Removed Billboard Art Sparks Controversy, Public Forum

Apr 5, 2018

The removal of a message from a billboard art project in East Liberty has sparked outrage – and inspired a community meeting to address issues surrounding free speech and public art.

*Updated at 6:02 p.m. Thursday, April 5

“There Are Black People in the Future” was local artist Alisha Wormsley’s message on The Last Billboard, an art project founded and curated by Carnegie Mellon University art professor Jon Rubin. The billboard sits atop a multi-story commercial building in the middle of East Liberty. Last week, the building’s owner, We Do Property, asked Rubin to remove the message.

In a post earlier this week on Tumblr, Rubin wrote that We Do “forced Alisha’s text to be taken down over objections to the content (through a never-before evoked clause in the lease that gives the landlord the right to approve text).”

Shared via social media, Rubin’s message generated accusations of racism and censorship.

At about 5:45 p.m. Thursday, Eve Picker, owner of We Do Property, responded to earlier requests for comment with a written statement.

"In response to the installation, we were contacted by a number of people in the local community who said that they found the message offensive and divisive," reads her statement, in part. "We asked the tenant [Rubin] to remove the message because they didn't follow the lease agreement that states the billboard cannot be used for items 'that are distasteful, offensive, erotic, political ...' and the lessee must have lessor’s approval in writing before installing the sign."

"Our objection is not with the message," Picker added, "but with the fact that people are offended as the result of a message we never saw and approved before-hand."

Wormsley is a prominent local artist who has collaborated with institutions including the Carnegie Museum of Art. She won the 2016 City of Pittsburgh Mayor’s Award for Public Art. Her work often deals in Afrofuturism, which envisions futuristic societies that involve people of African descent. Afronaut(a), a film series Wormsley curates, has Afrofuturistic themes.

The billboard controversy occurs against a backdrop of rapid real-estate development and gentrification in East Liberty, which has resulted in the displacement of longtime African-American residents. The building used by The Last Billboard was also once home to the Shadow Lounge, a black-owned bar and music venue that opened in 2000, when nightlife was scarce in East Liberty, but closed in 2013, due at least in part to the pressures of gentrification.

Rubin launched The Last Billboard eight years ago on We Do’s building, as an outlet for provocative messages. Until last week, apparently, none had been taken down prematurely. Rubin has a history of unconventional arts projects; he was a founder, for instance, of Conflict Kitchen, a takeout establishment that served food from countries with which the U.S. was at odds.

Both Wormsley and Rubin declined to comment to WESA beyond Rubin’s Tumblr post.

However, the public is likely to hear from both of them, and possibly others directly involved in the controversy, at an April 18 public meeting at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater.

According to a press release from the theater, the meeting is “an open conversation about art, public space, and how we talk about art as community … This conversation will be an opportunity for East Liberty to examine the different aesthetic and cultural values in our uniquely diverse neighborhood.”

The meeting is at 4 p.m.

The text of the press release, released Wednesday evening, does not mention “There Are Black People in The Future” but includes a photo of the now-removed artwork.

In her statement, Picker wrote that We Do suggested to Rubin that he organize a meeting. Picker wrote that We Do "will support whatever the community decides is in its best interests, as long as there is a clear direction coming from that meeting."

*This article was revised to include material from Eve Picker's written statement.