Conboy’s dedication to a new generation of art lovers is matched by his commitment to Pittsburgh’s artists. “I was thinking about how difficult it is for artists to engage new audiences, and the one demographic that I figured out couldn’t say ‘no’ was babies,” he says. “They kind of have to take that gift.” While Conboy holds an MFA in photography, his own multidisciplinary approach led him to expand the scope of the project beyond just photographers. Other artists he has partnered with thus far include printmakers, embroiderers, and even a poet, each receiving a modest honorarium.
“I’ve been working with a mix between artists I was already familiar with and people whose work I respect but maybe didn’t know personally,” he says. Before any artist takes on the project and submits a photograph, Conboy meets with them one-on-one to discuss Start with Art and to ensure they will be fully invested. He also provides a small note of direction. “I tell them not to pander to the babies. I want these babies and the families to enjoy these works as much today as in 30 or 50 years,” he says. “It doesn’t need to be a duckling or a lamb, it doesn’t need to be in pastels. I want it to be a serious piece.”
As such, artists are granted freedom in style and subject matter for the work they contribute. “It ranges from landscapes to abstractions to extremely conceptual artworks,” Conboy explains, pointing to a print featured this December that portrays a sculpture created in the woods by Danny Bracken. Artists can choose to share an existing work or create something new, a decision that often inspires artists to venture beyond their existing practices. “Some enjoy going out and creating something entirely new, and that’s usually most common with people who aren’t already photographers,” he says, noting that some of the artists shot on film for the first time in these works. This past July, for instance, he worked with poet Jessica Server, who included a printout of one of her poems in her photograph.