We've all visited the library to borrow stacks of books to read, but have you ever been to a library that enables you to borrow original pieces of art to grace your walls? The people of Pittsburgh are lucky enough to have that concept as reality, thanks to the Art Lending Collection (ALC) in the Solomon Center at the Carnegie Library in Braddock.
The ALC is an alternative lending program that opened in October 2013 as part of the Carnegie International, and has stayed afloat in the years since thanks to Heinz Endowment Grants and the work of dedicated facilitators. Anyone with an Allegheny County library card is able to check out up to four pieces of art at a time to be kept for three weeks, complete with renewal privileges just like patrons would have with library books. Lost pieces demand a $100 fee (although, as of this writing, a piece has never been lost), and damage to any art must be repaired at the expense of the patron. But these restrictions have not stopped scores of locals from stopping in to borrow some beautification for their homes, offices, or businesses. The majority of ALC borrowers (60 percent) travel to Braddock from Allegheny County neighborhoods such as Lawrenceville, Homestead, Oakland, Homestead, McKeesport, and neighboring Swissvale. The remaining 40 percent are local to the Braddock Library's service area, including the neighborhoods of North Braddock, East McKeesport, Turtle Creek, and Chalfont.
Braddock-based collaborative art group Tranformazium is responsible for the ALC's presence at the library, thanks to an invitation from Carnegie International curators to submit a project to the show that connected the exhibition to Braddock. Transformazium, which was founded in New York City and is made up of artists Dana Bishop-Root, Leslie Stem, and Ruthie Stringer, had already established a presence in Braddock--and in particular, the Carnegie Library--at the time of the International's call to action. In conjunction with Braddock's Dipcraft Manufacturing, the Transformazium team had established the Neighborhood Screen Printing Shop, which is housed within the library. With the screen printing equipment generously donated from Dipcraft, the shop exists with the mission to enable communication between local businesses and Braddock residents, making the production of posters and informational material readily available as the need arises. Screen printed t-shirts are also available to be produced at an affordable rate for local businesses and other efforts, all of which comes together in a way that Transformazium hopes will enable "opportunities for entrepreneurship" and that will provide "an active place for the exploration of the creative process." Overall, Transformazium aims to make local libraries places where patrons can do so much more than just check out books -- an idea that was inspired by Ms. Stringer's Schenectady, NY upbringing, where a local library had a similar art lending program.
The ALC began with 96 pieces, but as of 2016 the collection contained more than 160 pieces, including many from local artists. Inmates from the State Correctional Institute-Layette have also contributed approximately 25 pieces to the collection under a sub-collection called the Prism Project.
In addition to housing the ALC, the Carnegie Free Library in Braddock was the first Carnegie Library in the United States, and was dedicated by Andrew Carnegie himself on March 20, 1889. The library was deemed a National Historic Landmark in 2012, after surviving a near-demolition in the late 1970s. Supporters of the library rallied together under the name "Braddock's Field Historical Society" and the effort was spearheaded by the institution's last librarian, David Solomon. Together they slowly reopened and restored the structure, with restorations and repairs ongoing to this day. But for the residents of Braddock, the presence of the Carnegie Library is a touchstone of the community, to which the Art Lending Collection brings a new and necessary dimension.
"If it's just bringing you joy, that works. If it's helping you connect to your culture and helping you get the girl, that works, too. If it is helping you impress your snobby in-laws, that works too," said ALC facilitator Jonathan Reyes in an interview with the Carnegie Museum of Art. "That's all I can hope for."
The Art Lending Collection at the Carnegie Library in Braddock is open during regular library hours, which vary during the course of the week. Borrowers only need a valid library card to check out artwork. The library is closed on Sundays.
By Gayle Pazerski, freelance writer, actor, and playwright
Transformazium is the collaborative practice of Dana Bishop-Root, Ruthie Stringer and Leslie Stem. Our projects examine local systems of communication, exchange and resource distribution; redirect resources from an arts economy to a local economy; and participate in an active local arts discourse that includes voices currently underrepresented in more dominant arts discourses: young people, the elderly, communities of color, people from poor and working class backgrounds and those outside of the University education system. We use our position between our neighborhood and the larger art world to expand and connect both discourses.
Since 2009 we have partnered with the Braddock Carnegie Library. This collaboration feeds our intimate connection to our locality and fuels our discourse with our neighbors, while we are also reaching outward, towards other discourses in other places, putting new objects, knowledge and ideas into circulation. Edited Artist Statement taken from transformazium.org.