An art-lover's guide to Pittsburgh

Pennsylvania’s Steel City is a thriving hub of creativity, home to some of the best contemporary art in the country. From giants of pop culture to electromagnetic installations, here’s what not to miss.

Self-portrait of the artist on display at The Andy Warhol Museum.

Photograph by Alamy
By Chris Leadbeater
Published 23 Feb 2023, 11:00 GMT

It’s unlikely Pittsburgh will ever shed its image as one of the industrial hubs of the Northeast, and nor will it wish to; its American football team is, after all, the Steelers. And yet, for all its backstory in rust and metal, Pennsylvania’s second-largest city is a place of beauty and culture. The former is supplied by its location, at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, and the latter is shaped by an art scene that has mushroomed in the last decade, taking in daring murals and clever young painters — while recalling earlier greats in a raft of must-visit museums. Here’s how to get a handle on it all.

For all the years spent in New York, Andy Warhol will always be a Pittsburgh boy, born here in 1928. His career is celebrated at the museum that bears his name; a behemoth of an institution which, in its seven floors and 17 galleries, is the largest museum in North America devoted to a single artist. There is a wealth of material here: those iconic silkscreen prints of Marilyn Monroe, Mick Jagger, Jackie Kennedy; his immortalisation of the Campbell’s soup can; 472 ‘screen test’ video close-ups of the likes of Bob Dylan and Lou Reed, and over 1,000 photos. There are letters, diaries and personal effects, too, which show the man as well as the maverick.

2. Carnegie Museum of Art
Warhol’s roots are still visible at this Pittsburgh institution, where he spent boyhood Saturdays sketching the wonders on the walls. In some ways, little has changed; the museum is still a temple to contemporary painting, founded as a gift to the city by the industrialist-philanthropist Andrew Carnegie in 1895. But its collection is more than a procession of oil on canvas. Admire conceptual photography by the likes of Ellen Carey or Nona Faustine or classic US landscapes by Winslow Homer.

3. Mattress Factory
Inevitably, Pittsburgh’s industrial past seeps into its visions of the future. Out in the Central Northside, above both rivers, the Mattress Factory does as its name suggests — making use of a brick warehouse where good nights’ sleeps were once manufactured. The dreams are more unsettling now — Repetitive Vision, a cluster of mannequins set in a hall of mirrors by Japanese boundary-pusher Yayoi Kusama; It’s All About ME, Not You, the haunting doll’s house with which American Greer Lankton detailed her war with anorexia — but the high ceilings and long rooms give each exhibit the space to breathe.

4. Strip District and Lawrenceville
Some of Pittsburgh’s most intriguing work is found outside, not least in this neighbourhood along the south bank of the Allegheny, north-east of downtown. Its main drag, Penn Avenue, is awash with bright scenes, including the Strip Wall Mural, a giant, multicoloured opus crafted in 2010 by visionaries Shannon Pultz and Carley Parrish, and covers the entire side of a building. It captures the vibrancy of the area around it, with its depictions of bars, markets and restaurants. Head to Lawrenceville, the district immediately to the northeast, to take in the striking murals along busy Butler Street.

5. Cultural District
Of course, there’s plenty of art which goes beyond paint, such as Cell Phone Disco, a dash of ingenuity at 250 Tito Way in Downtown’s Cultural District. Receive a phone call while standing in this spot and the electromagnetic connection will trigger a giant digital screen of over 2,000 LED lights nearby, which flicker in time to your conversation.

Mia Tarducci.

Mia Tarducci.

Photograph by Monmade

Like a local: Mia Tarducci on her favourite art stops

Mia Tarducci is an artist who specialises in abstract painting, she has lived in Pittsburgh since 1998.

Ten years ago, there was a real boom in the scene here, as Pittsburghers started looking at local artists with new eyes. Museum Lab, on the Northside, has one of the largest collections of work by Pittsburgh-based artists, and offers interactive activities for all ages. If you want to learn more about the local scene, Zynka is a gallery in Sharpsburg that gives voice to contemporary artists working here, or head to Scratch & Co in Troy Hill for great Mediterranean food and art exhibitions that go far beyond typical restaurant art.

Published in the US Cities guide, distributed with the March 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK) 

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