Wilson Center could rise from failings

Originally published in the Globe Oct. 29,2014

The turbulent history of the August Wilson Center for African American Culture seems to be finally turning a new chapter.

The Center, recently cleared of the majority of its outstanding debts, can now move on under new, and hopefully competent, leadership with a chance to redeem itself.
Opened in 2009, the August Wilson Center was envisioned as a hub for African-American arts and culture and was named for the famous Hill District playwright. However, financial mismanagement, miscommunication and misuse of resources turned what could have been a thriving center for the black community, arts and culture into little more than a venue for outside programming. It resulted in an impressive $8.6 million debt to Dollar Bank, as well as thousands more owed to vendors and staff.

After a long and tedious legal battle to sell the Center, a collaborative, city-wide effort, including three Pittsburgh institutions – the Pittsburgh Foundation, the Heinz Endowments and the Richard King Mellon Foundation – and over $3 million donated from public resources, managed to buy it back, keeping it out of the hands of a New York hotel builder, as reported by the Post-Gazette on Oct. 21.

Hopefully this new leadership will look to the past to keep the Center from going under again.

The community has lost a great deal of faith in the Center, and to win it back there has to be a top-down, organization-wide, sincere and open devotion to the mission and the community.

The Center tried to operate mostly independently, eschewing help from outside organizations and resources.
We learned through its failure that the internal focus didn’t work, and we have to move past it in order to create an organization that is most artistically and financially stable.

The Center’s mission of “preserving, presenting, interpreting, celebrating and shaping the art, culture and history of African Americans,” according to the Center’s website, should be its guide. If they want to cultivate arts and culture, they have to spend their resources in arts and culture. They should invest in new artists, in community outreach and in new media to grow and thrive in the already-buzzing Cultural District.

To cultivate African American arts and culture, the Center has to step out of its doors and exist out in the community. If it is to fulfill its mission, it has to do more than remember, reflect and preserve the past; it has to bring up new artists, amplify new voices and create a place where new ideas can grow. While celebrating and processing the past, it needs to look to the future, to current artists and to new conversations.

And a part of these conversations need to center on social justice. In a day where people are marching in the street carrying signs that read, “Black Lives Matter” in protest against police brutality, there needs to be a place to come together and process and heal. Artistic expression has always been an integral part of revolutions and of recovery, and the August Wilson Center can be a concentrated force for art, for culture and for justice in the city of Pittsburgh. And that needs to be outlined clearly in its mission and in its leadership.

For the August Wilson Center for African American Culture to truly fulfill its mission and to cultivate art and culture and act as a safe space for processing and healing, there needs to be an open dialogue with community leaders, a spotlight not just on Pittsburgh’s history but on new artists and new voices and a clear commitment to social justice.

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