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 (startwithartpgh.org).