Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey has fired all current members of the city’s arts commission.
The commission members, who are appointed by the mayor, fulfill their terms within the same time frame as the mayor who appointed them, said Maria Montaño, spokeswoman for Gainey.
This means that the commissioners that Gainey fired technically ended their terms when Gainey took office in January following the departure of Bill Peduto. They spent nearly a year working through what Montaño called a “transition period” for the new mayor.
Andrew Moss, who has served as chairman of the board and chairman of the Art Commission, said he was concerned about Gainey’s decision to remove all existing members.
“In my seven years on the Art Commission, the membership composition has always evolved as existing members resign, with the current mayor appointing new members to fill vacant seats,” Moss said. “The current commission had two empty seats that the mayor had not filled for some time.”
Moss said there is a benefit to always having existing, experienced members on the commission to guide new appointees.
Several projects are open and pending before the Art Commission, Moss said, and a few more have been filed and pursued. New Commissioners will need to familiarize themselves with these projects and pick up where the previous team left off.
“No matter who he chooses, there will be some disconnect,” Moss said.
The Art Commission is responsible for promoting the beautification of the city’s public spaces by reviewing the design of buildings, works of art and memorials on public property. Commissioners act as volunteers.
Moss said each commissioner received a phone call Friday advising them they were being fired from the commission. None of them, he said, have spoken directly with the mayor since he took office.
The commission was embroiled in a high-profile debate over the statue of Christopher Columbus in Schenley Park, which has become a controversial landmark as many questioned whether the explorer with a history of mistreatment of indigenous peoples should be commemorated.
Earlier this year, commissioners called for more public participation and the involvement of the Artistic Commission in the redesign of the Fern Hollow Bridge in Pittsburgh’s Frick Park, which is being rebuilt on an accelerated schedule after it collapsed in January.
Moss said he was proud of the commission’s involvement in such projects and applauded his fellow commissioners for bringing “diverse expertise with insightful and meaningful reviews of projects that have come before the commission.”
“The commission that we have really tried to look after the best interests of the citizens and the city as a whole, not looking at the short term but looking at the long-term impact of the projects,” Moss said. “I hope the new commission will approach it in the same way, but obviously we have no idea.”
Montaño gave no specific reason why the administration chose not to keep any existing commissioners on board.
“We would like to express our sincere appreciation for your service to the Arts Commission,” Planning Director Karen Abrams wrote to the commissioners in a letter dated Monday informing them that they were being fired. “Your commitment to this commission has been invaluable to the City of Pittsburgh and has not gone unnoticed.”
In a social media post that included a screenshot of the letter, Sarika Goulatia, the former secretary of the Arts Commission, said the mayor’s decision to remove all commissioners with little explanation “me calls a lot of things into question.”
“Did criticism of city-run projects play a determining role in this termination without any meeting with the mayor or his team? Or is that just what every newly elected mayor does? Goulatia wrote in the Instagram post. “I had some wonderful mentors when I was appointed to the Art Commission five years ago and now that the whole commission is disbanded will the city change the role of the Art Commission ?”
Montaño declined to talk about any changes the Art Commission might see as a result of the termination of existing members.
“The administration is in the process of appointing and identifying new members ahead of the January meeting of the Art Commission,” Montaño said in a statement. “We look forward to having more information to share soon on our vision moving forward.”
City bylaws require commission appointees to meet certain requirements, Moss said. Three members must be architects, one must be a painter and another must be a sculptor. There are two open seats, which can be filled by anyone, Moss said, but they’re usually assigned to a landscape architect or graphic designer.
In addition to Moss and Goulatia, Art Commission members Christiane Leach, Vivian Loftness, Richard Parsakian and Peter Quintanilla were removed from their positions.
The Art Commission met for the last time last Wednesday. They didn’t have a meeting scheduled for December.