Young artists try August Wilson Center role

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Several months ago, I wrote a series of columns (May 17, May 28 and May 31) about the August Wilson Center for African American Culture and its ongoing financial and leadership challenges.

The columns were prompted by reports that the August Wilson Center had laid off most of its staff and had, for all intents and purposes, gone dark on that end of Liberty Avenue.

Phone calls, emails and encouraging words from people inside and outside Pittsburgh's cultural community poured in to me. Those columns tapped into what had become a general, but mostly unstated, anxiety about the center and its long-term viability.

Everyone agrees that the August Wilson Center needs both visionary leadership and savvy financial management. Most of all, it needs the kind of community support that can nurture and sustain an institution of its size and ambition.

Despite its struggles, the center has not closed its doors. Exhibits and lectures still draw crowds, but the reality of its debt -- most of it incurred by cost overruns during construction -- is ever present. The August Wilson Center won't have a viable future without a plan that dramatically reduces its debt.

Recently, I had the opportunity to be a fly on the wall at a meeting of concerned artists and thinkers who came together to discuss the center. The conversation took place at choreographer Staycee Pearl's dance studio in the East End.

A lot of ideas got batted around, knocked down, praised and sometimes suffocated during the nearly three-hour gathering. Wine flowed and there was devil's advocacy a-plenty as bold ideas were challenged, dismantled and reconstructed. Voices were raised, but never in anger. There was a contagious, fiery enthusiasm in the room.

The tragedy was that despite their prominence in Pittsburgh's cultural community, none of the participants has input at the August Wilson Center. They're concerned that the absence of news from the center about its restructuring is bad news. Rumors are flying about what will happen to the building and whether the center will simply cease to exist.

Last week, four of those who participated in that meeting sent an open letter to the center's leadership. This is an excerpt:

"The August Wilson Center for African American Art and Culture is a vital regional asset where cutting-edge ideas reflective of the best of the African Diaspora can be shared with broad audiences, and it deserves a sustainable future.

"As a group of concerned citizens, we have come together to express our deep concern with the lack of transparency in the leadership's current decision-making. We believe that leaders of a critical community institution like the center have an obligation to inform and engage the community -- even when the news is unpleasant.

"We ask that the board and executive leadership of the center engage a wider band of cultural leaders to guide the center. There is a vibrant new generation of artists and cultural producers in the region who deeply believe in the vision of the center as a world-class institution that celebrates the breadth and depth of the black experience.

"We stand ready to assume leadership positions in the efforts to restructure the center and make it the unique cultural beacon we know it can become.

"We ask that the executive leadership of the center provide current reports of changes in the center's operating status.

"Since the May announcement of layoffs and financial troubles, there has been inadequate communication from the center's leadership to the community. Given the central role the center plays in the cultural life and cultural diversity of the Pittsburgh region, this is unacceptable.

"We ask that the board of the center share strategies currently being considered to stabilize the center at a town hall meeting. We all knew the establishment of the center would be a challenge; however the past year has been especially distressing to the community.

"The chronic instability of the center reflects poorly on the entire Pittsburgh region and the community should be more aware and engaged in vetting the strategies being pursued to solve the center's financial difficulties.

"These simple steps will put the center on a path to regaining the public trust and becoming the galvanizing cultural force first imagined.

"Respectfully, Vanessa German, Kilolo Luckett, Staycee Pearl, janera solomon."

As of last week, the concerned citizens who wrote this letter were still waiting for an answer from the director of the August Wilson Center.


Tony Norman:, 412-263-1631 or on Twitter @TonyNormanPG. First Published September 3, 2013 4:00 AM


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