Despite the best hopes and support of civic leaders and funding by sympathetic foundations, the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, with its 486-seat theater, galleries and several multipurpose rooms, never developed a financial foundation to survive on its own. It showcased African-American cultural events that often had their origins elsewhere and failed to raise new funds on its own, gradually sliding into bankruptcy after failing to pay its mortgage.
This economic scenario reminds us of the advice of Pittsburgh’s own Andrew Carnegie, who built Carnegie Hall in New York in 1891 knowing that a music venue itself would never guarantee economic survival, but that by building an addition with artists’ lofts and workshops, he could assist it financially with rental income. Five years later he did this, despite some objections to the architecture, and the hall did survive and was occupied by generations of creative people. For example, artist John White Alexander painted his murals of the “Crowning of Labor” for the staircase hall at Carnegie Institute in a New York Carnegie Hall atelier and shipped the large paintings to Pittsburgh.
In Pittsburgh in 1895 Carnegie built Carnegie Music Hall for a new Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, knowing that unless benefactors after himself supported it, the orchestra itself would not survive. By 1910 the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra was out of business, not to be revived until a decade had passed, and then at Syria Mosque, a nearby location with many more seats to encourage revenue. Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Music Hall endured as part of the large architectural complex that was free to the public for decades, including the much visited central branch of the public library and the museums of art and natural history.
As the future of the August Wilson Center is debated, it might be worth considering adding workspaces and apartments for creative people, a solution that Wilson himself could applaud.
ROBERT J. GANGEWERE
The writer is the author of “Palace of Culture: Andrew Carnegie’s Museums and Library in Pittsburgh.”