Deep in financial trouble, August Wilson Center lays off staff


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The August Wilson Center for African American Culture laid off staff members Friday as it scrambles to keep the $40 million Downtown facility afloat in the face of a nonexistent revenue stream, fundraising shortfalls and loans to be paid.

Oliver Byrd, interim president and CEO, said fewer than a dozen staffers were furloughed as the process of retooling takes shape for the center, which includes exhibition spaces and a performing arts auditorium and houses the nationally recognized August Wilson Dance Ensemble.

Mark Clayton Southers, who coordinated theater programming for the center and heads the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company, said Friday, "My last day was today at the August Wilson Center and I am hoping that one day things will improve so that we can do a really successful theater program there." He said a July production of August Wilson's "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" has been canceled.

"The dance ensemble will continue to thrive," said Greer Reed, the center's artistic director of dance, who wouldn't say Friday if she had been let go and referred questions to Mr. Byrd, who would say only that not all of the four artistic directors at the center were furloughed. The others are Cecille Shellman (visual arts) and Sean Jones (music).

"The business model we've been working under for four years will not allow us to be sustainable long term," said Mr. Byrd, former senior vice president at BNY Mellon and a founding chairperson of the August Wilson Center, who noted that discussions began as the organization headed toward the end of the fiscal year.

"What we said is, 'Look, we've been at this for four years since the building opened, we know what works and what doesn't.' This is an appropriate time to re-establish the direction of how we are going to go. Since I'm sitting here as an interim, it's better to do that now before you've gone out to recruit for a permanent president and CEO."

The building with a distinctive sailboat feature at 980 Liberty Ave., which opened in 2009 on the edge of Pittsburgh's Cultural District, had suffered financial woes from its earliest days. Costs of construction skyrocketed, and the center then struggled to find a foothold while pursuing its stated purpose: to engage "regional and national audiences in its mission of preserving, presenting, interpreting, celebrating and shaping the art, culture and history of African Americans utilizing the rich history, legacy and culture of African Americans from Western Pennsylvania as a foundation."

"Everyone knows that quality art doesn't pay for itself completely," Mr. Byrd said. "But we've not met the expectations we had at the time we opened the building."

He said that he was using the term "furlough" as opposed to layoffs, because the center did not want to imply that the position isn't needed. "Furlough means that at this time we can't afford to have the position filled."

In its 990 tax form last year, the center reported expenses of more than $6 million and $4 million in fiscal years 2010 and 2011, and deficits of $1.6 million and $390,000, respectively, in the same period. Its assets are listed at about the price tag of the building.

Last year, the center refinanced its mortgage to $7 million over four years from $11.2 million, thanks to the R.K. Mellon and Kresge foundations, the Urban Redevelopment Authority and Dollar Bank. At the same time, the center received a $100,000 season sponsorship from Chuck Sanders Charities.

Ben Benack, the vice president of marketing for Dollar Bank, would not comment on the state of the loan. "We certainly have an active loan relationship with the August Wilson Center, but I can't comment on what is a private relationship between the bank and the borrower."

Andre Kimo Stone Guess, who left as CEO last year after two years at the helm, said helping to negotiate the loan relief was one of his last acts with the center. "A confluence of circumstances, paramount among them economic," has worked against the center, he said, but he expected the organization to bounce back.

"It's a one-of-a-kind institution as I've said many times, for a city like Pittsburgh, so steeped in history, particularly African-American history, it's also a sorely needed institution. I hope whatever bumps it's facing will be a distant memory soon," he said.

His hopes had been to create an atmosphere of collaboration among artists in different disciplines, and that hasn't changed. "One thing I learned quickly is the level of artistic ability is incomparable for a city its size," he said.

In its search for a new leader, the center named Sala Udin and Mr. Byrd as interim co-directors. Mr. Udin was still listed as a co-director on the website Friday, but said he has not been in that role since the second week in April, which was confirmed by Mr. Byrd.

The August Wilson Center is an independent organization that has associations with Downtown groups such as the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, which presented three shows at the center in March. Kevin McMahon, president and CEO of the trust, said his organization would continue to be supportive of the center.

Local donors and foundations have supported programming at the center with millions of dollars, but some of those relationships are in a holding pattern as the center has not provided required financial information to the charitable institutions.

"It's apparent the August Wilson Center is struggling through a very difficult financial situation," said Grant Oliphant, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Foundation. "Our hope, obviously, is that there will be a process that they will undertake to work out a financial and operating plan that will attract funding and allow them to stay open. The Pittsburgh Foundation remains supportive of the August Wilson Center and hopes that they will be successful in working through that process."

"The reason why so many foundations, so much of the community, are supportive is the type of programming the August Wilson Center does so well and is important to the community," said Doug Root, spokesman for the Heinz Endowments.

"Our hope would be that there would be a process leading to a reliable plan for the long term," Mr. Root said. "If there's a process to get to that place, I expect the [Heinz] Endowments to be part of it."

Mr. Byrd said summer is typically a slow time for the organization and that this seemed like a good time to begin the retooling process. Without being specific about cuts, he said there would be a reduced schedule of programming, such as new works "that bear a heavy cost." The First Voice Festival of works by the center's resident fellows that kicks off next Friday would go on, he said.

"I'm a longtimer, I was here from the point when this was an idea," he said. "I always knew that putting together a business model would be challenged once the building was opened in September 2009. ... I think we've seen enough to know that some of the assumptions we put into place haven't come to be and it's time to take a critical self-evaluation and make the appropriate changes."

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Sharon Eberson: seberson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1960. First Published May 10, 2013 9:00 PM


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