The Pittsburgh Foundation

Update on the August Wilson Center

Update on the August Wilson Center

With the signing of financial and legal documents on Nov. 5 that completed the sale of the August Wilson Center, The Pittsburgh Foundation’s board and staff are celebrating the return to the public of a building freed from debt that now has the potential to distinguish the region as home to one of the most important institutions in the country dedicated to African American art and culture.

Despite the length of this journey and its complexity, our foundation’s board and staff are proud to have worked with African American artists and arts organizations in the cultural community, members of the August Wilson Center Recovery Committee, The Heinz Endowments, Richard King Mellon Foundation, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Allegheny County Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald to save this cultural asset.

These stakeholders supported the foundations’ attempt to buy the August Wilson Center building from the court-appointed Receiver during the liquidation process, but creditors pressing claims against the previous entity in control of the Center led to a Sheriff’s sale. That process waives all claims and transfers title free and clear – a requirement for the foundations, which are charged with protecting philanthropic assets from documented and unknown liabilities.

With the sale completed, our foundations group is moving into a quieter phase to take stock of the building’s condition, develop a financially sound operations structure and re-open the building to present high-quality, primarily African American artistic works and cultural programming, in keeping with the Center’s charter covenants that many groups fought to protect.

As part of this process, the foundation group will continue working with community stakeholders such as the August Wilson Center Recovery Committee to create a series of guidelines that cover how African American artists and arts organizations will have access to the Center, use of a sliding-scale rental fee or fee-subsidy option, and the process for setting realistic revenue projections that will guide the Center’s day-to-day operation. This work reflects a commitment by the three foundations’ boards and public sector partners to ensure that the substantial philanthropic investments we have made in the Center will make it a valued arts and entertainment destination for Pittsburgh residents and visitors.   

To begin re-structuring, a temporary governance body has been formed. It is made up of the heads of the three long-time supporting foundations – Grant Oliphant, president and CEO of the Endowments, Scott Izzo, director of R.K. Mellon, and Maxwell King, president and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation, who will serve as chair.

The goal is that within three to six months, the temporary governance body will dissolve and be replaced with a permanent management and operations, or Building Board – three to five community members with the majority being African American. The members will have expertise in nonprofit facilities management, business or finance, and be committed to advancing arts and cultural programming rooted in the African American experience.

The board’s first priority will be to secure a long-term building management contract with the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, which has a long and successful record of operating arts and entertainment facilities.  The overarching requirement will be that the programming focus be primarily, though not exclusively, on African American art and culture. Trust managers, in conjunction with the Building Board, and a community advisory committee, will be charged with setting a proper balance between mission and revenue generation.

While the Building Board is being organized, a second, independent organization is being created to develop programming. The planning for this is primarily being driven by the August Wilson Center Recovery Committee in collaboration with artists and others from Pittsburgh’s African American arts community. The foundations have pledged to support the process emerging from this collaborative effort and to encourage programming that will distinguish the Center.

During this transitional period, we will work with a range of groups and individuals, locally and nationally, to develop the best possible management practices and highest-quality programming. We are committed to accountability and engaging the public in this process. To that end, we will expect the Center’s board to provide quarterly reports on planning efforts and programming activities, as well as audited financial statements. Both will be posted for public viewing on our foundation’s website.

Back at the Center’s groundbreaking in October 2006, The Pittsburgh Foundation was one of many that bundled significant financial support with an abiding faith in the power of the arts to celebrate the African American community and build connections to others.

During the past year’s arduous battle to secure the building, our foundation’s leaders re-committed their efforts to realizing the original intent of the center, which was for the whole building — not just pieces and parts — to be a grand celebration of this community’s unique and remarkable African-American culture and heritage; a place not just for performances and exhibits but also for meetings and lectures, gatherings and artistry, practice and reflection. It is our intent to preserve the Center as a community asset true to its original purpose of providing an African-American arts and culture center for the greater Pittsburgh community.  The foundations are further committed to ensuring that the August Wilson Center has the time and resources to attract the community support that is essential for its long-term success.

Frequently Asked Questions:

  1. Why is the Pittsburgh Foundation investing more money in the August Wilson Center after all its past financial and management troubles?

The foundation’s board and staff believe that the Center still has great potential to be a thriving cultural institution that showcases the special artistry and history of Pittsburgh’s African American community. Beyond the foundation, many community groups have organized to support a second life for the Center, and to see it as the main presenter of innovative African American visual and performing arts programs.

In its renewal, the Center will be guided by the legacy of August Wilson, Pittsburgh’s native son whose ten-play Pittsburgh Cycle garnered two Pulitzer Prizes and universalized African Americans’ struggles for identity, place and freedom. Its purpose is to present programs, performances and exhibitions that attract all people interested in the African American experience expressed in art. The expectation is that the Center will draw audiences from across Pittsburgh and the surrounding region

  1. What is the relationship between The Pittsburgh Foundation and the new entity owning the August Wilson Center?  Is it a supporting organization of the foundation?

The new entity to own the building has been formed as an independent entity and not a supporting organization as originally planned.  This is not a material change in the operating structure as The Pittsburgh Foundation will still act as administrator and steward for the building for an initial period of time, but it does allow all three foundations to control the aspects of the entity which were essential requirements for the funding authorized by their respective boards:

  • No debt connected to the building.
  • The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust must manage the building.
  • The entity owning the building must be separate from the entity programming the building.

This structure also protects all the foundations from liabilities other than those normally resulting from a board of directors’ relationship with the entity.

While the new entity will be a related party to our foundation, it will not be consolidated into it, nor will it be covered in the foundation’s controlled supporting organizations financial statements.  It will be reported as a stand-alone entity for financial statement purposes.

  1. Where is The Pittsburgh Foundation’s portion of funding coming from?

The $500,000 granted by our foundation to the new entity to purchase the August Wilson Center came from unrestricted assets.

  1. What are the next steps for the building?

For the next 90 days, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust will be leading us through a process to assess the physical status of the Center.  Building and real estate experts will participate in assessing all aspects of the building structure, identifying needs, as well as opportunities for future development within the building.

At the end of 90 days, we expect to be able to announce the dates when the Center will begin taking rental requests.  Initial rental opportunities are already held for community groups whose support was instrumental in helping us to purchase the building.