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New program gives $5.4 million to Pittsburgh's Black-led cultural groups

The August Wilson African American Cultural Center received a $1 million grant from the new program.
Bill O'Driscoll
90.5 WESA
The August Wilson African American Cultural Center received a $1 million grant from the new program.

A new Heinz Endowments program called Pittsburgh’s Cultural Treasures has given $5.4 million to 16 Black-led organizations.

Students rehearse at the Hill Dance Academy Theatre
Eric A. Smith
Hill Dance Academy Theatre
Students rehearse at the Hill Dance Academy Theatre

The grants were announced Dec. 2. The program is part of America’s Cultural Treasures, a Ford Foundation effort to help groups that represent communities of color. As one of 10 regional foundation partners in seven cities, the Heinz Endowments received $5 million for the program and matched it with another $5 million.

The $10 million program, a partnership between Heinz and the Pittsburgh-based POISE Foundation, is set to run four years. The two largest grants announced last week were $1 million for Downtown’s August Wilson African American Cultural Center, and $750,000 for the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, in East Liberty.

Groups receiving $500,000 include the Afro American Music Institute, in Homewood, and Manchester Bidwell Corporation, in Chateau. The grants are unrestricted and can be used for any purpose.

“These cultural treasures are diverse in their connections to Black culture, to artistic disciplines, in their longevity, and in other ways,” said the Endowments' Creativity vice president Janet Sarbaugh, in a statement. “What they have in common is a commitment to ensuring the presence of Black arts and culture in our city and region.”

D.S. Kinsel (left) and Thomas Agnew of BOOM Concepts
BOOM Concepts
D.S. Kinsel (left) and Thomas Agnew of BOOM Concepts

The groups did not apply for the grants, but were “selected from among 165 Black-led organizations identified by local foundations and cultural leaders,” according to the statement. A committee of representatives from various local and national philanthropies and cultural groups recommended awardees to the Heinz Endowments, which made the final selections.

For some smaller groups, the grants, ranging from $150,000 to $500,000, are equivalent to a majority of their current budgets. Hill Dance Academy Theater also received $500,000. Founder, CEO and artistic director Ayisha Morgan-Lee said that’s actually more than the group’s budget of about $400,000.

“To wake up and hear this wonderful news is just absolutely a blessing,” said Morgan-Lee, reached a few hours after the grants were announced. Her 17-year-old group trains up to 80 dance students per semester in its new space in the Hill District, which it acquired in July. She said HDAT didn’t yet know how it was going to use the money.

“We are still in conversation about that, but we want to make sure that we are continuing our mission and that we also are sustaining our organization,” she said.

Other recipients include BOOM Concepts, a creative hub in Garfield that helps artists develop by organizing residencies, exhibitions and more. The seven-year-old group has partnered on projects with organizations including the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh. It has a budget of about $250,000, says co-founder D.S. Kinsel; it received $150,000 from Pittsburgh’s Cultural Treasures.

“With the increase of money you’re able to support more artists in different ways,” added BOOM co-founder Thomas Agnew.

Most grants to arts and culture groups are project-specific. But Kinsel said unrestricted grants like this one are especially helpful in the flexibility they allow.

“When you see philanthropic partners step up and provide that specific type of support in operations, or unrestricted, it really shows how small arts organizations such as BOOM Concepts …. can like all make a shift, make a jump,” he said.

The other Pittsburgh’s Cultural Treasures recipients are: 1Hood Media ($250,000); Afrika Yetu ($150,000); Balafon West African Dance Ensemble ($150,000); Kente Arts Alliance ($250,000); Legacy Arts Project ($250,000); New Horizon Theater ($250,000); PearlArts Studios ($150,000); Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co. ($250,000); Ujamaa Collective ($150,000); and Women of Visions ($150,000).

WESA has received financial support from The Heinz Endowments.

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: