Saving grace: The August Wilson Center needs more time

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Judith Fitzgerald, the conservator appointed by a U.S. bankruptcy judge to try to save the August Wilson Center for African American Culture recommended this week that the 4-year-old Downtown building be sold and its assets liquidated to pay off its $10 million debt. Saving the center was, in her opinion, “an impossible task.”

But on Friday the center’s founders asked Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Lawrence O’Toole to name a new conservator — one who would take a different approach to rescuing the once-promising cultural site. We have to agree.

What’s needed to save the center is more time, forbearance from creditors and a signal to foundations, other potential funders and the public that the center is willing to make necessary changes to become a vibrant, financially sound institution. Its mission needs to be rebranded and refocused in a way that attracts steady patronage and monetary support.

One way to show it means business would be to start fresh, with a new board and a new director untainted by the failures of the last four years. The leaders must also provide the transparency that responsible donors demand. If such changes could attract visionary backers with enough resources to retire the center’s estimated total debt of up to $10 million, it would give the institution the breathing room needed to build programs that would entice the public and generate additional support.

A new approach might be to broaden the center’s mission to give attention to all the city’s ethnic groups. Making it the August Wilson Center of Urban Culture would link it to the Jews, Italians, Poles, Syrians and other minorities who lived in the Hill District and contributed to the city’s diversity. That would give more Pittsburghers than African-Americans a stake in the Downtown center.

There are other creative ways to make the center viable once it is no longer saddled by debt. Public officials such as County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Mayor Bill Peduto have been trying to work out a plan, and their conversation needs to include cultural leaders, corporate CEOs and committed nonprofits.

With a little more time and collaboration, under the watchful eye of a supportive conservator, the August Wilson Center can be saved and return to its days of promise.

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