Tipping Point: A Conversation with Charlie Humphrey

Article excerpt

Despite the increasing globalization of cultural production, art still frequently revolves around questions of place and whether or not one is in the right place. Do global and national markets exert hegemonic control, essentially creating taste, and therefore act as the drivers of regional and local art markets? Does this create a landscape of art in which the larger markets dominate not only the economic side of the art equation but also the intellectual and visual culture of smaller cities? Is it possible for the visual arts in mid-sized art markets, and the artists who live there, to really matter in the grand scheme of things, or will they always be peripheral?

Pittsburgh has received many national accolades of late, including for its vibrant visual arts culture. Here Charlie Humphrey, the executive director of Pittsburgh Filmmakers and Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, two long-standing nonprofit pillars of the Pittsburgh arts community, gives his take on these and other issues related to the state of visual arts in Pittsburgh. This interview was conducted in Humphrey's office at Pittsburgh Filmmakers on April 13, 2012.

SCOTT TURRI: Tell me a bit about your background. How did. you become involved with Pittsburgh Filmmakers and then the Center for the Arts, and how did they come to be affiliated with one another?

CHARLIE HUMPHREY: Well, when I was a kid I shot miles and miles of Super 8 film. I was always really interested in film and in photography. I had a variety of cameras and I was by default the family historian in capturing images, so I always kind of had an obsession with that, and when I graduated from college I had a degree in philosophy. ... I worked for a couple of different commercial radio stations. ... and went to work for WQED here in Pittsburgh as a producer and administrative assistant, and I did that for about five years. Then, I transitioned into the weekly newspaper business. There was a weekly paper here for a number of years: the alternative paper of record called In Pittsburgh Newsweekly. I was the editor and publisher of that, and after I left-this is twenty years ago-I became the executive director of Pittsburgh Filmmakers. So, it's all media related-I mean media defined in the broadest sense of the term. It has always been an obsession of mine and something that I have always really cared about, so to come to Pittsburgh Filmmakers is really a dream come true for me even though I don't make films anymore. About eight or nine years ago Pittsburgh Center for the Arts had some financial problems and they asked Filmmakers to get involved. They were bankrupt, they had closed their doors, they had laid off all of their staff. They were over a million dollars in debt, and so a group of volunteers there and my staff got involved and we were able to help nurse them back to health and then it made sense after that to simply merge the two organizations into one, because their missions are identical, if you think about it. It's about the exhibition of contemporary art, it's about teaching contemporary art, and it's about supporting contemporary artists. Filmmakers is more about film, video, and photography; [at Center for the Arts] it's printmaking, painting, sculpture, ceramics-so it's a wider focus, more disciplines involved, but it's really the same.

ST: In the past, Pittsburgh Center for the Arts has mounted a biennial featuring regional artists. This year the biennial had a different format, which was a collaborative effort between the Carnegie Museum, Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, Pittsburgh Filmmakers, and the Andy Warhol Museum. Could you speak about how this came about and what was the intent of this expanded format?

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

CH: Well, your timing in asking that question is really good because we are now looking at the 2014 biennial, planning that, and we will have all of those characters involved again, plus a couple of new ones, which is pretty exciting. …