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Pittsburgh Baby Day: A Conversation with Matthew Conboy of Start with Art

Since receiving the 2014 Crusade for Art Engagement Grant, it would be safe to say that Matthew Conboy and his proposal Start with Art has been both successful and embraced by the city of Pittsburgh,PA. Just this week, the mayor of Pittsburgh declared July 5th the official Start with Art: Pittsburgh Baby Day. Upon hearing this exciting news, we decided to check in and have a small chat with Matthew about his present success and what the future has to hold.

What gave you the idea for the proclamation for the Start with Art: Pittsburgh Baby Day? Was extensive was this process?

I’ve had several friends who work with nonprofits or have done projects around the city be recognized with proclamations from the city. However, that wasn’t my original intention. I really just wanted to make sure that the Community Affairs representative for the city was aware of what I was working on. In addition, I was hoping that Mayor Bill Peduto could write a letter of support for Start with Art that I could then include in grant and funding applications.

As far as the process was concerned, I submitted a form online detailing Start with Art’s goals and accomplishments including the 5,000th baby who will receive a print this July.  Thankfully, I was not responsible for deciding where all of the “therefores” and “wherases.”

How has Start with Art grown since you received the Crusade for Art Engagement grant in 2014?

We’re in our second year and although we are still just working with the three original hospitals (UPMC Mercy, St. Clair, and The Midwife Center), I have helped enlarge the program behind the scenes. I now employ a poet to compose written descriptions of each month’s artwork. These descriptions are then posted online for the benefit of individuals with vision impairments. By the end of this summer, the descriptions will be recorded and audio files will be available on the Start with Art website. Second, and more importantly, I have increased the honorariums that each artist receives. As a practicing artist myself, I felt very strongly about compensating the artists for their time.

With the continual growing success of Start with Art, what are some long-term goals that you have for the future?

I have several long-term goals for Start with Art. First, I want to ensure that we have sufficient funds to allow for the continuation of the program. For 2016, I am paying for the program from my personal savings but that will not be a sustainable source of funding for the future. I have several foundations, which I will approach, and that work will keep me busy for the rest of the summer. In addition to grants, I am also looking at earned income from the sale of individual prints or portfolios on the website.

The other big, and very important, goal is to include the other two hospitals in the city that have maternity wards. Combined, these two hospitals would add 14,000 babies to the current number of 3,300. That is quite a dramatic jump, but it is manageable, particularly if I am able to treat this like a full-time job. It would also be made slightly easier by a recent gift from Epson’s Focused Giving Program of a new P800 printer. With features that are not on my current printer, the P800 would create savings for both paper and ink.

How do you think that art collecting (at such an early age!) has had a positive impact on the city of Pittsburgh?

I realize it is still too soon to tell what type of impact the art has had on these 5,000 children and their families, but I can tell you about how it’s had an impact on the artists. Every month, these artists find themselves with almost 275 new collectors. When you include the families, extended families, friends, and neighbors who could see this work, the number grows exponentially.

Just a couple of months ago, a mother who had a baby the previous year wrote to thank me for that gift and to let me know they were going to continue the tradition of buying art for the daughter for each of her birthdays. I let her know that the particular artist they collected (Kara Skylling) was actually having an opening that weekend. I also told her how much it would mean to Kara to hear what this gift meant to this family. Several days later, Kara wrote to tell me that not only did the family show up to her opening, they actually commissioned her to create a unique piece of art just for their daughter. Here was a family that may never have thought of collecting art, but by receiving one of 270 prints from Kara, they actually decided to invest in a local artist. Several other artists have written to tell me that friends of theirs have been gifted their print which goes to show how small the world can be sometimes.

Finally, my vision is to not only see Pittsburgh as a City of Champions, it’s to see it as a City of Culture. It really just comes down to reminding the residents of Pittsburgh of our wealth of museums, galleries, and art schools. Hopefully this gift of art will provide that spark to remind all of us to take time to recognize and appreciate the art that already surrounds us.

You can learn more about Start with Art by visiting their website here or you can follow them on Facebook!



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Matthew Conboy Wins $10,000 Crusade Engagement Grant

That's right folks! Matthew Conboy will receive $10,000 cash money to implement his program to create newborn collectors in Pittsburgh.

Here's a description of his project, straight from the application:

This project was born from the fact that a local hospital sends every baby home with a Terrible Towel, the towel that is waved at Pittsburgh Steelers football games. While I am a proud Steelers fan, I believe that babies could be sent home with something else that could change their lives and the lives of those around them—art. My project will ensure that each baby born at West Penn Hospital in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania goes home with an original signed photograph from a local emerging photographer. The 3000+ babies born here represent a cross-section of the city and county and include everyone from the most isolated of neighborhoods to the most exclusive addresses in Pittsburgh. These photographs will include biographical information on the photographer and any pertinent information regarding the print. They will then be inserted into the bags that are sent home with new mothers and include other basic staples like diapers or formula. 

Out of hundreds of initial applications for the grant, a group of ten finalists were selected.  These finalists all proposed promising and innovative projects.  The entire list of finalists can be seen here. These finalists’ proposals were reviewed by an esteemed jury of photographic professionals, including Whitney Johnson (Director of Photography at The New Yorker), Karen Irvine (Curator and Associate Director at Museum of Contemporary Photography), and Rupert Jenkins (Executive Director at Colorado Photographic Arts Center). Conboy’s project was selected for its off-the-charts creativity.

Juror Karen Irvine says, "Matthew Conboy’s proposal for new audience engagement displayed dazzling creativity. We are excited to award this grant to someone whose idea feels completely original and unique. We also like the way his project will engage an extremely diverse audience, one that is for the most-part probably not already circulating in the fine art realm."

The Crusade Engagement Grant was created to foster the exploration of innovative programs to connect new audiences to photography. The grant will underwrite the full execution of Conboy’s idea. Conboy says, “The thing that excites me the most about this project is that I am sharing my love of art with an entire generation of kids in Pittsburgh. From the moment they're born, they will be collectors of art and photography and that is something that no one can take away from them.”

In addressing application questions about target audience, Conboy gave this compelling response:

The target audience includes underrepresented minorities within the city of Pittsburgh who might not otherwise be exposed to the world-class cultural and artistic institutions that their city has to offer as well as those children who will grow up within a culturally rich family. If these families (regardless of socio- economic status) can see from the moment that a baby is born that the arts provide a meaningful and important component of their lives, they will gain an appreciation for the power of art. 

This project will engage my target audience simply by not requiring them to “opt-in.” There is no need to cross the threshold of a gallery, no requirement to sign up for a mailing list, or purchase shares for a CSA (Community Supported Art). In fact, the only way to acquire one of these photographs is to have a baby within the city of Pittsburgh. 

We are thrilled to be launching this grant with such an innovative and democratic way to connect new audiences to art. We will be following Matthew closely over the next 12 months and giving you regular reports on the progress of this exciting project!

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