By Janice Crompton / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Parents of babies born this year in three Pittsburgh-area hospitals will find something unique tucked among the booties, receiving blankets and other goodies in their new-family care packages.
“I think it’s a given that we’re a city of champions, but people forget we are a city of culture, too,” said Matthew Conboy, a Robert Morris University adjunct professor of photography who has embarked on an ambitious plan to distribute original works from local artists to newborns.
“I thought it would be an amazing thing to create the youngest art collectors right here in Pittsburgh.”
Mr. Conboy, of the North Side, was selected among hundreds of applicants to receive a $10,000 audience-engagement grant last year from Crusade for Art, a nonprofit based in Atlanta that is devoted to cultivating demand for art.
His winning idea, Start with Art, is a free program that aims to promote artists in the Pittsburgh region by creating a culture of collectors who are given signed prints from local artists.
Mr. Conboy selected 12 local artists — one for each month of the year — to create original photographic prints that he began giving to newborns at the start of the year at St. Clair Hospital in Mt. Lebanon, UPMC Mercy in Uptown and the Midwife Center for Birth & Women’s Health in the Strip District.
The art is free and the grant is being used to pay photographers an honorarium of $350 each, along with supplies such as ink, paper and plastic bags. Each 8 ½-by-11-inch photograph is signed and numbered.
Babies born in January received “Mist over the Ohio,” a photographic print of the Ohio River by artist Aaron Blum of West Virginia. Those born this month are receiving “The Blue Breasted Kingfisher” by artist Maria Mangano.
The first baby to receive a gift — and the first baby born in 2015 at St. Clair Hospital — was 8-pound, 1-ounce Eliana Bodo.
Eliana’s parents, Christina and Mark Bodo of Mt. Lebanon, coincidentally are avid supporters of the arts and strong believers in the power of creative thinking.
“I really see the importance of art for children,” said Mrs. Bodo, a second-grade teacher at South Park Elementary Center in the South Park School District. “I believe in the importance of exposing children to the arts — all creative arts. I do think it’s very important.”
Educators and scientists have long believed that visual arts may have an impact on learning and cognitive development in children.
Many also feel art is an important right-brain booster and have inspired a movement to alter STEM -- learning that emphasizes science, technology, engineering and math -- to STEAM, with the A standing for art.
“I thought it was a really great idea because we did so much with the sports teams in the city. It was great to give them a little culture with their sports,” said Linda McIntyre, head of the birthing center at St. Clair.
Mr. Conboy approached St. Clair Hospital because it is known for outfitting newborn infants in Steelers, Penguins or Pirates regalia during important games.
“I remember years ago hearing about St. Clair giving the Terrible Towel away to newborns,” Mr. Conboy said.
When he approached hospital officials about his idea, “They were just so open and excited; they wanted to start that very second,” he said.
The program this year expects to distribute about 1,400 pieces of artwork at St. Clair, more than 1,000 at UPMC Mercy, and about 450 at the Midwife Center for Birth & Women’s Health.
“I was super excited. I thought the program sounded great,” said Rachel Dingfelder, development coordinator at the midwife center. “Everybody was just really excited about it. It’s a really thoughtful, touching program.”
All of the families presented with the artwork so far this year have agreed, Ms. McIntyre said.
“The patients have been very positive about it,” she said. “I think that it’s something different, not what you would routinely expect because it’s not baby-related. I think it’s important — it gives them an exposure to art and it might be their first exposure ever.”
Mrs. Bodo said she plans to frame the photograph and hang it in Eliana’s nursery. Later, she will add it to her treasure box, along with other keepsakes, such as Eliana’s hospital bracelet, footprints and the newspaper clipping of her birth announcement.
“I think it’s a shame that there’s been a decrease in the appreciation for art because everything is so accessible right now,” she said. “But this is authentic — that means something. It puts value to it. It has meaning.”
Eventually, Mr. Conboy hopes to include all of the babies born in Pittsburgh in his program.
“The idea is to treat 2015 as a soft opening,” he said. “If we could have all the hospitals in Pittsburgh, that would be wonderful.”
His ultimate goal would be to hear that his efforts made a difference.
“Hopefully, we’ll find out in 18 to 20 years from now whether it changed anything,” Mr. Conboy said. “When someone asks these kids who their favorite artist is and it’s one of these artists — that would make my year.”