The rise and fall of the August Wilson Center

The August Wilson Center for African American Culture had so much promise.

The organization dreamed big, staged provocative programs and sold out shows. It also alienated allies, changed its vision and failed to raise the funds necessary to even heat the building.

The center's downward slide culminated in January with a court order to liquidate its dwindling assets. It was not yet five years old.

How the August Wilson Center came to this point is a hard lesson in poor management meeting bad luck. The messy cocktail left the center's promise unfulfilled.

Initial visions

The 65,000-square-foot center in Downtown's Cultural District contains a 486-seat theater, galleries and several multipurpose rooms, but the hope of opening a center in Pittsburgh dedicated to African-American culture far preceded the August Wilson Center.

Advocates for such a facility had pioneered earlier efforts. Artist Emma Slaughter, for example, co-founded the Homewood Art Museum, along with Melvin Campbell, after the Selma Burke Art Center in East Liberty closed in 1981. The museum owns land on Frankstown Avenue in Homewood, near the Carrone Baptist Church.

In the 1980s and '90s, the museum produced community and arts events on its own land and in galleries elsewhere. But the organization could never raise enough money to build on the site. It has "become a blight," Ms. Slaughter said recently.

As an advocate for putting a facility in Homewood, Ms. Slaughter is unsympathetic to the August Wilson Center's struggles and has never visited the Downtown location.

The center was "our vision, and we were here first," she said. "There would be no August Wilson [Center] if there wasn't us first."

Those early efforts, said Hill District artist and entrepreneur Kimberly Ellis, demonstrate that there was a need and an interest for this type of facility.

"The black community was supporting the center before it was the August Wilson Center," said Ms. Ellis, who is the niece of the late August Wilson, the renowned 20th century playwright who grew up in the Hill District.

In 1997, Pittsburgh hosted the NAACP's national convention. To prepare for the event, its local chapter had published the previous year a document titled "Plans for Progress," which aimed to improve the circumstances of African-Americans in Pittsburgh, including by creating a facility dedicated to black culture.

Then-Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy expressed his support for the cause, as did the Heinz Endowments and The Pittsburgh Foundation, said Mulugetta Birru, one of the center's founders, who at the time was director of the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority. The foundations would even provide funding to conduct a national search for an executive director.

"We're saying, 'We got to do this right,' and the region really supported it," Mr. Birru said.

A steering committee visited cultural institutions in cities such as Philadelphia, Chicago, Kansas City and Baltimore -- "especially ones that failed," said former City Councilman Sala Udin, one of the center's founders. The group settled on a cultural center model, which, Mr. Udin said, would keep customers coming back.

The fledgling organization started to raise funds. From 1998 to 2002, the URA accepted $750,000 from the Allegheny Regional Asset District on behalf of what was then called the African American Cultural Center of Greater Pittsburgh, which was incorporated as a nonprofit in 2002. It was named after August Wilson in 2006, following his death in 2005.

Where it should go

One of the most significant tensions early on was where to put the facility, whether in a predominantely black neighborhood -- such as the Hill District or Homewood -- or Downtown. Site-selection consultants were hired.

A Downtown site was everyone's second choice, Mr. Birru said. There were plans to create satellite venues in black neighborhoods, but those never materialized.

Armed with powers of eminent domain and a budget of $6 million, the URA took over land at 980 Liberty Ave., which had been occupied by a restaurant, a strip club, an adult bookstore, a parking lot and two former building lots.

At the time, critics such as Jake Haulk of the think tank Allegheny Institute thought that planting a new, costly venue in the Cultural District was too ambitious.

Mr. Udin disagreed. "We decided early on in this process that we had a right to dream big, that we had a right to a new building, that we had a right to have a building smack-dab in the Cultural District," he said. "We decided we had a right to go first-class, and that's what that building represents."

In 2003, the nonprofit hired as its first president and CEO Neil A. Barclay, a lawyer who had served as associate director of the Performing Arts Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

That year, Allison G. Williams, a prominent African-American architect in San Francisco, won a competition to design the center. The design featured the building's trademark "sail" facade, which she said was inspired by Swahili trading ships that carried East African culture to distant shores.

Meanwhile, organizers leased office space Downtown and started putting on visual arts, dance and music programs in 2004, the same year they received a $4 million Heinz Endowments grant.

"The instinct there was not to wait until the building was built to build a constituency for it," said Mr. Barclay, who directed the center from 2003-09.

Despite the progress, the project ran into obstacles that delayed construction and spiraled costs out of control. It broke ground on Oct. 18, 2006, but construction didn't begin until August 2007.

"There were some pretty remarkable price changes that happened over the course of the construction," said Mr. Barclay, who is now executive director of the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans.

The early budget was too small, he said, and "really was just picked out of thin air," prior to receiving the architectural sketches and performing other cost-related analyses.

Although accounts differ, initial plans included building components that would have brought in revenue: on-site parking, a restaurant, a gift shop and even a boutique hotel or housing atop the center. Because of cash shortages and an inability to find tenants, those ideas were abandoned, and the building was scaled back in size. Putting in the infrastructure to support housing or a hotel above the center increased costs to the total project but never brought in revenue, Mr. Barclay said.

Moreover, there were issues transferring ownership of the land and contaminants found in the soil that required remediation costs of an unexpected $3 million, Mr. Birru said. The delays took construction into the recession.

By the time the center opened in September 2009, costs had risen to $42 million. That price tag was roughly 27 percent over its 2003 budget of $33 million. That earlier amount included $3.5 million from the city, $2.5 million from Allegheny County and $10 million from the state. It was completed with a $11.2 million loan from a bank consortium.

Mr. Barclay announced his resignation in May 2009, at what he said was a natural point to depart. Marva Harris, a retired senior vice president for PNC, stepped in as interim CEO and got the center opened in September 2009.

Moving forward

Mark Clayton Southers' story is one of those feel-good Pittsburgh chronicles that everybody loves. He was a steelworker at U.S. Steel's Irvin Plant, but he quit after 19 years to pursue his passion for theater full time. He then led a new resident theater program at the August Wilson Center.

His hiring symbolized a shift in the artistic vision of the center, embodied by its president and CEO, Andre Kimo Stone Guess, who came on in 2010 after serving as vice president of Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York.

Under Mr. Guess' leadership, the center shifted from a presenting to a producing organization, with local artists leading programming in dance, visual arts, jazz and theater, the latter under Mr. Southers. The Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre also agreed to stage one of its productions each year in the center's theater. The new vision would turn the center into what Mr. Guess called at the time "a world-class program that everyone could be proud of."

Its resident companies included the Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra and the August Wilson Center Dance Ensemble, which in 2012 Dance Magazine named one of its top 25 ensembles to watch.

The shift marked a transition between the old and new visions of the center.

"The notion of having resident companies and all that was never part of the original plan," said Mr. Barclay, the first CEO. "This was after the physical plant had been opened and built, and it was of a certain sophistication and size that required a certain business model."

The center's new leaders had a strong vision, but it had been left with enormous debts and could not catch up.

Thanks to foundations, Dollar Bank and the URA, it restructured its debt over several years to $7 million from $11.2 million.

Mr. Udin said the new leadership was marked by an alignment between the president of the board Aaron Walton, a Highmark executive, and Mr. Guess.

"We rolled off the board in 2010 and a new group of board members took over," Mr. Udin said. "I think that was a mistake for us, to rotate out the board."

Neither Mr. Walton nor Mr. Guess returned requests for interviews.

Kevin McMahon, president and CEO of the Cultural Trust, supported the new approach at the time, but, he said recently, "there was a presumption on all parts that there was an ability to do it, meaning there were resources to do it, and of course we know now that was not the case."

In the background, tensions between staff members escalated. From the beginning, poor marketing impeded audience size and revenue. And funders became worried about financial records that were not transparent and audits that were delayed.

The fundraising struggles, in some former staff members' views, have to do with issues of class and race. Mr. Southers pointed out that Pittsburgh does not have a large base of affluent African-American patrons on whom the center could depend.

One of the issues, said Mr. Southers, is that black Pittsburghers are "not used to coming Downtown in the first place."

"I think the individual giving was probably the slowest and the hardest to materialize," said Mr. Barclay, although he said that is typical of institutions that lack donors with deep pockets.

Mr. Udin, one of the founders, agreed. "I think we lacked the professional experience necessary to raise that level of funding," he said.

Still, Mr. Southers pointed out that the center is meant for everyone, not just black patrons.

And given the center's mission to appeal to all patrons, said Mr. McMahon, the funding, too, "could be expected to be broader-based than only the African-American community."

Mr. Udin said it could have been in the center's best interests to have shifted the initial criteria for selecting its leaders, as the center searched for out-of-town leaders with experience in African-American cultural management.

"Neither Neil nor Andre were sufficiently interested in financial management," Mr. Udin said.

He believed the center could have benefited from a more diverse board.

"The August Wilson Center has to surrender the notion that the board has to be all African-American, or even predominantly African-American," Mr. Udin said.

Mr. Southers said it was just doomed by its own debt.

"The weight and the stress of the debt was so overwhelming, it numbed folks," he said.

And a small budget, he said, compromised the center's ability to execute programming.

He assumes some of the funds meant for programming went to pay bills. "That's how the center survived as long as it did," he said.

When Mr. Guess left at the end of his contract in July 2012, "the organization was in a serious cash-flow crisis," said Mr. Udin. "By that time, vendors hadn't been paid for months, some staff had been laid off, the staff was close to mutiny -- the ones that remained -- vendors banging on the door, and out of cash."

He and Oliver Byrd, another one of the center's founders, returned as co-executive directors and raised enough money to keep some of the staff and vendors in place, Mr. Udin said.

But in March 2013, RAD suspended its grant for the center, which it had funded since 1998. The following May, the organization laid off Mr. Southers and several other staffers. On Sept. 26, 2013, Dollar Bank moved to foreclose on the building and have it sold to recover $7 million owed on the mortgage since February.

Court-appointed conservator Judge Judith Fitzgerald is moving forward with liquidation of the center after she found "simply no possibility of continued viability of [the August Wilson Center] as it currently exists." A court filing she wrote said the HVAC system was so dysfunctional that the temperature at the center stood below 60 degrees. And the organization faced lawsuits for overdue payments. Dollar Bank advanced funds for utilities and maintenance.

She is collecting proposals from prospective buyers by March 31 to have the building's acquisition settled by June 30.

Out of their hands

A few weeks ago, patrons filled the August Wilson Center, browsing through the galleries, considering the contributions of artists from its namesake playwright to jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal. Others watched a ballet show in the theater or smaller performances and demonstrations in the building's alternative spaces.

The August Wilson Center, however, had little to do with the evening's programs -- they were put on by the Cultural Trust as part of First Night celebrations. The dancers were from local troupes, not the center's own. There were educational programs, but they were presented by an outstide nonprofit, HackPittsburgh. A sign in front advertised the Orchard Hill Church services, taking place on Sundays at the center.

The building that Pittsburgh had sunk tens of millions of dollars into, decades into, the work of dozens of people into, had become a rental facility. What will happen now is out of their hands.

Up the main set of stairs that run parallel to pictures taken by former Pittsburgh Courier photographer Charles "Teenie" Harris, away from the bare-walled gallery, past the wooden sculpture by local artist Thaddeus Mosley, through a classroom, tucked inside the furnished donor lounge looking out over Liberty Avenue, was a painting of August Wilson.

The room was empty.

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