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August Wilson Center announces new funding, programming

It's been almost a year since the bankrupt August Wilson Center was rescued from becoming a hotel.


August Wilson Center announces new funding, programming

New board members also were announced today

The August Wilson Center for African American Culture is getting an infusion of funding and board members in the new owners’ bid to bring the Downtown building back to life.

At a news conference at 980 Liberty Ave. this morning, the first gathering in which nearly all of the August Wilson Center’s key players were present, it was announced that an invitation is going out to more than 60 regional organizations to submit proposals for afrocentric artworks that will be funded from a $300,000 pool from the Pittsburgh Foundation, with grants ranging from $25,000 to $100,000. The plan is to showcase these homegrown projects, chosen in a peer-review process, at the center next year.

Those projects are in addition to a spate of programming already begun by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and supported by a group of funders. Trust president Kevin McMahon said there were 30 confirmed bookings, 30 in the works and 30 more in line through the end of the year. 

The Trust, now a major partner in the building’s future, has since January been working to get the venue into shape for coming events, and it will continue to operate the facility and provide the shared services — such as marketing, ticketing services and facilities operations — that it offers to other Cultural District venues. Previously, the August Wilson Center had to contract and arrange such services on its own.

It also was announced that Michael Polite, chairman and CEO of Ralph A. Falbo Inc. construction, and Richard W. Taylor, CEO of energy company ImbuTec, have been selected to serve on the governing board of the center. They join founding members Maxwell King, head of the Pittsburgh Foundation; Scott Izzo, director of the Richard King Mellon Foundation; and Grant Oliphant, president of the Heinz Endowments. Plans are to name three more board members who represent the African-American community in Pittsburgh before the end of the year, and the foundation heads will rotate off the board as the new board members join.

“It’s important to remember why we are here,” said Mr. Oliphant, whose efforts to save the center were deemed “heroic” by Mr. King. “This is a moment to celebrate again the saving of a an incredible public asset. It was created with public and charitable dollars. It represents a community interest. It’s also the home for a phenomenal mission, which is about celebrating African-American culture and art, and sometimes people feel the need to add as an addendum to that, that, ‘Oh yeah, but this time we have to connect with the whole community.’ Great African-American culture and art have always been about all of us, and we have to embrace that mission and celebrate it.”

It has been almost a year since the bankrupt center was rescued from becoming a hotel. In an eleventh-hour deal on Sept. 29, 2014, the building was bought for $8.49 million by a coalition of the three foundations, with help from the city and county.

Mr. King said some people have said that he and his foundation partners are working slowly — too slowly — but in introducing Mr. Polite and Mr. Taylor, two business leaders in the community, he said that time was well spent.

“The two people we are announcing today represent exactly the kind of fruits of our taking some time to get it right,” Mr. King said. “We wanted people who were smart, experienced and understand the world of business very well, because we have to make the August Wilson Center a financial success as well as an artistic success.”

Mr. Taylor, who like Mr. Polite is serving on his first arts board, likened the task at hand to the tough decisions made when he was a member of the Port Authority board. He said the decisions made there about cutting back service, about laying off employees “were difficult but focused on the long-term viability of the transit system in the region. ... I think that’s where we are here. There are lots of difficult decisions to be made, but the real focus is how to ensure that this institution is both vibrant and vital and secured for the long-term benefit of the region.”

Mr. Polite accepted the board position as someone who attended events at the center from the beginning in 2009 and wants to see it “survive and thrive,” he said. “We want to create a long-lived asset that will be a resource to learn, to study, to celebrate African-American arts. It’s a living thing, so we can come and enjoy it now, we can look back at the past. ... The next step is to refine a business plan so we can do that.”

In the meantime, the building will be open for business with a growing slate of programs.

The Trust is in the process of completing plans for a four-part series of events that highlight jazz, hip-hop, afrocentric theater and gospel music. Already scheduled events include Grammy-winner Gregory Porter, who is kicking off the Soul Session series on Sept. 20, and a conference for the African American Music Institute on Sept. 23. Other performances include Pittsburgh Dance Council presentations of Philadanco and Ailey II and Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater Co.’s production of “The Piano Lesson,” the first full-length August Wilson play to be performed at the center.

In introducing Janera Solomon, executive director of the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater in East Liberty, Mr. King said her role was pivotal in saving the center and she would continue to be involved in creative projects and educational programs. Additional program recommendations will also come from the newly formed AWC Renewal Inc., which has grown out of the recovery committee spearheaded by Ms. Solomon.

An executive director and/or artistic director will probably be named after the full board is in place, Mr. King said.

As he stepped up to the podium today, he said he had chills being onstage at the August Wilson Center auditorium. A custodian was sweeping the sidewalk outside this morning, and the building seemed to have been scrubbed clean for the new owners’ first progress report.

“It’s an exciting time,” Mr. King said. “The good news today is, we’ve really got some momentum going on a variety of fronts.”

Source: Sharon Eberson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Sharon Eberson: or 412-263-1960. Twitter: @SEberson_pg.



Date Published: 
Thursday, August 27, 2015 | 412-765-1820 |

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