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August Wilson Center Stabilizes, Plans For The Future

The August Wilson Cultural Center, long financially troubled, is now on solid footing and planning more growth. 

That’s according to the Center’s president and CEO, Janis Burley Wilson, who spoke at a press event Monday.

Burley Wilson said the Center ended 2018 with a budget surplus and is building a capital reserve. Both contributed revenue and earned revenue exceeded goals, she said, and so did attendance: 75,000 people attended 178 Center events in 2018, a figure that includes 30,000 for its signature event, the Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival.

“It’s happening,” said Burley Wilson. “All of the things that we talked about, that we dreamed about, and that the community deserves, is happening here at the August Wilson Cultural Center.”

The Center – named for the Pittsburgh-born, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright -- opened in 2009, with a newly constructed landmark building on Liberty Avenue, Downtown. But from the start, it was hindered by cost overruns, inadequate fundraising and charges of inadequate community engagement. In 2014, the Center faced bankruptcy, mortgage default and foreclosure. Foundations and government officials stepped in with a court-ordered settlement to purchase the structure.

Burley Wilson oversaw programming at the center starting in 2015, and was appointed executive director in 2017. The Center has since been actively programmed with visual-art exhibits, theatrical presentations, speakers’ series, dance and more.

Most of its exhibitions and some of its live-performance events are free to the public, including the Jazz Festival (which accounted for 40 percent of the attendance Burley Wilson cited). So the Center relies heavily on donated income. Burley Wilson said foundation giving, corporate sponsorships and individual giving all increased last year. The Center’s budget for 2019 is “close to $7 million,” she said. That makes it one of the city’s bigger arts groups.

More growth is planned for 2019. Burley Wilson said the Center wants to increase attendance by 20 percent over last year. And capital improvements are planned, including the long-delayed addition of a catering and demonstration kitchen.

The kitchen had been part of the original plan for the Center but was scuttled due to cost. Adding a kitchen will both enhance existing programming – caterers will no longer have to prep food in hallways, for instance – and make the Center more rentable for private events, boosting a key source of earned income, Burley Wilson said. Construction on the kitchen is set to begin in August.

Burley Wilson said the Center is also updating its branding, with a new logo and marketing materials, and has completed a new strategic plan. Its mission is “to own and operate a home for the arts, storytelling, learning and exchange around the African-American experience and the rich culture of the African-American diaspora.” Its vision is “to be a leading presenter of the arts, cultural expression of the African diaspora and a home for the dynamic exchange of ideas that transform how people think about the world.”

The Center will mark its tenth anniversary a few months early with Taking Center Stage, a gala scheduled for April 26.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: bodriscoll@wesa.fm
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