Pittsburgh Subway Mural Appraised at $15 Million

A mural in a subway station that is being demolished is worth $15 million, more than the cash-strapped transit agency expected, raising questions about how the artwork should be cared for once it is removed.

"We did not expect it to be that much," Port Authority of Allegheny County spokeswoman Judi McNeil said Thursday. "We don't have the wherewithal to be a caretaker of such a valuable piece."

It would cost the agency more than $100,000 a year to insure the 60-foot-by-13-foot tile mural by Romare Bearden, McNeil said. Bearden was paid $90,000 for the mural, titled "Pittsburgh Recollections." It was installed in 1984.

The subway station that is home to the mural is being demolished as part of a $435 million plan to extend the subway. The authority didn't know what it was going to do with the mural but wanted to know its value before taking it down, McNeil said.

The colorful, 780-square-foot mural depicts working men and women and transportation. It is attached to a wall across from the passenger platform in the subway station. Several tiles show signs of water damage and some tiles close to the track are covered in dirt and grime.

The New York appraiser who set the $15 million figure, Michael Chisolm, declined to discuss his valuation on Thursday.

Many factors go into appraisals, including the way the piece was constructed, the materials used and how long it took, said Diedra Harris-Kelley, program associate at the Romare Bearden Foundation in New York.

The Port Authority is looking for an arts organization to bear the cost of removing, restoring, relocating and maintaining the mural, McNeil said. If that fails, the agency will either look for an arts group willing to exhibit it or will auction it off, she said.

The Bearden Foundation wasn't aware the Port Authority might auction off the work, Harris-Kelley said. She said the foundation doesn't have money to help with the relocation or restoration of the work, but would help the Port Authority in any other way.

There also are Bearden murals in subway stations in New York City and Baltimore, she said.

Some Pittsburgh commuters believe Bearden's work should remain here.

Jason McCune, 37, of Dormont, said the piece should be displayed at the new subway station.

"It was a public commission and the public needs to see it, whether they realize what they have or not," said McCune, a graduate student in acting at Point Park University.

Amy Landis, an actor and adjunct professor at Point Park, said, "It's ours. It should stay here."

Talk of moving the artwork elsewhere or selling it is premature, said Renee Piechocki, director of the Office of Public Art in Pittsburgh.

Piechocki said her office and the Heinz Endowments have talked with the Port Authority about moving the Bearden piece to the new subway station when it is built and having ownership transferred to another group. Such conversations are only preliminary, she said.

"I don't think the Port Authority has made any final decisions," Piechocki said. "At least, I hope not."

Bearden, who died in 1988, was considered one of the most innovative American artists of the 20th century. The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., showed 130 works by him in 2003, making Bearden the first black artist to have a solo retrospective at the gallery.

The transit agency also owns a work by Sol LeWitt, an American master of conceptual art, at another subway station. LeWitt's "Thirteen Geometric Figures," 203 feet long and 9 feet tall, was paid for by philanthropist Vira I. Heinz.

The Port Authority has not decided whether to have the LeWitt piece appraised, McNeil said.

The county this year implemented a 10 percent alcoholic drink tax and $2-per-day car rental tax to help pay its $30 million subsidy for the Port Authority.