Friday, January 31, 2014

AWC needs Change & Funding. (in That Order)


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.


  1. 1. The AWC, or any such institution, cannot stay in an expensive Downtown location with millions of debt and no way of bringing in money, short of huge donations from taxpayers and charitable foundations. There has been a lot of stalling for ideas, and none have come forth.
    2. The AWC couldn't have gotten into this position without incompetence. From the Board that never seemed to have a plan for paying it's bills, to the government officials who put $17 million into the subject without having that plan in place.
    3. You may have a better take on public opinion, but I think most of Pittsburghers would rather have the center move than more taxpayer money be put into it whether or not there is a board change.

    The tone of this is harsher than I'd like, but there's far too much talk of saving the AWC where it is, without any actual details on how to do it. If there is a viable plan I'd support it. When asking Oprah, is an idea, you'e out of good ideas.

  2. "Since we just custom-built a facility to house it, appropriately in the premier theater district Downtown, it ought to remain there."

    This is by far the weakest of the stated premises. The obvious downside to staying in the current facility is you would start the reorganized AWC $10M in the hole. At a minimum, you need to look at what other options are available before committing it to such liabilities.

    I also think the idea it necessarily should be in (or across the street from) the Cultural District is not at all self-evident. Back in the mid-1990s, you could see that being an obvious choice. These days, however, a lot more of Pittsburgh is resurgent, including as arts centers. And rather than assuming the AWC needs the cachet of the Cultural District to lend it legitimacy, why not see the AWC as an asset which can help out an up-and-coming area? Given what the A and W stand for, a Hill location would make a lot of sense. But so could something in the North Side, or East Liberty, or so on.

    That isn't to say it is impossible to imagine a scenario in which a reorganized AWC could end up Downtown, whether or not in the current facility. But to insist on that outcome without at least seriously looking into the alternatives strikes me as not doing the AWC any favors, and also reflects a rather dated sense of what counts as a good arts location in Pittsburgh.

  3. Completely agree Brian. The entire issue is doomed if the starting premise is that the AWC has to remain in the same collection of concrete and steel or somehow Wilson's legacy is tarnished. That is ridiculous. Not only does that start AWC $10 million in the hole, it also sets it on another path to certain failure due to operating expenses. Anyone who suggests at the outset that there is some magic to this building should be removed from the process.

  4. Okay, yes, to all prior commenters. I go back and forth on my 3rd bullet, or how important it is to try to keep the Center at the Center.

    It would be preferable to stay at the Center because we just custom-built it for this purpose and because it does lend it the best opportunity to catch fire as a viable regional and national cultural institution. The best chance, all things being equal.

    At the same time, I agree it's magical thinking to believe "saving" that building for the Center can be the only part of a viable solution (I believe I suggested moving it a bit further east before) or getting wed to any one particularly poetic ideal (blowing up the Crosstown Expressway) as the only way to move forward.

    My estimation on the temperature of the *broader* philanthropic community is, if the AWC gives itself a new, dynamic board, and that board presents a new, bold and innovative strategic plan, the $7 million? Is it? May not be an insurmountable hurdle. And then we get the AWC in the Downtown theater district. However, those are some big ifs considering tick-tock.

    It's really a matter of tick-tock. If the clock goes buzz, and the board and strategic plan aren't in place, there is no choice but to move and downsize the Center before reinvesting in it.

    1. Given the tick-tock, the Comet can only recommend that perhaps the philanthropic community should right now focus on round tabling a strategic plan inclusive of the building, as well as a transition-period Interim Executive Director... while the Board roundtables on refreshing and resetting. Hopefully the two energies find a way to collide together in a mutually agreeable embrace of guarded trust. Within roughly a month.

      If you're not interested in that, then we'll meet up again in a month & change, impoverish the 501(c)3, leave some suitably profound psychic scar Downtown, and take it from there.

      For what it's worth the New Granada Theater mashup concept sounds like it may have merit, but I've never accepted a tour of the facility.

  5. One way to put the question would be: If the local charitable community is willing to put up $10M to pay off the AWC's creditors, then would they be willing to put up the same $10M for the reorganized AWC in a different location?

  6. Really like Brian's recommendation.

    I would put a 3 stipulations on any future contributions:

    1) Anyone associated with how the AWC got to where it is now financially cannot have anything to do with the new or saved AWC in any capacity either directly or indirectly.

    2) All funds previously contributed to the AWC have to be fully and publicly accounted for

    3) the new/saved AWC must come up with a sustainable business plan

    Barring any of the above from happening, we will be having this same discussion every time the AWC runs out of money and expects the philanthropic community to save it from itself.