At the August Wilson Center, a distant light

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Even when it was flying high, the August Wilson Center for African American Culture was never well lit at street level, especially in the morning.

Pittsburghers walking or driving to work along Liberty Avenue could see an architecturally distinct building, but not a particularly inviting one. The lighting in the lobby where it should've been brightest was always minimal. It was as if those running the August Wilson Center wanted people to guess what was happening inside.

Last week, Dollar Bank moved to foreclose on the center to recover $7 million owed on the mortgage. The center has missed every mortgage payment since February, earning the unenviable reputation as a deadbeat in a sea of relative stability in the Cultural District.

This week, another shoe in the endless parade of footwear dropped when the Regional Asset District announced that it would not provide funding to the center in its 2014 preliminary budget, instead holding the $300,000 payment in contingency.

At a time when tens of thousands filled Downtown's streets and bridges last Friday to get a glimpse of a 40-foot-tall yellow rubber duck, the August Wilson Center was failing spectacularly. How is it possible for the center to fail at a time when ordinary Pittsburghers have never been more open-minded about art and culture -- even when it is silly and absurd -- than they are at this moment?

The headlines in recent months have trumpeted the success of a new generation of artists who got their start here before leaving for New York and national acclaim when the pickings got slim.

Several months ago, actor Billy Porter became the toast of Broadway by winning the Tony Award for best male lead for his role as an entrepreneurial-minded transvestite in the musical "Kinky Boots."

In a recent Brooklyn Museum show that received universal rave reviews, Braddock native LaToya Ruby Frazier stunned the photography world with a series of haunting black-and-white images that captured the pathos and promise of her struggling river town.

Dancer Kyle Abraham received a prestigious MacArthur "genius" award last week for his innovative stage work exploring, among other things, the role of violence in urban communities.

All of these artists are from humble circumstances. Their triumph points to the potential of Pittsburgh-bred artists to perform at the highest levels if they're restless, fierce and open-minded enough to meet every challenge.

Great artists who elected to stay and work in Pittsburgh -- such as Vanessa German, Karla Boos, Ben Opie, Terrance Hayes, Mark Southers and Squonk Opera -- are evidence that this city retains just enough gravitational pull to keep top-line artistic talent here if there are enough quality venues for expression.

This is why the failure of the August Wilson Center to become a major player on the art scene here has been so profoundly disappointing.

The center had a renowned dance troupe and respected jazz orchestra, but it failed to become a forum for great art performed on stage on a regular basis. From day one, the center should have used its creative and flexible gallery space to make a statement about the kind of work it wanted to showcase.

The center should have operated as an incubator for up-and-coming talent. It should have been a place that honored the past as well as the present and future by taking artists and their work seriously. Instead, it was a venue for all that was predictable, safe and cheap. It became a rental hall. It reflected the leadership's lack of bold ideas and artistic convictions.

Let's be blunt. The August Wilson Center was saddled with a crushing financial debt thanks to cost overruns during construction, but it was also weighed down by uninspired and weirdly passive leadership. Andre Kimo Stone Guess, the CEO from 2010 to 2012, was at least a visionary, but he didn't have the financial resources to make anything of substance happen.

This week, the lights are completely out at street level at the August Wilson Center, but that won't be for long. There are more than enough people around the region with deep pockets who want the center to succeed. Fortunately, they have the talent and strategic vision to transform it into a place worthy of August Wilson's name. Pittsburghers would turn out for that as enthusiastically as they did for a 40-foot rubber duck.

tonynorman

Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1631 or on Twitter @TonyNormanPG.


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