PITTSBURGH — (AP) — The day she became CEO of the August Wilson African American Cultural Center, Janis Burley Wilson walked through the Downtown Pittsburgh building’s reflective glass doors to find its interior completely empty.
“There were no phones or computers, no printer, pencils or pens or any supplies,” Burley Wilson said about her first morning on the job in fall 2017.
Just three years earlier, the $40 million performing arts center, built with $17.4 million in taxpayer dollars, had narrowly thwarted foreclosure and closing for good.
And once Burley Wilson plugged in new phones, they started ringing with calls from jilted vendors who never got paid for events, cleaning or security work they did for the performing arts venue years before. She’d apologize and explain that they wouldn’t be getting any money. A judge had discharged about a $1 million in prior debts, and the center had become a new legal entity under different leadership.
“It’s the same building, but everything else is completely different. So those aren’t our bills, our debts,” Burley Wilson said. “It’s upsetting to know that people extended themselves, or companies extended themselves, and then were never rewarded for it. … “But I think people believe us now, and they’ve seen what we have done in the last two and a half years.”
More than a decade since its 2009 grand opening and five years after confronting a sheriff’s sale, the relaunched August Wilson Center appears to be on track for making the comeback its supporters have banked on.
“I feel positive about the center on every front,” said Grant Oliphant, president and CEO of The Heinz Endowments, one of the center’s largest funders. “It feels more alive to me than it has in a long time, and maybe ever.”
Bookings up, donor base grows
Burley Wilson and her first employee, director of administration Denise Church, set to work prioritizing their next steps, including rebuilding trust among vendors, donors and the public. They aimed to prove the center named for the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright from the Hill District could fulfill its mission of producing high-quality programs that celebrate the African American experience while maintaining fiscal solvency.
“We owe it to this community to ensure that this organization is successful, is responsible to the community and provides programming that the community can participate in and enjoy,” said Burley Wilson, who grew up in Penn Hills and has family ties to Penn Township and Pittsburgh’s Hill District and Homewood neighborhoods.
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Everything from charity galas and networking receptions to major theatrical productions, arts festivals, a speaker’s series and musical performances now light up the center and its 492-seat theater on a weekly basis.
The 46,500-square-foot center at Liberty Avenue and William Penn Place offers gallery exhibits open to the public Wednesdays through Sundays and an increasing number of music, dance, youth educational and other events. A kitchen construction project in the works in a space intended for a cafe that will allow for more types of events that require freshly prepared food, Burley Wilson said.
Last year, the center held 227 events, of which 87 were produced and presented by the center.
The number of privately booked rentals increased to 140, “which is great for our sustainability,” Burley Wilson said.
The individual donor base has grown from none when she began to more than 300, and more corporate and philanthropic sponsors have pledged money from across the region as well as outside Pennsylvania.
“We’ve gone from three foundations supporting the center in 2017 when I started to 13 — two of them being national foundations,” Burley Wilson said. “Our goal is to continue to diversify and attract more national foundations and corporate sponsors to supporting the programs that we have here.”
The center’s annual operating budget has increased from $1.77 million in 2015, with slightly more than 5% coming from earned income, to a 2020 budget of $7.25 million, according to financial documents filed with the Allegheny Regional Asset District. Next year’s projected earned revenue will reach $1.25 million, or about 17% of the budget.
Burley Wilson said she’s striving to get the percentage of earned income up to closer to 30% or 40%, in line with similar nonprofit arts organizations that have been around longer. She knew it wouldn’t be easy to helm the turnaround of the gleaming, silver building, whose triangular facade is shaped like a boat — a feature the architect describes as an urban art depiction of “the majestic sailing ships that transported Swahili culture from East Africa.”
The fledgling CEO quickly decided it would take a combination of growing and diversifying sources of revenue and identifying key people and partners to help.
“We couldn’t do what we do without the support of the foundations, their confidence in the leadership and the individuals that come out and buy tickets,” she said.
Buoyed by public, foundation money in addition to the $17 million in taxpayer money, it took another $20 million from local foundations to construct the building. Millions of dollars more in public and foundation money have been spent in the past four years to overhaul the so-called “AWC 2.0.,” foundation and public records show.
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who joined Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto in a heated battle jockeying over the building to keep it from being sold to a private developer in 2014, acknowledged that “there’s been a lot of public dollars spent on the center, a significant public investment.” He’s pleased with its past few years of progress.
“It’s been a good, steady improvement,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s stabilized financially and looks to be on the upswing, especially compared to where it was.”
The first time around, the August Wilson Center struggled to pay its bills from the day it opened to the public in 2009 and grappled with nearly $12 million in debt after failing to budget for construction overruns. It folded in less than five years.
“Watching the ups and downs of the August Wilson Center were very emotional for me and for so many others,” said Burley Wilson, who previously spent 15 years as programming director at The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, where she spawned popular events such as the Gallery Crawl and Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival. “People had great hopes in a successful cultural center, and I’m really excited to say that we are on our way to getting there.”
A judge discharged the former center’s unpaid debts when the deal struck among city, county and foundation leaders prevented a developer whose bid was $1 million higher from buying the property and constructing a hotel tower above it. The Pittsburgh Foundation bought the center from mortgage holder Dollar Bank for $7.96 million in November 2014, after a contentious receivership process that dragged on for nearly a year. The deal totaled $8.85 million and included $3.15 million in taxpayer money via the Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority and Allegheny Regional Asset District, which is funded by county sales tax revenue.
“I think it was the right way to go,” Fitzgerald said.
Oliphant maintains a seat on the board that owns the property, the African American Cultural Center, along with a representative of the Richard King Mellon Foundation, The Pittsburgh Foundation CEO Lisa Schroeder and black business leaders such as Michael Polite, chairman and CEO of urban property developer Ralph A. Falbo Inc., and attorney Richard W. Taylor, CEO of energy-saving lighting supplier ImbuTec.
“As a nonprofit leader working in Pittsburgh six years ago, my heart broke for the dire situation that the Wilson Center faced,” Schroeder said. “Now, from my perspective as a board member and as head of one of the foundations that saved it from closing, the turnaround in financial health and public interest in programming has been nothing short of remarkable.”
The organization plans to expand the board up to 18 members.
Sala Udin, a former Pittsburgh councilman who advocated against the developer’s purchase of the property, said that he believes things at the center are “going pretty good, could be better.” He said he hopes as the board expands, those running it and making key decisions will include not only black members, but black Pittsburghers with strong ties to local culture and history.
Foundation leaders initially warned that they couldn’t be the only major funders propping up the center indefinitely.
“We have stuck around longer than we initially planned, and that’s at the request of Janis (Burley Wilson) and the rest of the board,” Oliphant said. “They have felt that it’s important to continue our participation in it, and we’ve agreed.”
The Heinz Endowments has contributed $5.56 million toward the overhauled center since 2014, with nearly $1 million or more contributed to center and the Cultural Trust’s initial post-bailout management in 2015-16, foundation records show. After contributing $956,000 in 2018, the Heinz Endowments increased its 2019 grant to $1.4 million, including $100,000 worth of sponsorships.
“Those are big grants for us relative to other cultural and arts organizations,” Oliphant said, “but we believe that the center is still very much in a critical startup phase, and it needs capitalization and resources.”
The Pittsburgh Foundation contributed $300,000 in 2015 and 2016, plus support for programs, communication needs and financial management in 2017.
Public dollars still subsidize the center in the form of $500,000 to $750,000 awarded annually by RAD.
Careful, calculated growth
The center’s payroll has grown from two people in 2017 up to 12, plus a team of guest services, ushers and contracted stagehands.
“We’ve grown very slowly and taken calculated and careful steps in how we expand our programming and our staffing,” Burley Wilson said.
Burley Wilson pointed to decor and items used by the office and center staff that were donated or scooped up at an extreme discount, such as two bright-orange chairs in her office that she found at a flea market.
“We’re not going to be splurging on anything that isn’t a necessity,” she said. “We’re working on the basics — the HVAC, the kitchen, things like that.”
The center aims not only to draw tourists from outside of Pennsylvania but also reach out to more Western Pennsylvanians in Pittsburgh’s suburbs, through the likes of school field trips and free or low-cost dance, art and educational classes.
The boon is happening as August Wilson gains fresh recognition nationally, with Denzel Washington reprising Wilson’s plays via “Fences” in movie theaters nationwide and a Netflix original production of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” filmed in Pittsburgh last year. The Daisy Wilson Artist Community restoring his Hill District childhood home as a public arts space. Burley Wilson foresees collaborations and joint tourism or student visits that involve both locations.
“One of our goals is to educate the community on who August Wilson was and why this building is named after him,” Burley Wilson said. “He’s one of the most important playwrights in history because of what he did, which was to tell the story of the African American experience throughout the 20th century. He was a historian who used theater and used the characters in his life, in his community, to tell his stories.”
Information from: Tribune-Review, http://triblive.com
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