Ruth Ann Dailey: August Wilson Center deserves corporate help

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Today the August Wilson Center for African American Culture is open, hosting free events to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

What will happen to it two weeks from now is anyone's guess.

Its potential demise is reverberating well beyond Pittsburgh. In fact, its demise seems, perplexingly, to matter more elsewhere than it does here -- though you can never underestimate the amount of behind-the-scenes maneuvering in this city.

Within days of a judge's mid-November decision to put the center under a conservator's control, The New York Times published a substantial story on its struggles.

New York City is the epicenter of American theater, of course, and August Wilson, Pittsburgh born and raised, was and still is one of the nation's greatest playwrights. You'd think there would be a greater local outcry about the center's predicament.

"Not talking about the problem" prevents finding a solution, said Mark Clayton Southers, former director of the center's theater program.

Mr. Southers was one of very few people to discuss the problem on the record with the Times in November, and no one here seems surprised by such reluctance.

Like the Times, Mr. Southers attributes the center's crisis to its burden of debt.

Actually the Times's article is at odds with its headline. While the story finally identifies the "fateful $11 million bank loan to complete construction of its sleek block-long building," its headline says, "Pittsburgh center honoring playwright finds itself short on visitors and donors."

Yes, no and -- well, it's complicated.

In November and again this weekend, Mr. Southers spoke of the difficulty of reaching working-class blacks -- the Pittsburghers whom August Wilson's plays celebrate -- who are "not traditional theatergoers or cultural consumers," and attracting them as visitors and sustainers.

For starters, though, how big is Pittsburgh's population of working-class blacks? Too small for civic satisfaction. In the 2010 census, our region had the highest rate of poverty among working-age blacks of the nation's 40 largest metropolitan areas.

That sad fact leaves a smaller-than-normal pool of middle- or upper-class blacks who do have the means to support cultural enterprises. The pool's smallness might also explain the reluctance of individual members to discuss what the Times called "mismanagement by [the center's] senior staff and board of directors."

Whatever the demographics, should blacks of any economic strata be the only visitors at the August Wilson Center? Are Slovakian-Americans the only ones who go to the Andy Warhol Museum?

And perhaps the biggest question is whether visitors and donors of any race or ethnicity could overcome the enormous debt incurred by the aforementioned board. Servicing that debt -- the mortgage now stands at $7 million -- left pennies for staff and programming.

"There was one person in marketing to represent four genres -- music, dance, visual art and theater," said Mr. Southers, who is also founder and director of Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company.

"It was a very ambitious undertaking. Nothing else in the city comes close," Mr. Southers claims. "They could have had a wonderful success if they'd been properly armed to get it done."

Being armed means being funded but, turned off by the center's lack of transparency or wisdom, the nonprofit world is now withholding its funds. And the Regional Asset District is withholding its allocations until the foundations release their grants. It's a Catch-22.

Pennsylvania's ambitious Attorney General Kathleen Kane is investigating the center's finances. While she sorts out the past, court-appointed conservator Judith Fitzgerald tries to lay the groundwork for a healthy future, but she faces a Feb. 3 deadline for her work.

"We bail out the banks if we want a healthy country," Mr. Southers observes. "The center should be bailed out if we want a healthy city."

I agree, with this qualification: A nonprofit devoted to preserving our heritage is much more deserving of help. Banks are for-profit enterprises, and their owners and stewards should reap the consequences of their actions (though not to the point of national devastation).

We have a higher collective responsibility to save our own culture, and August Wilson's legacy is an important part of American and Pittsburgh history. RAD, which handles taxpayer money, and the privately funded foundations should release and leverage their resources to ensure a future for the August Wilson Center.

If Mr. Southers could direct a happy ending, corporations would retire the center's debt, after which, he says, individuals and foundations "would gladly give" to support cultural programming. "I won't say it's an easy fix, but it's a doable fix."

And it's a happy ending Pittsburgh needs.

Ruth Ann Dailey:

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