Sinking ship? The August Wilson Center still deserves a rescue

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The August Wilson Center for African American Culture isn't half a decade old, but, like the protagonists in its namesake's plays, it has seen more than its share of hard times.

Last week, Dollar Bank filed papers to foreclose on the 4-year-old center because of its failure to make a monthly mortgage payment since the beginning of this year toward the $7 million owed on its loan. On Tuesday the preliminary budget proposed by the Allegheny Regional Asset District, which allocates revenue from the county's 1 percent sales tax, for the first time will withhold funding -- $300,000 -- for the center. In a futile cost-cutting measure, some of the center's staff was laid off in the spring.

Part of the center's crippling debt is due to cost overruns during construction. But even if the architecturally ambitious, $40 million building on the edge of the Cultural District had come in under budget, the center would still have needed more engagement with the community to make it economically viable.

While there's justifiable pride in its existence, there's little sense of ownership among Pittsburgh's African-American citizens about the August Wilson Center. It has never ranked high in the cultural or intellectual lives of a cross-section of Pittsburghers despite its potential to be one of Downtown's most impressive venues.

Despite a nationally acclaimed dance troupe and a theater program that had hoped to stage August Wilson plays in some form year-round, the center's programming was safe and predictable. Because of the institution's financial constraints, there was little bold about its artistic offerings.

The center is at a crossroads. Its debt must be addressed if it is to have a future. Its director and advisory board should be replaced by a rescue team with a track record for turning around moribund cultural institutions. Aggressive fundraising and corporate partnerships will be necessary, but under the present circumstances, how do you enlist support for a sinking ship?

More than anything, the center needs a strategic vision that engages and excites a broad sweep of the community. Bold programming that will put people in the seats requires bold thinkers and planners worthy of the August Wilson name. Under the right leadership, the center named for the great playwright could still become one of Downtown's most exciting destinations.

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