David Conrad Hearts Art

This hometown Hollywood star, who keeps a loft in the Strip District and supports the local arts scene, will serve as Honorary Centennial Chair for the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh's 100th year.

With an impressive and idiosyncratic array of paintings and photographs by local talent that sprawls through his Strip District loft, his former prep school and a Los Angeles apartment, David Conrad is a real-life rare character: a collector whose passion is for the Pittsburgh region rather than for the paintings.

"The arts thing is actually small. I don’t spend much money on art," says the Swissvale-born screen, stage and television actor, whose credits most recently include CBS’ Emmy award-winning "Ghost Whisperer."

"I want to make sure young artists can pay the rent and stay here. My interest is in the city itself. The arts are the colors of that."

That’s why Conrad is as passionate about the region’s efforts to preserve its history as he is about the contemporary arts scene. He’s a board member for Rivers of Steel, which is the effort to interpret the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio river valleys’ steelmaking past, and also sits on the board at the Mattress Factory, the North Side’s out-there museum of contemporary art installations.

He’s also the Honorary Chairman for the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh’s Centennial Exhibition. Conrad, who will serve as the AAP ambassador for the year, earned the nod after winning a majority of votes from AAP committee members, who were forced to narrow down a lengthy list of candidates. But the choice was easy, seeing as though Conrad has displayed a "long-running support" for the organization.

"It’s his humanity, his down-to-earth attitude, his genuineness," says Susan Sparks, AAP vice president and Centennial co-chairwoman. "He genuinely cares about arts in the region."

david conrad

In his Strip District loft, David Conrad showcases a small portion of his art collection. Conrad is the honorary centennial chairman of the Association Artists of Pittsburgh 100th anniversary celebration.

This celebration of the region’s arts history is a natural extension of those interests. "It’s like getting to know [topography]," he says. "You bike around; you see where the water flows. I get a feel for the cultural landscape."

Among the local artists Conrad collects are such acknowledged masters as Robert Qualters, along with newcomers like Ben Matthews, whose carefully distressed canvases resemble surreal advertising posters.

Conrad admires the landscapes of Bedford’s Kevin Kutz as well as the gritty industrial still lifes of 29-year-old Colin Noonan. He’s particularly intrigued with the work of Stowe Township’s Fabrizio Gerbino, a Florence-trained painter whose works have been exhibited locally.

A particular favorite of Conrad’s is Charlee Brodsky, the documentary photographer who shared his fascination with the region’s industrial history.

During his college years at Brown University and The Julliard School, Conrad worked with volunteers assessing early efforts to evaluate the remnants of Big Steel in the Mon Valley. "I remember going into J&L and walking around. It was as if [the steelworkers] left yesterday—shoes were there; lockers were open," he recalls.

"The artifacts represented the history of a people that got wiped out, and I was fascinated with how that got recorded," he goes on to say. So he began to collect Brodsky’s photos and later met her through Qualters.

Conrad refuses allegiance to a particular artistic aesthetic. "I like sculpture, painting, painterly photography. I like AC/DC and Stravinsky," he says. "I have catholic tastes," he says. "That’s the advantage and the drawback of being an actor—I empathize."

When Conrad’s collection grew beyond the confines of his home, his thoughts turned to the walls of the Kiski School. A 1985 graduate of the Westmoreland County boys academy, Conrad returns often and serves on the school’s board of trustees. The Saltsburg school’s broad lawns and public spaces sparked an idea: Donate the works to a place where they could inspire a new generation.

Now, that collection of 151 works, valued at $300,000, is exhibited throughout the campus: A 1,500-year-old Hindu bust peers from a second-story sunroom, while oversized quilts and paintings brighten building stairwells. "I don’t care if [the students] think it’s wallpaper," he laughs. "I want it to be part of their daily life. That’s my only goal."

Back in the Strip District, in a loft he calls "a box of light," Conrad is surrounded by frescos and framed paintings (including a bathroom full of nudes).

A glass mosaic by Edgewood’s Daviea Davis flows from the living space to a balcony, flanked by an 8-foot-tall screen of ornamental ironwork. Conrad designed the motif for the screen, which was executed by the city’s Red Star Ironworks.

More framed works clutter tabletops and floors, but that doesn’t mean the actor is putting the brakes on his local collection. He happily points to a handful of small pieces he’s just picked up at Art All Night, the annual Lawrenceville art show. "If what I get [from acting work] can support others’ work, that’s great," he says. 

For more about AAP centennial exhibits and events, visit aapgh.org.

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