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Pittsburgh Arts Group Announces Layoffs, Closure of Theaters And Gallery Building

The financially troubled group that rebranded earlier this year as Pittsburgh Center for Arts & Media is drastically downsizing again, with major implications for the local arts scene.

Monday, the nonprofit Center — formerly Pittsburgh Filmmakers / Pittsburgh Center for the Arts -- announced that it had laid off “the majority” of its staff, and closed its two art house movie theaters, the Harris Theater and the Regent Square. At year’s end, according to a statement by board president Christine Holtz, the group will vacate the landmark, yellow Marshall Mansion, in Shadyside, longtime home to the group’s major visual-art exhibitions.

Financial difficulties are the cause, wrote Holtz. The Center, she wrote, can no longer fund “basic operations” at its facilities, let alone needed improvements. The group will instead focus on its long-running arts classes and youth summer camps, housed in two smaller buildings it already occupies on the Marshall Mansion property.

Along with the layoffs, personnel moves included the promotion of Kyle Houser, the Center’s creative director, to executive director. Dorinda Sankey, the group’s chief administrative officer, is leaving the Center.

A spokesperson did not respond to a request to cite the number of laid-off employees; at this time last year, the group’s staff included only 11 full-timers. Most of the group's employees, however, are part-timers. “All impacted employees have been provided severance packages,” Holtz noted in her statement.

The closures are a big blow to the local scene. The Regent Square and Harris theaters were Pittsburgh’s only full-scale theaters dedicated year-round to art house films. (The group said the Regent is closed “while we determine the future of that asset.”) The group also ran the just-revived Three Rivers Film Festival, the region's oldest and largest film fest.

Olivia Vaughn is a producer with Pittsburgh-based production company Animal, whose film "Barefoot: The Mark Bauer Story," screened just this month at the festival. The Harris and Regent, she said, "were very accessible ways for indie filmmakers to share their work." As an attendee, she said, "To view those sorts of projects ... was really only accessible at those theaters."

The Marshall Mansion has been a showcase for the visual arts for nearly 75 years (most of it as Pittsburgh Center for the Arts). The galleries – several rooms on two floors – were among the few large art spaces in town dedicated to local artists. “It is really sad to see that go,” said Madeline Gent, executive director of Associated Artists of Pittsburgh.

“It’s a terrible loss,” said Mia Tarducci, a painter who exhibited at in the Marshall galleries in 2014 as the Pittsburgh Center’s for the Art’s Emerging Artist of the Year. She said that exhibit was “catalytic to everything that happened since” in her career.

The final exhibit in the Marshall building, “What Have We Done, The New Collective,” with work from six local artists’ guilds, will run through Dec. 31. The Center’s Holiday Shop, featuring handcrafted gifts, will also remain open through year’s end. Classes and workshops for 2019 will continue as planned, and the Center said it expects “very little impact on the upcoming Winter 2020 offerings.”

A spokesperson for the Center said that neither Holtz nor Houser was available for interviews Monday.

The announcement of the closures and layoffs came about a year after Houser and Sankey announced what they called a rebirth of the group, which had been formed by the 2006 merger of Pittsburgh Filmmakers and Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. After several tumultuous years – including several rounds of layoffs, the 2015 resignation under duress of longtime executive director Charlie Humphrey, and the sudden, 2018 resignation of executive director Germaine Williams – PFPCA was regrouping yet again. It was selling Filmmakers’ long-time headquarters in North Oakland, for $3.56 million, and using most of the proceeds to fund deferred maintenance and new programming.

The group’s financial troubles are traceable largely to a decade of decline in its major source of revenue: tuition from its for-credit, college-level classes in filmmaking, photography and digital media. (Its film exhibition program was always a break-even proposition at best.)

Some observers also blame the merger Humphrey had orchestrated between Filmmakers and the Center for the Arts, a venerable institution which itself had gone dark for a few weeks in 2004. The Marshall building and several smaller structures on the Shadyside campus were a particular burden: They are city-owned, and leased to the group for $1 a year, but the lease requires the Center to do all maintenance and capital improvements.

Now, said Sankey and Houser last year, the group would focus on serving individual artists, with classes and workshops in disciplines ranging from ceramics, metalworking and drawing to creative writing and podcasting. It would consolidate operations on the Shadyside campus, to save money. But the screenings at the Harris and Regent Square would continue. Despite the rededication of some gallery space at the Marshall building to other purposes, so would the year-round slate of visual-arts exhibits, including the long-running Artist of the Year and Emerging Artist of the Year show.  (Gallery exhibitions, too, were purely an expense for the group.)

Sankey and Houser said the group would clear $2 million from the sale of the Melwood building, helping it move forward. And for much of this year, it looked as though the retooling was proceeding. The group renamed itself Pittsburgh Center for Arts & Media and ran a full slate of exhibitions, including the Artist of the Year show this fall. This month, it even carried outthe planned revival of the Three Rivers Film Festival, which had been dormant or reduced in scale for the past several years.

The announcement of the new layoffs and closures came the day after the festival ended.

In her statement, board president Holtz cited “the crushing expenditures needed to support basic operations and maintenance, let alone critically needed repairs.” The group has been running six-figure budget deficits for years. A year ago, Sankey told WESA the Center’s budget this year would be $2.5 million or less.

The fate of the buildings the Center is ceasing to use is uncertain. The City of Pittsburgh, which owns the Marshall building, is renegotiating the Center’s lease for the other buildings, said Tim McNulty, a spokesman for Mayor Bill Peduto. He said the City has no plans for the Marshall building at this time.

The Harris Theater is owned by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, which said in a statement Monday, “The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust was not consulted in the Pittsburgh Center for Arts and Media’s decision. We are currently evaluating next steps for use of this Trust venue and we look forward to continuing to play the finest international films and documentaries in Pittsburgh’s Cultural District.”

The Center owns the Regent Square, which itself was targeted for major capital improvements that never materialized. Whether it, like the Melwood building, will be sold or put to some other use remains to be seen.

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: