How to make the August Wilson Center central

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Two weeks ago, I made a modest proposal about how the August Wilson Center for African American Culture could get into an economically self-sustaining groove. The August Wilson Center had just laid off a sizable chunk of its staff after failing to make payment on a bank loan.

The $40 million boat-shaped structure was suddenly looking like the most elegant of ghost ships adrift in the heart of the Cultural District. Unless it comes up with a plan that convinces the foundations that have kept it afloat for four years that it has a sustainable vision for itself going forward, it is doomed to run aground on the rocky shoals of insolvency.

But not all the vision and clever sailing in the world will save the August Wilson Center if it is unable to restructure its crushing debt, most of it incurred by cost overruns during construction. Because of this debt, the center was financially shackled before it ever opened its doors.

My suggestions were meant to be a conversation starter and not a comprehensive checklist of what the center had to do -- or else. In the week that followed, phone calls and emails came in. If there's one thing this town will never have a shortage of, it is unsolicited advice.

I was impressed by the range of ideas regarding the revitalization of the August Wilson Center's mission. What I've gathered here are only a few of the ideas that merit serious consideration as the center seeks new leadership.

The August Wilson Center should take a look at what the Heinz History Center just a few blocks away did. People may have a hard time remembering it now, but the Heinz also struggled when it opened its doors. No matter how conscientious its presentation of the region's colonial history and proud steel heritage was, rotating these kinds of exhibits couldn't pay the bills forever.

Someone had the brilliant idea of introducing a sports museum component to the Heinz History Center to generate more foot traffic from average Yinzers who aren't as obsessed with the history of the Whiskey Rebellion as they should be.

Anniversary exhibitions about the Immaculate Reception and other legendary sports events joined the center's rotation. The Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum now resides in the Heinz History Center.

Judging by the constant stream of kids and grown-ups who can be seen trekking to and from the center wearing gear proclaiming their favorite team, the sports museum has become a big hit without compromising the Heinz Center's primary mission.

Many believe the August Wilson Center could emulate this tactic by incorporating a Pittsburgh Jazz and Rock 'n' Roll Museum and performance space of some sort into the center.

The list of legendary jazz musicians who called Pittsburgh home is breathtaking: Errol Garner, Lena Horne, Billy Eckstine, Earl "Fatha" Hines, Billy Strayhorn, Mary Lou Williams, Stanley Turrentine -- you get the point.

Joe Negri and Roger Humphries are still with us. Why not install their bands as permanent fixtures of the August Wilson Center's performance calendar every month? Declare an annual George Benson celebration at the center and get him back to town for a week of sold-out performances until he drops dead. Make room for veteran blues singers like Billy Price and avant-garde performers like Ben Opie. Challenge audiences while entertaining them.

Get the old WDUQ-FM gang to emcee these events in partnership with a radio station willing to be a part of Pittsburgh's rejuvenated jazz history. Partner with the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild or the Pittsburgh Jazz Society, otherwise it won't happen.

Make room for Pittsburgh's massive pop music history, too. Pittsburghers are nothing if not nostalgic for any record Porky Chedwick ever spun. Let's exploit that sentimentality for the greater good of the August Wilson Center. Have at least one oldies night a month with young deejays spinning old vinyl. It will be packed.

Build a space at ground level where various local restaurants can rotate an ever-changing menu featuring wild ethnic dishes. Serve lunch with music performed by a different local band every day. Always keep folks guessing and curious about what is happening on that end of Liberty Avenue. That alone will create endless buzz.

In other words, the center can't afford to be static for even a day. Between constant theater, dance, jazz and spoken word performances, it should be twice as adventurous as the Andy Warhol Museum at all times. It should become Downtown's nexus of cool. Extend its hours into the night and marvel at what happens. (More unsolicited advice to come.)


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


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