress Factory, or Space Gallery or Revision Space. And the idea of collecting art is a completely foreign concept to them. So i’ve had that bouncing around my mind for the past few years now. What really initiated the project was Jennifer Schwartz, who had a gallery in Atlanta, bought a VW minibus and drove around the country. She would stop in certain towns where she curated 5 photographers and they would give away their work, 5 prints. I went to her pop gallery in Cleveland and I saw how it was somewhat difficult for some very great artists to give away their work to engage an audience. That even offering to give a gift was met with … I’m trying to think of the word here. People are in their daily lives and they want to get from point A to Point B, and they don’t want to interact with someone else or that made them feel uncomfortable. So when Jennifer founded this non-profit called Crusade for Art, and started this $10,000 prize grant for audience engagement, I realized that it wasn’t just enough to give away art, that if I was going to succeed I would have to almost force it down someone’s throat. And that the only group or demographic that it would be possible to do that with, are babies because babies can’t say no.

JK: That’s true. Their parents can say no though right?

MC: They can, and it hasn't happened yet, thankfully. But I just had this idea that if I was going to give away art it would be to babies who could grow into it. I could support emerging artists, and give them an audience that was exponentially larger than any they have ever encountered before. Whether they were on Facebook, or have their own website, or even if they’d had a gallery show. The way I sold this to the artists I included was that you start off with one baby as a collector, hopefully that baby has two parents, those parents have family, an extended family, and friends and neighbors, and if that picture is hanging in their living room this entire audience, this gigantic audience, have become aware of their work, without them doing anything. But I give every artist an honorarium they sign and number every photograph, and I think so far we’ve created more than 1200 of the world’s youngest art collectors here in Pittsburgh through April. I’ve already got plans for 2016. I’ve already got artists for 2017. So I think it’s a project that can continue as long as I get the funding for it… I’m only going to be able to effect 3500 babies this year at these 3 hospitals, but those 3500 babies are going to live their entire lives with art. And that’s something that took me about 20-25 years before I actually bought my own piece of art. So to think that I could effect an entire generation of children in Pittsburgh, I don’t know of any other way I could have done that without engaging them in this way.

JK: So this is multifaceted in that, it’s an artistic endeavor for the artists that you’re featuring through the program, but it’s also that community outreach?

MC: I think that both are, maybe not equal in importance, but every print is 8 1/2 by 11 inches, so no one is prevented from framing it. Anyone can walk down to the dollar store, Target, Walmart, or the nicest frame gallery in Pittsburgh and have this framed on their wall. There is no socio-economic barrier to that. But it’s also for the artist to engage these new audiences and for the PR that’s appeared for some of them. So I see it as a service to both the artists, and then newborns and their families.

I think this really is a gift, it’s not diapers, it’s not a baby bottle, it’s not a terrible towel. It is this gift of art.


JK: Looking at your CV, you’ve shown work in galleries all over the country, including cities rich with contemporary art such as Los Angeles and Miami. Can you talk about some of the similarities and differences between showing your work in Pittsburgh vs these other cities?

MC: I think that Pittsburgh, in the 9-10 years that I have been here, continues to keep growing every single year with alternative spaces and non-profit spaces. Every time I go to the Carnegie, or the Warhol, or the Mattress Factory, I keep telling myself that this is the best show that they’ve had there… showing my work in other cities, it’s a very different sense of the art market. There’s an idea that… people would rather go to Chicago and buy someone’s art that lives in Pittsburgh, than buy it when it’s up at PCA [Pittsburgh Center for the Arts], Revision, or Space Gallery. It’s the fact that it’s in Pittsburgh they won’t buy it, but when it’s in Chicago it’s fine.

JK: ... we’re also thinking in terms of selling, so showing and selling your work. It is easier for you to sell your work here or in Chicago for example?

MC: Let’s talk about the money first. With the three odd years I spent on my MFA and the 9-10 years on and off years I spent on my PhD, I got very adept to writing grants. So I could write a grant for almost anything….I had made much more money from apply for grants, for opportunities than I have from selling work. Selling work on a small scale is easier than selling in an editioned work or a larger photograph. In relation to Pittsburgh, I think Pittsburgh is probably like a lot of cities in that if people are going to buy work here I think sometimes might be drawn to outside work. Work from artists outside of Pittsburgh rather than inside Pittsburgh, I don’t think it’s a matter of not supporting artists from Pittsburgh, but I think it has to do with that whole idea of the art market where someone is then validated by selling or showing outside of their hometown or home city. I think Pittsburgh Artists are very successful outside of Pittsburgh, and I know many that do well in New York, Chicago, or LA. And I don’t think that’s any slight on Pittsburgh collectors or Pittsburgh artists showing in Pittsburgh. I just think it has to do with that aspect of finding something new, and not something that you see several times over the year. Whether it’s at Unsmoked in Braddock, or Space Gallery, or one of the other galleries in town.

I think that there so many spaces and people competing for a finite group of people actually buy art, which is one of the reasons I started this Start with Art Project, of gifting art works to newborns. To instill in them that artwork is not a privilege, it's a right. That owning or buying artwork shouldn’t be a foreign concept to them. It should be a natural activity for them to want to have original artworks on their walls.

So I think when I have bought artwork in the past it's a relationship that you take on with this artist. and It might take a year or longer before you actually end up buying the work. Just being able to to realize that you might not get luck and sell something on opening or closing night, but just cultivating that relationship with collectors or your audience. 

[Flight School] told us, not to expect to make a living solely as an artist, that you’re going to need multiple streams of revenue coming in. I think that was a breath of fresh air for us, that there is this pressure, that if you want to be recognized as an artists, that’s the only way that you are supposed to be making money. I think realizing that whether it’s from teaching, or whether it’s from having rental property, that there is always going to be other money coming in. That doesn’t detract from the fact that you are still an artist… we[1]  aren’t any less of an artist just because we have to have another job. Thinking that way, Pittsburgh is unbelievable with its resources, with its depth of cultural opportunities, with its cost of living, this is probably one of the best places to be an artist today because you can live here, as you mentioned before, I can show in multiple cities, or have multiple shows in other cities, and still be here. And not have the pressure of having to work 60 hours a week to be able to support myself in New York.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Pittsburgh-area effort aims to foster love of art very early

Janice Crompton

Parents of babies born this year in three Pittsburgh-area hospitals will find something unique tucked among the booties, receiving blankets and other goodies in their new-family care packages.

“I think it’s a given that we’re a city of champions, but people forget we are a city of culture, too,” said Matthew Conboy, a Robert Morris University adjunct professor of photography who has embarked on an ambitious plan to distribute original works from local artists to newborns.

“I thought it would be an amazing thing to create the youngest art collectors right here in Pittsburgh.”

Mr. Conboy, of the North Side, was selected among hundreds of applicants to receive a $10,000 audience-engagement grant last year from Crusade for Art, a nonprofit based in Atlanta that is devoted to cultivating demand for art.

His winning idea, Start with Art, is a free program that aims to promote artists in the Pittsburgh region by creating a culture of collectors who are given signed prints from local artists.

Mr. Conboy selected 12 local artists — one for each month of the year — to create original photographic prints that he began giving to newborns at the start of the year at St. Clair Hospital in Mt. Lebanon, UPMC Mercy in Uptown and the Midwife Center for Birth & Women’s Health in the Strip District.

The art is free and the grant is being used to pay photographers an honorarium of $350 each, along with supplies such as ink, paper and plastic bags. Each 8 ½-by-11-inch photograph is signed and numbered.

Babies born in January received “Mist over the Ohio,” a photographic print of the Ohio River by artist Aaron Blum of West Virginia. Those born this month are receiving “The Blue Breasted Kingfisher” by artist Maria Mangano.

The first baby to receive a gift — and the first baby born in 2015 at St. Clair Hospital — was 8-pound, 1-ounce Eliana Bodo.

Eliana’s parents, Christina and Mark Bodo of Mt. Lebanon, coincidentally are avid supporters of the arts and strong believers in the power of creative thinking.

“I really see the importance of art for children,” said Mrs. Bodo, a second-grade teacher at South Park Elementary Center in the South Park School District. “I believe in the importance of exposing children to the arts — all creative arts. I do think it’s very important.”

Educators and scientists have long believed that visual arts may have an impact on learning and cognitive development in children.

Many also feel art is an important right-brain booster and have inspired a movement to alter STEM -- learning that emphasizes science, technology, engineering and math -- to STEAM, with the A standing for art.

“I thought it was a really great idea because we did so much with the sports teams in the city. It was great to give them a little culture with their sports,” said Linda McIntyre, head of the birthing center at St. Clair.

Mr. Conboy approached St. Clair Hospital because it is known for outfitting newborn infants in Steelers, Penguins or Pirates regalia during important games.

“I remember years ago hearing about St. Clair giving the Terrible Towel away to newborns,” Mr. Conboy said.

When he approached hospital officials about his idea, “They were just so open and excited; they wanted to start that very second,” he said.

The program this year expects to distribute about 1,400 pieces of artwork at St. Clair, more than 1,000 at UPMC Mercy, and about 450 at the Midwife Center for Birth & Women’s Health. 

“I was super excited. I thought the program sounded great,” said Rachel Dingfelder, development coordinator at the midwife center. “Everybody was just really excited about it. It’s a really thoughtful, touching program.”

All of the families presented with the artwork so far this year have agreed, Ms. McIntyre said.

“The patients have been very positive about it,” she said. “I think that it’s something different, not what you would routinely expect because it’s not baby-related. I think it’s important — it gives them an exposure to art and it might be their first exposure ever.”

Mrs. Bodo said she plans to frame the photograph and hang it in Eliana’s nursery. Later, she will add it to her treasure box, along with other keepsakes, such as Eliana’s hospital bracelet, footprints and the newspaper clipping of her birth announcement.

“I think it’s a shame that there’s been a decrease in the appreciation for art because everything is so accessible right now,” she said. “But this is authentic — that means something. It puts value to it. It has meaning.”

Eventually, Mr. Conboy hopes to include all of the babies born in Pittsburgh in his program.

“The idea is to treat 2015 as a soft opening,” he said. “If we could have all the hospitals in Pittsburgh, that would be wonderful.”

His ultimate goal would be to hear that his efforts made a difference.

“Hopefully, we’ll find out in 18 to 20 years from now whether it changed anything,” Mr. Conboy said. “When someone asks these kids who their favorite artist is and it’s one of these artists — that would make my year.”

Pop City

Start With Art Gives Pittsburgh Newborns A Baby Step Toward Culture

Emily Yarrison

Most adults could tell you where they acquired their first piece of art: a local shop, a tiny gallery in a seaside town in Italy, the IKEA clearance bin.
Not many people began their collections as children. 
Start With Art Pittsburgh is looking to change that. Matthew Conboy is the brains behind the project, which is sponsored by a $10,000 engagement grant from Crusade For Art. The idea? Send more than 3,500 newborn babies home with original, signed photographs from local artists.
Walking into Conboy’s North Side home, it’s easy to see his appreciation for art. Each room is lined with photos and prints. Art is even the reason they live in the North Side.
“I told my wife we could move to Pittsburgh if I was within walking distance of the Mattress Factory,” he laughs.  
The inspiration behind this project came from two places. Conboy, a board member at the Mattress Factory, is also a professor of photography at Robert Morris University and Point Park University. He was alarmed to discover in speaking with his students that, despite having grown up in a city with incredible places like the Carnegie Museum of Art and The Andy Warhol Museum, many had never set foot inside an art museum. He found this disheartening but was unsure how to tackle the problem. 
Then he recalled St. Clair Hospital’s 2011 gimmick that made national news: giving parents their newborns swaddled in Terrible Towels.  
“I thought it was a cute idea! But how many Terrible Towels will a Pittsburgh kid have by the time they’re seven or eight? I thought we could give them something they may be able to hold onto for a lifetime.” 
That’s when his work began. The $10,000 grant he won from Crusade for Art -- an Atlanta-based nonprofit committed to building audiences for photography -- was the first step. Crusade for Art funds engagement grants like Conboy’s annually, giving to projects that align with their mission. In 2013, Creator Jennifer Schwartz embarked on a journey called “Crusade For Collecting,” driving around the country in a VW bus and holding pop-up events to give away original photographs from local artists. Conboy followed Schwartz’s quest, hoping the organization would support his own idea. They did, and in summer of 2014 he began to recruit artists for the cause.
Conboy chose 12 artists, one for each month of the year. They are mostly photographers, but Conboy did not discriminate by medium. 
“I chose artists whose style I liked and whom I thought could translate that into photography.” For example, February’s artist is the Mattress Factory’s Maria Mangano, who attended Carnegie Mellon University and has exhibited her art regionally. She is mostly known for her print work and drawings -- of dead birds.
“I liked her aesthetic, though, and I really wanted to include her,” Conboy said.
The result is a beautiful capture of a majestic (and very much alive) blue-breasted kingfisher, which will be distributed to all the babies born at UPMC Mercy, St. Clair Hospital, and The Midwife Center for Birth & Women’s Health in February.
Another featured artist is Ryan Lammie, executive director of Radiant Hall, a studio in Lawrenceville. Lammie is a Pittsburgh-born, New York City-educated sculptural painter, who uses mostly found objects and industrial materials. Conboy was drawn to Lammie’s complete immersion in the Pittsburgh art scene.
“He is doing great work with local artists,” Conboy said. “He’s constantly creating, curating, and showing.” 
We’ll have to wait until December to see Lammie’s work, however. Even Conboy is still waiting to see some of the art that will be presented to the tots. “Our June artist is planning a trip to Bhutan and would like to include an image from there.”
Conboy has a lot of hopes for the future of the project.
“The grant only covers 2015, so right now I’m looking for other funding opportunities,” he said. “I already have a list of artists for 2016! In the future, I’d love to see it maybe turned into a calendar, or have an exhibition at City Hall. I’d like to prove this project is scalable. I would love if people in other cities used this idea!”
He also hopes that Start With Art’s popularity will mean that, eventually, hospitals will be the ones calling him to be included.   
“Mostly, I want this to be zero-sum with no profit. We are providing art as a gift.”
So what will be the result of Start With Art Pittsburgh? Will it be a new generation of kids who can think critically about art?
“In 20 years we’ll be able to see how it affects kids who have a head start with art,” Conboy says. 
For now, it’s a great opportunity for Pittsburgh artists to get exposure and gain a following, albeit one that can’t walk yet.

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

New Project at St. Clair Hospital sends newborns home with art

David Mayernik Jr.

Joshua and Danielle Karlovich welcomed their third child, Michael Eli, at St. Clair Hospital on Jan. 21.

They went home to Canonsburg with him and a photograph, “Mist Over the Ohio,” as part of the hospital's new Start with Art program. Joshua Karlovich said the photo — depicting a haze over the Ohio River — brought some peace to a stressful but joy-filled time.

“I know whenever you're having a baby, it can be a very dramatic time sometimes, but I thought it was really peaceful. We're going to see if we can frame it and put it up in his room.”

Michael is one of 67 babies born so far this year to receive original works of art in the program initiated by Matthew Conboy, who teaches media arts at Robert Morris University.

Last fall, he bested about 160 entries to secure a $10,000 grant from Crusade for Art to build audiences for photography. This year, every baby born at St. Clair Hospital in Mt. Lebanon, The Midwife Center for Birth & Women's Health in the Strip District and UPMC Mercy in Uptown will receive a photograph.

Conboy, 37, from Washington, D.C., said the idea to give away art came from two sources.

He was inspired by St. Clair's tradition of sending babies home with a Terrible Towel and by stories about Jennifer Schwartz, creator/director of the Atlanta-based nonprofit Crusade for Art, which aims to introduce people to art.

“I want to make sure these babies born this year kind of get a 20-year head start on collecting art,” he said.

He met with St. Clair Hospital officials in early January to pitch his project.

“It literally took five minutes and two emails to come to an agreement on the project,” he said. “It was probably one of the most amazing things I've ever seen because there was no talking bureaucracy, no questions asked.”

Linda McIntyre, director of St. Clair's Family Birth Center, said Conboy brought photos with him and the hospital started giving them out the same day.

“We obviously thought it was a great idea. It fits in with our philosophy of treating our newborns and families with respect and dignity and doing that with a little bit of fun from the very beginning of their lives.”

Conboy expects 3,500 newborns to go home from the hospitals with photographs this year. About 1,300 are born each year at St. Clair Hospital.

Each month is assigned to a local artist who will create an original work that will be gifted to newborns and their families.

January's photograph is by Aaron Blum, who originally is from West Virginia. His photo, “Mist Over the Ohio,” reflects his exploration of what it means to be Appalachian.

Conboy hand-delivered prints to families at St. Clair Hospital last month.

“They were just so happy to have something for the baby's wall when they go home,” he said.

McIntyre said she hopes the program is an extension of the hospital's many wellness program and hopes it can kickstart an appreciation of the “finer things in life” from the beginning.


The Almanac

St. Clair Hospital newborns start with art

David Singer

Matthew Conboy believes children aren’t getting enough exposure to fine art, so he has reached out to three regional hospitals to provide parents and their newborns the work of professional photographers and artists through 2015.

“Mr. Conboy saw our Steelers and Pirates babies all decked out and thought it would offer a similar opportunity to expose some fine art to a very new audience as well,” said Linda McIntyre, women and children’s services director at the hospital.

“I teach at Robert Morris and Point Park, and I have students telling me they’ve never been to a museum. It’s a foreign concept to them,” said Conboy, a photographer and educator.

Conboy was awarded a $10,000 grant from Crusade for Art to underwrite an educational program, so he pitched to St. Clair Hospital – along with UPMC Mercy and The Midwife Center for Birth & Women’s Health – the “Start with Art” program.

The pieces are provided by six photographers and six artists, each specializing in a style or method.

“February’s piece is a photograph called Mist over the Ohio, a color photo of the river with some low-hanging mist over it,” McIntyre said.

“The pieces will change month to month,” Conboy said, “for instance, February’s will be of a beautiful bird. Then later on in the year you’ll see some abstract art and city landscapes.”

Conboy hopes the art pieces will inspire children, perhaps not as early as toddlers, but later as mementos their parents can remind them about.

“With the museum story, we’re in a region so rich with culture, history and art, it’s important to me to get these students a head start in that regard. By going home with a piece of art, they have a 25-year head start on me – that’s when I bought my first piece of art – and I’m an artist,” he said.

“We would like feedback as well. And on social media. So if parents could reach back on Twitter or Facebook with the hashtag #startwithartpgh, it helps us track what pieces were received well and how to further improve this program.”

For more information, visit

NEXT Pittsburgh

Start with Art: PGH giving original art to area newborns

Deanna Lee

Every year, thousands of parents walk out of Pittsburgh hospitals with their newborn babies. Many are anxious. Most are sleep deprived. And they’re all armed with diapers, blankets, instructions, and plenty to worry about.

This year, some of these parents will leave with something else, something unexpected: their baby’s first original work of art.

Matthew Conboy, an artist and professor of media arts at Robert Morris University, is responsible for helping the babies born this year at St. Clair Hospital, UPMC Mercy and The Pittsburgh Midwife Center become the world’s youngest art collectors.

His project is entitled Start With Art: PGH, and its funding was secured thanks to a $10,000 grant from the nonprofit organization, Crusade for Art. The grant is awarded annually to “unique, approachable programs that bring new audiences to photography” and this audience is about as new as it gets.

After winning the grant for his unique vision, Matthew selected 12 artists—one for each month—to contribute to the project. Every day in 2015, the “goodie bags” that are sent home with parents and their newborns will include an original photograph from that month’s artist. The photographs are printed small enough so that they’re easy to frame, hang on the refrigerator or place in a baby book.

The art is definitely kid-appropriate, says Matthew, but “it’s not just blue, or pink, or primary colors. We are working with renowned artists, so we thought it was important to give the babies something that represents their work.”

The photographs are indeed diverse—from landscapes and portraits to more conceptual and abstract works.

So, why exactly does a baby need art? “It’s about opening new eyes up to what art can do,” says Matthew. “The value of it is looking at our surroundings, our lives and our beliefs from a different perspective. I think we all need to do that, and why not start as soon as possible?”

Start With Art: PGH is free to both the hospitals and the families who receive the photographs. Looking toward the future, Matthew’s goal is to secure more funding from local foundations, so he can help all Pittsburgh babies get their art collection started right away.

For more information on the project, as well as a full list of the 2015 artists, visit

Photo District News

New $10K Grant Will Send Newborn Babies Home From Hospital As Photo Collectors
September 15, 2014

A new $10,000 grant to support programs that engage new audiences with photography has been awarded to Pittsburgh photographer Matthew Conboy. The photographer won the grant, which was established by the non-profit Crusade for Art, for a proposal to send newborn babies at West Penn Hospital in Pittsburgh home with signed prints from local photographers.

Conboy took his inspiration for the project from a program created by a local hospital. There, they send each newborn home with a “Terrible Towel,” the yellow towel waved by fans at Pittsburgh Steelers NFL football games.

“While I am a proud Steelers Fan, I believe that babies could be sent home with something else that could change their lives and the lives of those around them: art,” Conboy wrote in his proposal.

The jury that awarded Conboy the grant included Museum of Contemporary Photography curator Karen Irvine, Colorado Photographic Arts Center executive director Rupert Jenkins, and New Yorker photo director Whitney Johnson.

Irvine and Crusade For Art executive director Jennifer Schwartz hailed the creativity of Conboy’s idea in a press release announcing the award. “We are excited to award this grant to someone whose idea feels completely original and unique,” Irvine said.

Conboy chose 12 local photographers—including himself—to participate in the program. Their work represents a broad spectrum of photographic interests. The program will run for one year, and Conboy estimates the group of artists will send 3500 newborn babies home with an original artwork. He also hopes to expand the project to include other hospitals in the region “and beyond,” he says.