Exploring Pittsburgh’s Legacy of Steel


This article is part of our Museums special section about how institutions are striving to offer their visitors more to see, do and feel.

If there is one word that defines Pittsburgh, it is steel.

Steel is in Pittsburgh’s DNA. It’s embedded in the name of the city’s football team and is the source of the industrial wealth that put Pittsburgh on the map.

This month, steel is being celebrated in a different way at the city’s Carnegie Museum of Art. As part of its Forum Series of commissioned art from living artists, the museum will present “Land Stitches Water Sky,” a multiton sculpture of steel by the interdisciplinary artist Marie Watt that explores the region’s industrial history with I-beams and glass. The exhibit opened April 13 and will be on display until Sept. 22.

Watt was selected because of her use of objects to tell stories and her willingness to work in partnership with the museum to produce a new and ambitious work of art, said Eric Crosby, the museum’s director since 2020, in an interview in New York. “We gravitated to her and her to us,’’ he said.

Watt, a member of the Seneca Nation, tries through her work to connect the past with the present and to find links among disparate communities. Steel fits right in with her vision: It was steel from Pittsburgh that helped build the Empire State Building and the George Washington Bridge in New York, and many other famous structures. And it was Mohawk Native Americans, who have been celebrated in her past works, who worked on many of those projects, earning them the moniker “skywalkers” for their daring feats on steel beams.

“We are looking at the intersection of steel and Pittsburgh history,” Watt said in a video interview. “After learning more about the industry and its origins in Pittsburgh, I’ve been thinking more about the impact of steel on the community here and how it intersects with my own understanding.”

That connection will be represented in the two arc-shaped collections of steel I-beams, over 20 feet long and weighing thousands of pounds, that allow viewers to walk through and contemplate a “word bank” from local poets etched into the steel. In addition, there are several glass I-beams in recognition of Pittsburgh’s equally important past as a center of industrial glassmaking.

As welders construct the structure, local poets have been adding words that will appear on the beams: silence, bear, sky, auntie, water, homestead, lantern, heirloom, elder.

Known for her formations of stacked and folded blankets piled up to dizzying heights, Watt will be displaying an array of blankets near the steel piece. “Blankets are parts of people’s lives,” she said. “They are stories and memories. Blankets are humble and simple and yet can have so much meaning and power. Blankets are cinematic in scale, like a billboard, and can envelop the viewer in the material.’’

Watt’s works have been displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of Art in New York, the Seattle Art Museum and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., among many others. She lives in Portland, Ore., and is the 88th artist to be featured as part of Carnegie’s Forum Series, which began in 1990. The idea is to bring artists to the museum to produce commissioned works while providing them with the resources of the museum and the community to inspire them and their creations.

Exploring Pittsburgh is exactly what Watt has done. She has toured the Carrie Blast Furnaces, a historical landmark at the former Homestead Steel Works and the site of one of the most important events in labor history: The violent 1892 strike between workers and private security guards hired by the company that ended in a defeat for unionizing efforts.

She has also collaborated with the Pittsburgh Poetry Collective on the words that are to be etched into the I-beams and with the Pittsburgh Glass Center on the construction of the glass portion of the sculpture. Two Pittsburgh fabricators — Dee Briggs Studio and Poki Moto — are doing the construction and welding.

While the steel beams will have text, the glass portion does not. “We’re talking about presence and absence,” Watt said of the glass. “Glass has been a significant part of Pittsburgh history. But the legacy of steel is so big that it has overshadowed the story of glass. This project is a way to connect the two. We take glass for granted and how glass has come to us.”

Watt’s work, and the Forum Series, reflect some of what is unique about the Carnegie Museum of Art, one of a consortium of four museums that trace their roots back to their founder, the industrialist Andrew Carnegie. (The other institutions under the umbrella of the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh are the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, the Carnegie Science Center and the Andy Warhol Museum.)

The Carnegie Museum of Art was founded in 1895 by Carnegie with the goal, he said, of making Pittsburgh as “famous for art as it is now for steel.” At the time, in art and in the business of Pittsburgh, his two main compatriots were Henry Clay Frick, a business partner in Carnegie Steel, which later became U.S. Steel, and Andrew Mellon, who financed U.S. Steel and many of Pittsburgh’s other biggest companies. Sometimes rivals, sometimes partners, the three also took a keen interest in art — though with very different approaches.

Frick and Mellon amassed collections of old masters that then became the core collections of two world-class museums, the Frick Collection in New York, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., founded by Mellon. Carnegie, envisioning a museum that would house “old masters of tomorrow,” bought no paintings and instead donated money with the idea that the Museum of Art would go out and buy contemporary art, not art of the past.

The museum remains committed to that vision today. Besides the Forum Series, there is also the highly celebrated Carnegie International, started by Carnegie and held every four years. One of the longest-running surveys of international contemporary art, it brings together artists, filmmakers, performers and curators from around the world.

The first Carnegie International was held in 1896 to not only showcase modern art, but also allow the museum to collect pieces from the exhibition. The first paintings to enter the Carnegie Museum’s collection came from the first International, most notably Winslow Homer’s 1896 painting, “The Wreck.” Impressionist paintings didn’t come into the museum until the mid-1960s. And the museum was a pioneer in showcasing photography and architecture, long before they were in fashion.

“We have stopped thinking of the museum as a repository of a collection,” Crosby said. “Instead, we think of it as a vital resource for the community. It calls back to 1896, where we can provide an abundance of art, space and talent.

“Our responsibility is to try to be more of a listening museum — for visitors, our patrons and artists. It’s within the DNA of the museum to collect art of the time and still be an encyclopedic museum.”

Like so many museums that used Covid-era closures to reimagine their profiles, Carnegie used that time to come up with new ways to engage the local community.

“People don’t need museums,” said Dana Bishop-Root, the museum’s director of education and public programs, in a video interview. “Museums need people.”

To that end, the Carnegie has opened its doors to seniors who come for chair yoga and drawing classes; to schoolteachers who are invited for a three-week summer program to develop curriculum modules; and to hundreds of refugees who have received gifts of memberships and programs in their languages.

“We want to introduce the museum as a site of belonging; that it’s as much a part of the neighborhood as the grocery store,” Bishop-Root said.

All these efforts have paid off, museum officials said. Attendance in 2023 reached a record 417,000, surpassing prepandemic levels. And gifts and grants grew to $9.4 million in 2022, compared with prepandemic levels in the $3 million to $5 million range, according to Crosby.

“We want to be the best neighborhood museum that we can be,” Crosby said. “The museum can be a vital conduit to broaden the horizons of the citizens of the city. Pittsburgh has an incredible history, rich in materials from the region that can inspire.”

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