Some commenters lately have expressed that they value reading my perspective on civic events, even if they do not always fully agree. I am going to take that at face value by airing reflections on a series of topics about which I would not ordinarily feel confident of having proper standing. Doing so will drain my reserves of good will amongst Pittsburgh's brilliant and richly interconnected social activist community, but amassing and guarding such social capital is not the point of the Comet. That project is to foster clear discussion about public matters which are otherwise determined by closed-door intrigue and cynical posturing.
In regards to the August Wilson Center for African-American Culture, let me stipulate some opinions in bullet form so they are not overlooked:
- Pittsburgh absolutely requires just such a Center.
- The mission of the AWC is fine as it stands, and broad enough to attract a wide audience if interpreted broadly.
- Since we just custom-built a facility to house it, appropriately in the premier theater district Downtown, it ought to remain there.
- All cultural arts organizations, especially new ones, require ongoing capital from those few in the community (governments, corporations, foundations and individuals) actually possessing of capital, as well as an inclination to provide amenities which markets cannot alone.
- The fact that errors were made in the past does not make it justifiable to now throw the baby out with the bathwater.
However, the present board of the AWC has run out of community confidence.
Strike that, and let us rephrase it: all the communities which must play a role in financially supporting the Center, have come to possess 100%, rock-solid confidence that the present board of the AWC will fritter away any further funding without transmuting it into cultural offerings.
It's not the presence of the Center which frustrates funders -- it's an empty, derelict, joyless Center.
This is not to deny there are a few entities which would rather loot the assets of the Center than save it. After all, who doesn't like to loot things? But those entities would not stand a chance if the board possessed the confidence it once enjoyed.
I have no presumptions about the nature of said "frittering". Given the challenges we know exist in starting up any nonprofit arts institution, I certainly do not suspect it's a matter of anything coarsely unethical. And I doubt it has to do with any lack of personal competencies.
Rather, I suspect it has to do with uniformity and entreanchment of the board in terms of background, perspective and approach. Also a certain pride and defensiveness or "siege mentality". It appears as though that establishment political faction which did valuable work in launching the Center, continues to dominate the 501(c)3's governance and vision. That is neither proper nor healthy -- for the Center, for its mission, or for those represented by that faction moving forward.
Recent reporting about the course of the ailing Center has yet to view it through the prism of its two permanent Executive Directors and one Interim Director. From what I begin to gather, the Center did a lot better during its Directorless interlude than at any other period. There must be lessons to be drawn from that; let's call it a "request" for further reporting.
It seems like Pittsburgh is nibbling politely around the edges of stating clearly, "The board needs to go." But the message is not being acknowledged. Meanwhile with liquidation and cessation looking like a real probability, the public is finally getting exercised about saving the Center, and is very alarmed and hurt over why it appears as though Pittsburgh does not value its AWC4AAC.
So let the Comet make it plain: the AWC board, that is a majority thereof, in the only possible remaining act which can demonstrate an enlightened fealty to its charitable public mission, needs to step back and assist in the replacing of itself.
If that important prerequisite is not undertaken, any grassroots pleadings or demands for financial support for the AWC, no matter how righteous, plain and defensible in the general sense, are going to be riotously rejected by funders and decision-makers. And then those pleadings are going to be disparaged in the crudest, ugliest, most unfair possible terms by the worst possible people.
Pittsburgh deserves an accountable, commonly held, and desperately engaging August Wilson Center. Not any other sort of August Wilson Center. Although it would be a very bad outcome, I personally would rather see it sold off to the Cultural Trust, UPMC or North Korea than continue to function as a sad, cynical and misdirected moral and political write-off. An insurance policy.
Those philanthropic dollars can now be put to better use enriching residents on matters of culture and history elsewhere. Only the AWC board itself can eliminate the need to find elsewheres.
Come to think of it, it is conceivable that the present board would rather see it foreclosed upon than loosen its grip. Community outrage can be extremely useful under the right circumstances. But I hope we're not living in that sort of drama; none of us in Pittsburgh are bright enough to make that kind of thing work.