Tony Norman: August Wilson Center's story not so tidy

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Maybe I'm slow, but I'm not as horrified as the region's two top pols by the prospect of an unnamed hotel developer buying the bankrupt August Wilson Center for African American Culture, retiring its debt and granting the cultural institution all the space it needs to continue its mission -- ill-defined as it may be.

County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Mayor Bill Peduto have called for the ouster of the center's appointed conservator, Judith Fitzgerald, because she favors the developer's $9.5 million bid over a $4 million bid put forth by several regional foundations. The two local leaders' position is almost perverse, given everything the public doesn't know about the lower offer.

It could be that Mr. Peduto and Mr. Fitzgerald are privy to details of the foundations' plans to create an "ongoing revenue stream" for the center that would make it more independent than it would be as one more budget item in someone's corporate portfolio.

I would have no problem favoring a lower bid, too, if it meant the center's inclusion as part of the Carnegie Museums system. From the beginning the August Wilson Center should've been treated like every other major cultural institution of its size and scope in this region. The Andy Warhol Museum would have failed without the resources of the Carnegie Museums, too.

Instead, the center was compelled to try to find a niche for itself in the Cultural District while carrying an unserviceable debt and no reliable funding stream. It was dependent on the largesse of the foundations to supplement rental income and door receipts.

The center also was hobbled by a lack of resourceful leadership. Its board of directors, though well-meaning, was unable to address its unique challenges. The center's leaders never developed a strategic vision audacious or clever enough to guide it into solvency and cultural relevance.

They also had no realistic plan to deal with marginal support from Pittsburgh's black community -- the one constituency everyone assumed would embrace the center's mission.

There are two genuine miracles in Pittsburgh history -- the Immaculate Reception is one; the ability to greenlight a $40 million African-American cultural center Downtown is the other. Only God knows how either one of these things happened in Pittsburgh.

I understand Mr. Peduto and Mr. Fitzgerald's concern that a secretive hotel-related bid could amount to a Faustian deal in the long run. After all, when a former bankruptcy judge like Ms. Fitzgerald is weighing competing bids, she is likely to take the one that makes Dollar Bank whole while seeking to preserve as much of the center's mission as possible.

Dollar Bank, which was in the business of making a profit the last time I looked, loaned the center $7 million when it was a very bad risk. Dollar Bank was either exceptionally generous or criminally stupid when it did so, but it isn't fair to tag it as "greedy" just because it wants to get its money back.

Now, I have no doubt that the lower bid from the foundations is a better fit temperamentally for the center, but waiting until the eleventh hour to show their hand may have backfired on the foundations, especially since their plans for a dedicated revenue stream remain mostly under wraps. It isn't enough to say "trust us" when the stakes are this high.

Frankly, I'm relieved that the unknown high bidder is willing to build a hotel on top of the center and has no interest in demolishing it. Assuming the mysterious bidder has a design in mind that complements such a unique structure, he also must have figured out a solution to the parking problem on that end of town. The schematics will be very interesting.

More than anything, the center needs new leadership, a new board with no holdovers and a more inclusive vision of its mission going forward. It may be time to jettison the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in favor of -- the August Wilson Center.

After all, the late Pittsburgh playwright was half-German. He was well-versed in both the lore of Pittsburgh's Hill District and in European and American modernist traditions. His work displayed a synthesis of many intellectual and artistic traditions, so the cultural center that bears his name should be just as eclectic.

African-American artistic expression should remain a focus of the August Wilson Center, but there's no reason to limit its cultural palette to just one color, no matter how rich. The new, improved August Wilson Center could succeed if it dared to embrace the dynamism of its namesake.

Every citizen would have a stake in an institution that truly honors the messy, complicated reality of artistic and cultural expression in Pittsburgh.

Tony Norman:, 412-263-1631 or on Twitter @TonyNormanPG.

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