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August Wilson Center seeking executive director

Natasha Lindstrom
| Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017, 6:12 p.m.
The August Wilson Center for African American Culture on Liberty Avenue.
Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
The August Wilson Center for African American Culture on Liberty Avenue.
The August Wilson Center in downtown Pittsburgh
James Knox | Tribune-Review
The August Wilson Center in downtown Pittsburgh

The August Wilson Center for African American Culture is searching for the first executive director to run the Downtown Pittsburgh nonprofit property since it thwarted foreclosure more than two years ago.

The hire “will become the point-person overall” for the center — built with more than $20 million in taxpayer money — as it attempts to make its revival, said Michael Polite, one of two community members serving alongside foundation executives on the board.

“We have a board, but there are a lot of normal details that an executive of an arts organization will take care of — like putting the business plan together and establishing relationships with our stakeholders so that we can grow those relationships and be more productive,” said Polite, a Squirrel Hill resident and CEO of urban property developer Ralph A. Falbo Inc.

The job posting advertising the opening says the center seeks a candidate with at least 10 years of management experience, a track record of starting or expanding an organization and, preferably, an advanced degree in business, fine arts or project management. The job pays a six-figure salary plus benefits.

The director will oversee an operating budget expected to grow to $2.3 million in 2017, from $1.7 million in 2016, with most of its support coming from grants and the taxpayer-backed Allegheny Regional Asset District.

Polite noted the board has prepared “a significant packet of information to help the person get oriented” on the center's troubled past.

Named for the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright from the Hill District, the center struggled to pay its bills from the day it opened in 2009, plagued by nearly $12 million in debt after failing to budget for construction overruns. It flopped in fewer than five years, leaving in the lurch contractors and workers the center owed hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Three foundations, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald succeeded in stopping efforts by a private developer to buy the property, share space with the center and build a 200-room hotel above it — an outcome they argued would have “destroyed” the nonprofit's mission .

The silver, boat-shaped property now is owned by The Pittsburgh Foundation, whose CEO, Max King, serves on a temporary governance board alongside The Heinz Endowments President Grant Oliphant and Richard King Mellon Foundation Director Scott Izzo.

Pittsburgh Cultural Trust has a management contract to handle the building's rentals and other services such as ticketing and marketing.

In 2016, the first full year the center operated under new leadership, the center hosted 135 events that drew more than 34,000 people, The Pittsburgh Foundation spokesman Doug Root said. All but two of the 135 events were hosted by nonprofits, which usually benefit from grant subsidies or rent space at a discounted rate.

“The board believes this shows that the center is coming into its own as a go-to community space for art exhibition, performance and social events,” Root said.

The center still must figure out how to cultivate more in-house programs and daily foot traffic and to sustain itself in the long term. The three foundations initially pledged to contribute a combined $4.2 million to support the center's operations for at least three years.

The new director will be expected to establish a two- to four-year business plan that includes the likes of non-mission-related revenue streams, which could include opening a cafe or selling the property's air rights for space above the building.

Said Polite, “Our job at this point is to engage people to animate the place and raise money so that we can keep the doors open.”

The center's board is scheduled to discuss more detailed financial data during a board meeting later this month.

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514 or nlindstrom@tribweb.com.

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