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New President & CEO Says She’s ‘At The Right Place At The Right Time’ To Lead August Wilson Center

Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA
Janis Burley Wilson, CEO and President of the August Wilson Center.

What does the typical work day for the head of a major arts organization look like? According to Janis Burley Wilson, it’s unpredictable. Burley Wilson is the newly appointed President and CEO of the August Wilson Center for African American Culture

For many, Burley Wilson has become a symbol of hope for the once financially troubled center. When the August Wilson Center opened its doors in 2009, it was already $11 million  in debt; a situation that Burley Wilson said was difficult to overcome. 

Arts organizations rely heavily on the funding community and private donations for large percentages of their annual revenue, and it’s not unusual for an arts-based organization to fall short of its financial goals. Many of the major arts groups in the region have struggled in some financial capacity at one time or another, but the financial woes of the center hit especially hard.

According to a 2015 report by the University of Maryland's DeVos Institute of Arts Management, minority-focused arts organizations have difficulty in attracting private and individual donors. Mainstream organizations get about 60 percent of donations from individual charitable giving, while black and Latino groups receive 5 percent. 

The “Diversity in the Arts” report also found that minority groups trailed in box office receipts and other earned revenue. While most groups receive 59 percent of earned money, groups of color receive about 40 percent, a trend that Burley Wilson said was true for the August Wilson Center, as well. 

“There’s a lot of attention on the August Wilson Center because it is an African American-led organization," Burley Wilson said. "A lot of eyes were on the organization, whether it was good or bad."

As Burley Wilson navigates getting the organization back on its feet, she is working to establish a broader and more diverse funding base. 

“We’re looking at national foundations for support, national corporate sponsors and individual donors; and not just African American ones, everybody,” said Burley Wilson.

She wants the community to know that the center is for everyone.

“The African American experience is an American experience,” she said.

The August Wilson Center sits in the heart of the Pittsburgh Cultural District. The modern facility houses multiple exhibition galleries, a 472-seat theater and education center.  In 2014, the center was purchased by a nonprofit consortium consisting of The Pittsburgh Foundation, The Heinz Endowments and the Richard King Mellon Foundation. The buy-out essentially saved the center, making way for the facility to be used for concerts, galleries, and events within the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, but the center is not owned by the organization. 

“The August Wilson Center is owned by the African American Cultural Center,” said Burley Wilson. “The African American Cultural Center has a management agreement with the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trusts’ facility department manages the August Wilson Center.”  

The connection between the Center and the Cultural Trust is complex, but Burley Wilson is well versed in the mission of both organizations. For 15 years she served as vice president for strategic partnership and community engagement, and director of jazz programs for the Cultural Trust. 

While at the Trust, Burley Wilson created and developed the Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival. The Festival has brought in international jazz greats like Chick Corea, Gregory Porter and Marcus Miller. Now, the Jazz Festival is following Burley Wilson to her new position. This year the August Wilson Center will serve as a home base for workshops and special events for the festival, June 15- 17.

Burley Wilson said she is excited about the future of the August Wilson Center, and admits that she has a lot of work a head of her, but said she’s ready for the challenge. She said the Cultural Trust gave her great preparation for her current job. 

“I’m very well prepared to lead an arts organization," she said. "But having my own background, my own experiences as an African American woman, paired with the solid experience coming from the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, I’m at the right place at the right time for the August Wilson Center.”