Pittsburgh Center Honoring Playwright Finds Itself Short on Visitors and Donors

Trip Gabriel, New York Times, November 24, 2013

The bank has sued to foreclose. The city’s philanthropic groups, with names like Mellon and Heinz, have withdrawn support. The $42 million August Wilson Center for African American Culture, a bow-front building inspired by a Swahili sailing ship, is high and dry.

Named for the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who found a street-savvy poetry in the lives of poor Pittsburgh blacks, the culture center’s plight has been especially painful for those who had hoped it would enshrine the music, art and literature of the urban world he knew.

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Instead, it appears to be a victim of mismanagement by its senior staff and board of directors, who borrowed to build a grand palace of culture, but failed to find a wide enough audience and donor base in the hometown of Wilson, whose plays are mostly set in the Hill District just blocks away.

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On Monday, a state judge handed control of the cultural center to a conservator, usurping its board in a final effort to avoid liquidation. The bank that holds the mortgage, which has gone unpaid for months, is advancing $25,000 to pay the conservator. The culture center is flat broke.

Mark Clayton Southers, a former director of its theater program, said the Wilson center struggled to find an audience among the people Wilson portrayed: working-class blacks, many of whom feel unwelcome downtown with its skyscrapers and largely white-owned businesses, he added.

“You can’t build it and they will come,” Mr. Southers said. “Not when you’re trying to work with a community that is not traditional theatergoers or cultural consumers.”

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Wilson, who died in 2005, turned the lives of trash haulers, landladies and cabdrivers scarred by racism into a cycle of 10 plays, one for each decade of the 20th century. Almost all are set in the Hill District where Wilson grew up, the son of a black cleaning woman and a white father who largely abandoned him. Most of the plays ran on Broadway, including “The Piano Lesson” and “Fences,” which starred James Earl Jones.

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After raising $36 million from government and private sources, the center took on a fateful $11 million bank loan to complete construction of its sleek blocklong building. Last week its doors were open, but a lone receptionist was the only sign of activity. The United States Steel Foundation Grand Staircase was untrod. The Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation Gallery was stripped to its white walls.

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Dollar Bank, which held the loan, sued to foreclose in September after not being paid for eight months.

Supporters of the center hope the appointment of a conservator to make decisions in place of the board will restore the confidence of local foundations. But the conservator, Judith K. Fitzgerald, a former federal bankruptcy judge, will have limited time before the bank renews its push to liquidate.

To keep the lights on, the center rents its theater on Sunday mornings to a largely white megachurch, whose sign is the only one in the large windows.

“An African-American culture center is now a white church,” Mr. Udin said. “August would find that very comical.”

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