Doctoral student turns detective to catalog Pitt’s public art

People under 'Light Up' sculpture


Chelsea Gunn has been walking right past the bright yellow sculpture “Light Up,” between Posvar Hall and Hillman Library, for years, she says, without knowing much about it.

“It’s still very mysterious to people on campus,” notes Gunn, a doctoral student in the School of Computing and Information. “I still hear people say it looks like a giraffe.”

Now it’s her job (and soon it will be the task of more students) to document where “Light Up” and all the other public art on campus came from, who created the pieces, when and how — if the information can be discovered.

With a $49,000 grant from the chancellor’s office, this semester the University Art Gallery, University Library System, Frick Fine Arts Library and Department of the History of Art and Architecture began a pilot project to eventually research and catalog all public art at Pitt and the many pieces inside several campus buildings (Mervis and Alumni halls). With graduate and undergraduate students participating in the effort beginning next month, the aim is to establish best practices for collecting data on the artworks — where each piece originated, how it got here, what condition it is in, and many other factors — and eventually present the findings to the public online.

Alongside Gunn, the project has brought together University Archivist Zach Brodt, art gallery director Sylvia Rhor and Kate Joranson, head of the Frick Fine Arts library, to get the effort started.

One thing Gunn is certain of already — “Light Up” is not supposed to be a mammal of any sort. And it was much tougher to figure out how a sculpture that looks like an exploded bookshelf came to sit next to the Swanson School of Engineering, prompted by a query from a U Times reader. But she found out. (See “Ask the UTimes: Where did the sculpture near Benedum Hall originate?” in this issue.)

“Chelsea is our team detective right now,” Rhor says.

Although there is an online catalog of Pitt-owned art, it is “completely incomplete,” Rhor says. “We were talking about how easy it is to walk past something and not engage with it. I want a larger awareness of public art. I really believe it is our responsibility to care for the work,” and make Pitt a destination for members of the public who would appreciate knowing many more details about the campus art all around them.

“The more we look at public art on campus,” Brodt says, “it is going to create a deeper, more fulfilling educational environment.”

“If we can work public art into the (public’s) consciousness more thoroughly,” Joranson says, “we can build that awareness into real daily experience” for campus visitors.

As part of the search effort, Brodt starts with Documenting Pitt, the University Archives’ online search. But the artist’s identification or other factors then help him dive more deeply into the archives’ collections from a specific school, or perhaps the chancellor’s office records, or a collection of correspondence or other papers given long ago to Pitt.

Next semester, when paid undergraduate interns join the research effort, Rhor expects them to “learn techniques of scouting locations of the artworks, recording data about the objects. They are going to also learn how to do condition reporting with a conservator, take photos of the objects, research the objects, and then write blog posts” that will be the public’s first glimpse into the project’s findings. Students will collect the names of the art and the artists, the year created, and the materials, dimensions and locations, as well as data for Pitt’s internal use, such as date of acquisition, appraised value and maintenance requirements.

Gunn, a former archivist now working toward her Ph.D. in library and information sciences, also has been checking out how other universities document their public art, as well as their policies and educational programs and events around their art. The team is hoping to bring similar attention to public art at Pitt.

“We’re at the beginning stages,” Gunn says. But she is already excited about discoveries: “I’ve found some really great articles about when ‘Light Up’ was moved to New York” for a temporary exhibit in 1990, she says, including photos of the sculpture being disassembled for transport, and more information from the estate of artist Tony Smith. “I’m looking forward to seeing what will happen.”

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-758-4859.


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