Heinz College and Pittsburgh Steel the Spotlight
By Michael Cunningham
The arts and entertainment sector plays a huge role in driving Pittsburgh’s current economic vitality, accounting for nearly $1.2 billion in annual total economic impact on Allegheny County.
In the 1940s, Pittsburgh’s steel mills created billows of smoke so thick that the city’s downtown streetlamps shone bright throughout the day.
Today, darkness only descends upon Pittsburgh at night, which is the busiest time for performers and patrons in the city’s bustling cultural district. And the brightest lights downtown belong to the marquee of the Benedum Center – a 2,800-seat theater that has hosted cultural luminaries ranging from Bowie to Baryshnikov.
For a city built upon the steel industry and transformed by internationally renowned academic institutions and health care facilities, it is the arts and entertainment industry that often flies under the radar as a pillar of Pittsburgh’s economy, as well as one of its biggest strengths. Through both the nonprofit and private sectors, Pittsburgh’s arts industry creates thousands of jobs each year, attracts creative professionals to the region, and vastly improves the quality of life for Pittsburgh’s citizens, helping the city to consistently rank at or near the top of lists of “America’s Most Livable Cities.”
And as the local arts and entertainment industry helps to drive Pittsburgh’s economic growth, Carnegie Mellon University drives the growth of the local arts and entertainment industry in-turn. At Carnegie Mellon, Master of Arts Management (MAM) students participate in high-level internships and apprenticeships at arts organizations large and small, taking ownership of projects in areas ranging from artist relations and marketing to development and accessibility. And for many students, their contribution to the Pittsburgh arts and entertainment sector continues after graduation. More than 100 MAM alumni are currently impacting Pittsburgh’s arts and entertainment industry as emerging professional arts leaders.
“This is such a great place where you can make a living as an artist,” said Kathryn Heidemann, assistant dean of Arts & Entertainment Management at Carnegie Mellon and an Art Commissioner to the City of Pittsburgh. “It is very much an artist’s community alongside an arts organization community, and they intermingle very well here. We have a surplus of space. So many wonderful old factories have been turned into artist working spaces of some kind. Most of the artists that choose to live here can forge really great relationships, not only with other arts organizations, but also with the business community.
“I haven’t seen that anywhere else. I’ve lived in New York City, Chicago, Detroit, South America, Europe, and Australia, and here in Pittsburgh I have really experienced a vibrant marriage of the different sides of the arts spectrum coming together.”
Grounded in Creative Collaboration
One of the reasons that Pittsburgh has evolved into such an artist-friendly city over the last 20 years is the unique partnership between its arts organizations, the local government, and regional foundations. In a recent study, Pittsburgh ranked second out of 11 U.S. metro areas in per capita funding for the arts from both government and foundation sources.
“For the arts and culture sector to have economic impact, it needs to be strong in the first place,” said David Pankratz, research and policy director of the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, an organization that provides a range of professional development, communications, accessibility, and advocacy programs for arts and cultural organizations in the region, as well as the Audience Builder Co-op. “With the support systems of the foundation community and the Allegheny Regional Asset District, given our size, you just don’t find that level of financial support in other cities.”
Another boon for Pittsburgh’s arts and entertainment sector as an economic driver is the distinctive relationship between artists and technologists in the City of Bridges. Organizations the Pittsburgh Technology Council have played a fundamental role in nurturing Pittsburgh’s volunteer-driven maker movement, which features collaborations between creative professionals ranging from artists and engineers to food artisans and carpenters. Major tech corporations like Google and IBM, which have opened and expanded offices in Pittsburgh in recent years, have served as sponsors and corporate partners for local cultural events and organizations.
And Pittsburgh was the first U.S. metro to establish a shared technology system for the Tessitura database application. This innovative partnership allowed the city’s major arts organizations, under the stewardship of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, to share valuable data in managing their ticketing, fundraising, customer relationship management, and marketing activities. It also provided a platform for CMU’s MAM students to showcase their skills in analytics and database management as interns and young professionals working for Pittsburgh’s cultural organizations.
“These organizations recognize that our students have the data analytics skills to move this industry forward,” said Brett Crawford, assistant teaching professor of Arts Management at Heinz College. “When our students go to do their internships, whether it is at the Pittsburgh Ballet, the Pittsburgh Opera, City Theatre, Pittsburgh Public Theater, or the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, they’re all getting their hands directly into Tessitura. So they have their database management class, and then they actually get to apply it in a real-life professional situation.”
Analytics as an Art Form
One of those students was Christine Sajewski (MAM ’15) who, as a student intern at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre (PBT), made an eye-opening discovery about visitors to PBT’s website.
“I was digging into the website data and recognizing trends,” recalled Sajewski. “And through that, I discovered how popular the education section of our website was. It was the biggest traffic driver to the site, and it was driving traffic from all over the world – places like London and China – to Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. The information on those pages, which covers introductory topics like, ‘what is ballet,’ ‘what are pointe shoes,’ ‘the history of ballet,’ was so well-curated that Google was ranking PBT the top search all over the world. And no one had any idea that this was happening.”
The discovery led to Christine presenting her findings to the PBT’s Education Committee, along with strategies for expanding the website’s role as a tool for education and outreach. It also made a big impression on Aimee DiAndrea, director of Marketing & Communications at PBT, who was Christine’s internship supervisor at the time.
“She made herself invaluable,” said DiAndrea. “There were projects that she started for us that no one else at the time was doing, and if we didn’t have her here, we wouldn’t have the capacity to do those things. I also recognized in her a true passion and dedication to her work that I really respected.”
When PBT created a new marketing position in 2015 that focused on web-based analytics and strategies for targeted and segmented marketing, the choice for a hire was a no-brainer.
“She Made Herself Invaluable”
Christine Sajewski interned for Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre through the MAM program, and is now a key member of their team. (Photo: Kelly Perkovich)
Today, as PBT’s External Affairs Analyst, Sajewski facilitates a variety of data-driven projects, ranging from analyzing Google AdWords performance, donor trends, and patron life cycles to designing e-blasts specifically targeted to different patron groups based on their previous levels of engagement. The information and reports that Sajewski provides have already given PBT a better idea of what its patrons are looking for, and enabled it to make its marketing dollars go further.
“We want to have more people at our performances, in our school programs, and at our education events,” said DiAndrea. “We want to have a larger donor pool that can support all of those things. And the analytics streamline some targeting for us, so we’re able to see how we’re best reaching our current audience and how to maximize that.
“We’re able to really analyze what’s working and what’s not working. And at the end of the day, it’s saving us money, which is obviously a key thing for a nonprofit.”
For Sajewski, a lifelong lover of the performing arts, taking courses like Geographic Information Systems and Data Mining at Heinz College gave her a new perspective on how these disciplines can help strengthen the arts and entertainment industry.
“Because of the internship, I dabbled in the analytics side of marketing and what that meant,” said Sajewski. “And I found that to be fun. I started to find that I was passionate about data, and realized I was able to visualize data, and in that sense, that data is almost an art form in itself. It’s not just numbers on a spreadsheet, but pictures that tell stories. And I think that realization clicked with me while I was in the MAM program.”
In the private entertainment sector, Pittsburgh has emerged as one of the most prolific filmmaking centers in the United States. Since 1990, the Pittsburgh Film Office has assisted with 138 feature film and television productions in Pittsburgh, including “The Silence of the Lambs,” “Groundhog Day,” “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” and “The Dark Night Rises.” Since the Pennsylvania Film Tax Credit was established in 2007, the program has proved to be a tremendous success with more than $930 million in film production in southwestern Pennsylvania in that time. According to a recent study by FilmLA, this places Pennsylvania fifth in the United States in overall film production.
“The driving force for filmmaking in Pittsburgh is the depth and diversity of our local crew,” said Dawn Keezer, director of the Pittsburgh Film Office. “For a place the size of Pittsburgh population-wise, we have four full crews that work in this industry on a full-time basis. So when filmmakers come to our region, they can hire local people, and it saves them money, but they also know that they’re getting some of the best of the best in the business.”
Some of those crews have included first-year students from the Master of Entertainment Industry Management (MEIM) program, a joint degree program between Heinz College and Carnegie Mellon's College of Fine Arts. In 2011, several MEIM students interned on “The Dark Knight Rises,” putting in time on-set, in the locations department, and in the costume shop to help bring Christian Bale’s Batman and his stable of foes to life for the trilogy’s final installment.
“It makes me proud to see those successes with the students,” said Dan Green, MEIM program director. “When he graduated, one of our students, Bryan O’Connell (MEIM ’13), wrote that, when he was a kid, his dreams were to work on Batman, meet the Muppets, and have a career at Disney. While he was in the MEIM program, he worked on the ‘The Dark Knight Rises,’ interned at ‘Sesame Street’ Workshop in New York, and was hired right out of school to work on ‘Sofia the First’ for Disney Television Animation. Today, he works for Disneytoon Studios as a Production Coordinator.
“That’s a powerful testament, and it all started for him as a Locations PA on a talented Pittsburgh crew.”
Pittsburgh: The Movie
Since 1990, the Pittsburgh Film Office has assisted with 138 feature film and television productions in Pittsburgh, everything from indie films to major blockbusters
Thomas Tull, the producer of the film and the CEO of Legendary Entertainment, regularly speaks to the MEIM students each year.
“Last year, he stated emphatically that Pittsburgh was one of his favorite cities in the country, and he was happy that he could shoot ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ there,” said Green. “One of the biggest producers in Hollywood loves the city.”
Another student, Max Murray (MEIM ’15), worked on the 2012 crime thriller “Jack Reacher” as a background artist, and he had a prominent scene with star Tom Cruise on a bus.
The steady stream of film and television projects in Pittsburgh have made an impact on the local economy that is felt far beyond the film set or the production office.
A typical film production in Pittsburgh utilizes half-a-million dollars in car rentals. In 2014 alone, Pittsburgh’s film industry was responsible for booking 20,000 nights of hotel stays in southwestern Pennsylvania. And Pittsburgh’s film industry has a profound effect on everything from flight departures and arrivals at the Pittsburgh International Airport to the local tourism industry.
Keeping the Scene Alive
It isn’t just Pittsburgh’s large cultural organizations and for-profit entertainment companies that create jobs and pump money back into the local economy. Pittsburgh’s independent arts organizations and “DIY” artist collectives create an environment that is attractive to artists and creative professionals from all forms media, all while exporting top-notch, original works of art to the rest of the world. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Pittsburgh’s burgeoning music scene, which recently ranked ninth amongst U.S. cities for 2016.
Aside from exports with household names like Christina Aguilera, Wiz Khalifa, and Mac Miller, Pittsburgh’s dozens of live music venues have enabled emerging national acts like Sub Pop’s The Gotobeds to hone their skills before hitting the road. Pittsburgh-based music labels such as Wild Kindness and Get Hip Recordings, which just celebrated its 30th anniversary, sign, develop, and release music by independent artists from around the world. And the annual VIA Festival, entering its seventh year this fall, combines innovative live music, new media art, and technology to create a singular audience experience that has gained the Pittsburgh festival an international following.
“I see finally, after all these years, that there’s something brewing,” said Gregg Kostelich, president and founder of Get Hip Recordings, and guitarist for legendary garage rock band The Cynics. ”Several labels and a lot of good bands have popped up in the last few years. The old saying was, ‘no one young stays in Pittsburgh,’ but I see that happening now. It’s the first time I see young people consistently moving to Pittsburgh since I’ve been alive.”
For VIA, one of a few inter-media festivals co-owned by a woman, the eclectic tastes and makeup of Pittsburgh’s music, art, and tech enthusiasts help to shape the variety of artists and technologists that perform at the festival each year.
“Our program stands apart from trends that are happening across mainstream music festivals,” said Lauren Goshinski, co-founder of VIA, an annual festival and year-round creative events platform she co-founded with Quinn Leonowicz. “We draw connections between different genres and different generations of artists. We’re constantly syphoning and taking the temperature of what people in this town care about, and trying to mix that with what we care about and also with what an international audience cares about, so that we can stay at the center of local-global conversations.”
For Goshinski, Pittsburgh’s appeal as a site for an international, inter-media festival boils down to two factors: access and taste.
“The ability to do something like this, in terms of access to space and access to building partnerships with various sized organizations – there is still the potential for that in Pittsburgh in a way that there isn’t in other cities,” Goshinski said. “And we don’t compromise a vision just because we might not be in New York, or Mexico City, or Montreal. Instead, we’re in conversation with those cities through what we do, and the students who work with us are a part of that conversation, too.
“If you’re vested in this city, there’s a certain amount of capital that comes with that. Maybe it’s not cash capital, but it’s the ability to really work with your network and make big things happen on a shoestring.”
Cultural Impact for a Bright Future
Pittsburgh’s open, interdisciplinary spirit of collaboration, its government and foundational support, and its large pool of creative, ambitious artists have helped it to emerge as one of Allegheny County’s most important economic drivers. The Pittsburgh arts ecology also includes organizations large and small, with diverse offerings in programming. But it is the quality of its internationally renowned arts organizations that truly enable them to have an economic impact, and to provide professional opportunities for artists, arts managers, and emerging student leaders in the cultural sector.
“For a mid-sized city, we have all the big players,” said Crawford. “We have a Tier One symphony. We have two LORT Theatres. We have the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, with Broadway Across America and five big stages.
“We have the powerhouse of what D.C. was when I moved there 20 years ago, and we’re currently rallying with D.C. in terms of our cultural output.”