Together: The Bonds within Text and Bronze at the Selma Burke Center

A picture of a person sitting at a table and smiling over three books. Two are exhibition catalogs with illustrations, one is an open leather binder.

Jon with some items he will scan for the digital archive.


Together: The Bonds within Text and Bronze at the Selma Burke Center

During the Fall semester of 2019, I was a Museum Studies intern under Rebecca Giordano, the Mellon Fellow of Curation and Education here in Pitt’s Department of History of Art and Architecture. Rebecca is developing an exhibition examining the works and pedagogy of Selma Burke, a prominent Black artist and educator of the 20th century. My job was to aide Rebecca with preliminary research about Burke and the art school that she founded in Pittsburgh. We worked to describe the relationship between the school and the community it existed in, in the context of Black radical art traditions. For me, this research was done mainly through careful analysis of period newspapers and the creation of a digital archive.

The Selma Burke Art Center operated at 6118 Penn Circle South in East Liberty from 1971 to 1981. During this time, it provided cheap and accessible arts education – only $1 per class! – to the residents of the city, especially to the Black children of the neighborhood. Hundreds of students came through the Center and even more people visited its extensive galleries and public programs. As we can see in papers like The New Pittsburgh Courier, across its tragically short lifespan, the Center became a key organ of its community. These days, the building it once occupied has evaporated, replaced by the concrete edifice of studio apartments. I have walked through that lot many dozens of times across my college life, unaware of the vital things that happened there.

What I loved about this research that reading the Courier provided a look into that moment, with all its potential still intact. A newspaper contains more than just dates for events and names of exhibits, but the language and texture of the community the paper exists for. In these archived pages, I learned about how people saw and felt about the Art Center – what shows they got excited for, what they saw in its paintings and prints, and what values they thought art and education had. Research like this exposes the discourse around a subject. The thoughts, motivations, and organizing that grew around the Selma Burke Art Center tell a deep and rich history we can learn much from.

What I liked best is looking at the paper’s pictures and seeing the proud face of a neighbor. Walking the streets now, I feel like I am retracing their steps, and I don’t walk alone.

  • Academic Interns
  • Undergraduate Work
  • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh