Looking to save the August Wilson Center

Conservator seeks donors for August Wilson Center

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The court-appointed conservator for the August Wilson Center for African American Culture is taking her first stab at raising the profile of -- and money for -- the financially ailing Downtown facility.

At the same time, former U.S. bankruptcy judge Judith Fitzgerald is speaking to a number of organizations interested in either buying or leasing the building or those that have ideas for its use.

"All of it is intended to try to keep the mission of the center viable," she said.

Ms. Fitzgerald was appointed the conservator of the center Nov. 18 by Allegheny County Common Pleas Orphans' Court Judge Lawrence O'Toole in an effort to revive the Liberty Avenue venue.

In her first weeks on the job, Ms. Fitzgerald, who has broad powers to operate and manage the center, laid off six of nine employees and went to court to prevent the electricity from being shut off. The center owes $38,000, according to Duquesne Light.

Ms. Fitzgerald said free events planned for Jan. 20 -- a Haitian art exhibit and two lectures -- are designed to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday and raise the profile of the struggling center.

The exhibit, sponsored by the Friends of Hopital Albert Schweitzer, a Pittsburgh-based charity that does work in Haiti, will feature paintings and metal sculptures "inspired by the interaction and interdependence of the people of rural Haiti with their environment."

One lecture will be given by Lucy and Ian Rawson, who will discuss the artwork. Ms. Rawson is president of the Friends of Hopital Albert Schweitzer, which maintains an office and a gallery of Haitian art in Point Breeze and works in collaboration with Hopital Albert Schweitzer.

The other lecture will be by historian John Ford, who will speak about the civil rights movement, past and present.

While the events are free, Ms. Fitzgerald said the center will accept donations. She is planning a formal fundraiser at a later date.

She has also been talking to public entities and private foundations about releasing previously allocated funds or contributing new money to the center. So far they have refused to do so, "based upon asserted past failures of AWC to carry out promises with transparency," Ms. Fitzgerald said in a Dec. 27 interim report to the court.

"Nonetheless, ultimately if there is a complete refusal of the foundations to provide funds and no public agency or governmental financial support sufficient to determine the viability of AWC, it will be unlikely that AWC can survive," she wrote.

The Pittsburgh Public Schools has expressed an interest in acquiring the center for arts education and performances. Ms. Fitzgerald has not yet met with its representatives.

Mark Belko: mbelko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1262.

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