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Foundering August Wilson Center a hub of missed opportunities, observers say

| Saturday, Sept. 28, 2013, 11:57 p.m.
August Wilson is buried in Greenwood Cemetery in O’Hara, but he spent most of his time in St. Paul, Minn., and Seattle, where he died of liver cancer on Oct. 2, 2005.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
August Wilson is buried in Greenwood Cemetery in O’Hara, but he spent most of his time in St. Paul, Minn., and Seattle, where he died of liver cancer on Oct. 2, 2005.
August Wilson’s boyhood home on Bedford Avenue in the Hill District was named a historic landmark on May 30, 2007. His nephew, Paul Ellis, hopes to transform the building and adjacent property into a creative space for artists.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
August Wilson’s boyhood home on Bedford Avenue in the Hill District was named a historic landmark on May 30, 2007. His nephew, Paul Ellis, hopes to transform the building and adjacent property into a creative space for artists.
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.

Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson recounted his love-hate relationship with his hometown of Pittsburgh many times before his death in 2005.

“It's somehow harder to do almost anything you want to do in Pittsburgh than it is anywhere else,” Wilson told the New Pittsburgh Courier in 1992. “But it's who I am. The city has molded and shaped me, in large part, to who I am. I cannot divorce myself.”

Wilson's prickly relationship with the city seems to be replaying in the struggles of the financially strapped Downtown cultural center that bears his name.

Four years after it opened to rave reviews and high hopes that it would draw international audiences, the August Wilson Center for African American Culture has some people wondering whose culture it reflects.

Interim Director Oliver Byrd, a retired bank executive and former board member who became the center's third director in four years, earlier this month issued a detailed letter explaining the center's challenges.

Byrd declined to elaborate on plans for this story.

“Our focus is on delivering results, and our experience in responding to hypothetical things people say about what it takes has not been particularly fruitful,” Byrd told the Tribune-Review.

On Thursday, Dollar Bank notified the Allegheny County Sheriff's Office that it planned to foreclose against the center for defaulting on a $7.06 million mortgage. The bank said the center hasn't made payments since January and asked a judge to appoint a receiver. The center ended fiscal 2013 with a $1.8 million deficit.

Wilson, born in 1945, grew up in the Hill District as one of six children of a black cleaning woman and a white German immigrant baker who was absent for much of Wilson's life. When his father died in 1965, Wilson, born Frederick August Kittel, took his mother Daisy's maiden name.

A self-educated writer who left Pittsburgh's Central Catholic High School amid racial taunts, Wilson rose to fame by writing plays known as the Pittsburgh Cycle while living in St. Paul and Seattle. He left Pittsburgh in 1978.

His plays “Fences,” “The Piano Lesson” and “Jitney,” soaring poetic works grounded in the day-to-day lives of blacks in the Hill District, shone a laser on the cancer of racism. Through them, “The Hill” became famous on Broadway and beyond.

Four months after Wilson's death, a group that spearheaded the construction of a black cultural center in Pittsburgh added his name to it, vowing to honor the playwright's spirit.

Yet except for an interactive art and history exhibit, the August Wilson Center bears little trace of Wilson, whom some consider the 20th century's greatest American playwright.

A gift shop that carried Wilson's works and mementos of black artists and athletes is shuttered and locked. The street-level café is vacant, its empty tables and chairs reminders of absent patrons.

Although Wilson returned to Pittsburgh often and immersed himself in the city's arts community, he lived in Seattle. He is buried in Greenwood Cemetery in O'Hara.

The grave's headstone is modest. Designers of the August Wilson Center, on the other hand, spared little to produce the ultramodern, $40 million facility. The center, built in the Cultural District about a mile from the Hill, includes a theater, a gallery, classrooms and a dance studio. On a recent weekday afternoon, a security guard at the front desk was the only person in the center.

Its newest tenant, Orchard Hill Church, a largely white Wexford megachurch, will rent the center on Sunday mornings for the next year.

Orchard Hill spokesman Kevin Cotter said 100 church members pledged to trek into the city as the church seeks a toehold among Downtown's growing residential population.

“It's a leap of faith, an answer to prayer,” Cotter said.

Wilson's niece Kimberly Ellis, who directs the Historic Hill Institute and runs Fierce Star Media, said it sounds like a steady stream of income.

“That's funding (the center) can depend upon every Sunday,” she said, likening the church attendees to season subscribers.

A $7.1 million debt dating to unforeseen construction costs and significant declines in contributions between 2010 and 2012 forced the center's board to scrutinize its budget and operating staff. Several employees lost jobs in the spring.

Ellis is helping her brother Paul promote renovation of the three-story brick row house in the Hill where Daisy Wilson raised her family. Ellis said she has volunteered to help with the center's digital marketing strategy.

“I want them to succeed for sure. I don't want the August Wilson Center to be just a shell, a building where there is no meaning,” Ellis said.

Ellis isn't on the center's board and said she's not privy to its operating problems.

Many civic leaders who are active in the city's arts community declined to comment, saying they know nothing about the center's operation. Some acknowledged their hesitancy to be quoted about a touchy issue with racial undertones.

Others were blunt.

Eric A. Smith, managing director of Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company, said center officials must promote the building to black Pittsburghers and local artists.

Bypassing local artists sends a message to outsiders about what Pittsburgh values, and that is the wrong message, Smith said.

Esther Bush, president of the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh and a former member of the center's governing board, remains its staunch supporter.

“But it might be time to sit down and re-evaluate the mission and vision of the center and re-evaluate the audience they are trying to bring in,” Bush said.

Popular shows, such as the play written by actor-producer Tyler Perry that Bush attended at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Oakland, can draw large crowds.

“I think we need to have a variety of creative performances on the stage and not miss any opportunity to host a function,” Bush said.

Doris Carson Williams, president of the African American Chamber of Commerce of Western Pennsylvania and a former board member, said the center “needs to be all-inclusive and represent all aspects of the community, including young people who have wonderful ideas.”

“The center is a wonderful place. It has great acoustics and gallery spaces. It could be utilized a lot better than it is,” she said.

Dan Martin, dean of the College of Fine Arts at Carnegie Mellon University and former director of the university's Institute for the Management of Creative Enterprises, said many arts venues initially founder.

“It is based on the mentality of the movie ‘Field of Dreams,' that if you build it, they will come. It's a great movie theme, but it's a terrible strategy for operating a place like the Wilson Center,” Martin said.

Martin urged center officials to market rental opportunities aggressively and host a variety of creative arts.

“What has to happen is the creation of a sense of relevancy in the stakeholders so people see value in it and want to contribute to it,” he said.

Former Pittsburgh Councilwoman Tonya Payne said center officials were not interested in accepting her business when she called several times last year to book a Christmas party.

“I thought maybe it was just because it was me calling, so I asked someone else to call. They never got back to her either,” Payne said.

Others related similar stories, but bookings suggest that unresponsiveness may be changing.

On Saturday, the center will offer a daylong schedule of activities following the city's African American Heritage Day Parade. Later in October, it will host Zimmerman & DePerrot, a corps of five circus artists and dancers presented by the Pittsburgh Dance Council.

NEED, a scholarship program for black students, will hold its gala there on Oct. 19, and the Women and Girls Foundation will host its annual function on Nov. 16.

Bill Strickland, who founded the acclaimed Manchester Craftsmen's Guild in the North Side to bring art and jazz to the community, said he knows little about the center.

“But I have great admiration for their objectives and goals,” he said, urging center leaders to “engage the community.”

Mario Garcia Durham, president of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters in Washington, said venues across the country experienced similar growing pains, including Philadelphia's Kimmel Center, the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami and the Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco.

“In the best-case scenario, the organization assesses what its assets are in the community and looks at how it is operating,” Durham said. “All of the organizations I listed pulled out (of their trouble) and are doing OK, if not thriving.

“We all hope it works itself out. You have a wonderful building and a wonderful community that wants to make this a success.”

Debra Erdley is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or

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