You might say that Celeste Smith’s take on the arts is supported by two pillars. One is discoverable the minute you ask her about “the arts”—dollars to donuts, her answer begins by requesting that the conversation be about “arts and culture” (she counts watching her mom bake and choose home décor among her earliest experiences of “the arts”). Art blossomed in Smith’s family: Not only is she herself a writer, artist, photographer, filmmaker, fashion blogger, and stylist, her grandmother was a writer, and her sister is a novelist, as yet unpublished. “If we don’t receive support or encouragement, we’re still artists,” she says, “just not ones that have been strongly supported.” That’s the other pillar. And as program officer for Arts and Culture at the Pittsburgh Foundation, she’s well-positioned to use both pillars to elevate the experience of art for creators and audiences across the region.
Smith grew up in Chicago. She started working as a shampoo girl at the age of 12, worked in an ice cream store in high school, and ended up taking the civil service exam. “I was raised Jehovah’s Witness and we thought the world was going to end, so I figured I would just learn to type,” she says. Smith spent several years rising through the ranks in several government agencies. Then her partner, artist and activist Jasiri X, proposed and they moved to Pittsburgh, where X grew up.
In Pittsburgh, Smith continued working in government while X worked in Pittsburgh Public Schools and got more into both activism and performing hip hop. “One day Justin Laing, who was a program officer at the Heinz Endowments, called Jasiri and said ‘You know you can get funding for the type of music you do, right?’,” she says. “So Jasiri came home one day with a grant application and said ‘Hey, you think you can write one of these?’ I was like ‘I don’t know; I’ll try!’ And we started getting them.”
In 2008, Smith decided to leave her day job to focus on managing her partner’s ascendant career and on being CEO of 1Hood Media, which grew out of an organization that X had co-founded in 2006. That was the year that a group of men, including X, came together to address violence within and against their community. The scope expanded quickly. “It’s an intergenerational arts/activism/social justice/entrepreneurial hub with all these different facets and I’m so proud of it and all the people we work with,” says Smith.
After a few years of managing X and leading 1Hood Media, “I was like ‘Yo!” Smith laughs. “I took German for eight years in grammar school; how does he get to go to Germany! I grew up reading about all these Biblical lands, and he finds himself in Israel and Palestine! Then I heard this voice—you could say it was God or whatever, but I say it was my baby I was pregnant with—whispering to me, ‘You can live your life and support others, too.’”
Smith realized that she was one class short of completing her Associate of Arts degree at Community College of Allegheny County. She did that, then turned to Chatham’s Gateway program for adult students for her bachelor’s. “Chatham had the dopest teachers ever,” she says. “(Adjunct Professor) Deborah Prise was super helpful and looked at me with eyes that I did not look at myself with. She had me write prior learning assessments for life experience that I myself did not celebrate. (Adjunct Professor) Deborah Hosking used to let me bring my baby to her media literacy class, and that was how I got through Chatham.”
Smith had been pursuing a degree in Film and Digital Technology, but, she says, “one day I went to a job fair at CMU and saw an arts management booth, and I was like ‘There’s a title for this thing I’ve been doing all along?’ So I shifted my major, because I had been doing the videos to help my husband with his videos, but if God forbid something should happen to my marriage, I’m not making videos.” With prior learning assessments and testing out of courses, Smith was able to earn her B.A. in about a year and a half, with, she says, “three kids, a business, a husband who travels, and a 3.6 GPA.”
Smith graduated in 2013 and started “running 1Hood not in the shadows, but really up front.” She handled marketing, fundraising, staff management, budget management, public relations, and program development while continuing to involve herself in Pittsburgh’s artistic and philanthropic communities. “Just by being in spaces and taking opportunities, I ended up on the radar,” she says, noting a consulting job at the August Wilson Center she did in 2017. “Then the Heinz Endowments invited Jasiri to speak at an event around moral leadership, but he was going to be out of town. So they asked if I would speak, and I did. I got so much love from that speaking engagement. I’m still getting emails about it.” Maxwell King, the president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Foundation was in the audience that day. When he interviewed Smith for her current position, he told her how impressed he was.
So what is it like to be a program officer for Arts and Culture? “People think that program officers can just write checks but it doesn’t work like that,” Smith explains. “My job is to make sure artists have what they need to apply for grants, then review their proposals, and advocate for them. When I was a grantee, I had support from program officers, and a big part of my job is to pay that forward. And mentoring young women–that’s part of not only my work with the Pittsburgh Foundation but also my life’s mission, to share what I know.”
As for her goals for her new role, “I want to see more equity in Pittsburgh’s arts and culture landscape,” Smith says. “So many reports show that funds are distributed in an unequitable way, and I see part of my role as bringing attention to that. We support smaller arts organizations, but also ask people in large arts organizations to look at their programs and see if they align with racial equity and equality of voice, and holding them accountable if they are not. I can’t make anyone do anything, but I can ask what they’re doing to help advance our initiatives.”
“We need to listen to the field, because the field talks all the time. Whether it’s a Facebook post or a sigh. The field is always telling us what we need to do.”
While Smith has devoted her professional life to helping others get the recognition they deserve, the pendulum is swinging the other way. She was a Walker’s Legacy Power 50 honoree in 2016, an Artist in Residency at The Art Institute of Chicago in 2016, a Coro Individual Leadership Nominee in 2017 and 2018, a Coro Organization Leadership Nominee in 2018, and a SXSW Community Service Awards honoree in 2018.
Smith maintains ties with Chatham, both as an alumna and as a program officer. She spoke at Hosking’s Media Arts class (“Deborah said to me, remember that presentation you gave? Can you update it and come back?”), has a meeting scheduled with the MFA in Creative Writing’s Word Without Walls program, and plans to meet with some others, too. “If I’m going to be there, I try to reach out to the professors who have helped me, because there might be other ‘me’s’ there. There might be a sister who needs encouragement.”
We asked Smith to tell us about five underrated Pittsburgh arts and culture organizations. Here’s what she said:
Kente Arts Alliance
“They are a husband and wife team on the North Side, doing jazz, on the ground work, mentoring, that we need to pay attention to.”
Staycee Pearl Dance Project
“They really do great work, traveling all over the place. So innovative, so on point, so in touch with the younger generation.”
The Flower House
“They are doing so much in terms of opening space for artists. What with the entire city being gentrified, affordable places for artists to present are so scarce. Very socially conscious, very open.”
Yoga Roots on Location
“I think the work that Felicia is doing is incredible in terms of putting people in touch with their own bodies and their own minds…I think a lot of the stress management that she offers is absolutely essential in our field.”
The Legacy Arts Project
“If you’re an artist but you don’t have a 501c3, you can’t accept grant money directly, you need a conduit. That’s what Legacy Arts did for 1Hood before we got our own non-profit. They host Dance Africa each year, which is so dope and incorporates an intergenerational approach to the arts.”