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Some of Pittsburgh's top arts groups diversify, hire leaders of colors at helm

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre has hired a new artistic director, Adam W. McKinney, a professor of dance at Texas Christian University.
Timothy Brestowski
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre has hired a new artistic director, Adam W. McKinney, a professor of dance at Texas Christian University.

This is WESA Arts, a weekly newsletter by Bill O'Driscoll providing in-depth reporting about the Pittsburgh area art scene. Sign up here to get it every Wednesday afternoon.

We chose this time of year to offer Vol. 1, Issue 1 of WESA’s new arts newsletter because it’s traditionally when Pittsburgh’s arts scene begins rising from its winter slumber. But these past few weeks in the arts already have been unusually busy in terms of high-level hires at multiple venerable organizations, with a particular uptick in the number of local arts leaders of color.

Pittsburgh-based critic, curator and educator Leo Hsu was named executive director of Silver Eye Center for Photography (where he’d served as interim director since the departure last year of David Oresick, who left to take the reins at the Mattress Factory). Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre hired a new artistic director, Adam W. McKinney, a professor of dance at Texas Christian University. And Shaunda Miles McDill is the new managing director of Pittsburgh Public Theater. McDill, a fixture on the arts scene for years, was most recently The Heinz Endowments’ program officer for arts and culture; she’ll co-lead the Public, the city’s largest independent theater troupe, alongside artistic director Marya Sea Kaminski.

Also, on Feb. 1, Kendra Whitlock Ingram became just the third person ever to serve as president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, the region’s biggest presenter of the arts.

These four new hires are notable in terms of diversity. Hsu, who is Asian-American, is the first person of color to lead Silver Eye, a gallery whose roots go back to the 1970s. McKinney will be the first artistic director of color in the PBT’s 54-year history. McDill is the highest-ranking staffer of color in the Public’s decades of existence. And Ingram is the first person of color to take the helm at the Trust.

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Arts groups around town — and around the country — have in recent years worked to make their staff and leadership look more like the communities they serve, and most have diversified their programming, too. The hirings in Pittsburgh seem to suggest a continued commitment.

But as critics would note — and most in the arts world would surely admit — much more work needs to be done. Nationally, leadership at nonprofit arts groups remains overwhelmingly white, and anecdotal evidence suggests that, too often, many newly hired leaders of color leave quickly because of a lack of institutional support from boards of directors, other staff and more.

Elsewhere, three leaders of major arts groups announced they are moving on from their current positions. Stephanie Flom, executive director of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures since 2014, is leaving the post in June. Matthew Mehaffey, music director of the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh, will depart after the current season, his seventh. And, on Feb. 1, Andrés Franco concluded more than two years as executive director of City of Asylum, the Pittsburgh nonprofit that houses writers who are exiled from their home countries.

The departures leave big shoes to fill. Flom has consistently booked a diverse range of prominent contemporary authors, drawn large crowds to Oakland’s Carnegie Lecture Hall, and worked to highlight local writers. Mehaffey shepherded the Mendelssohn’s acclaimed, long-standing partnership with Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and broadened the scope of the choir’s programming, with adventuresome projects involving the likes of Steven Hackman and Stewart Copeland.

Franco guided City of Asylum through its acquisition of sole ownership of its Alphabet City headquarters on the North Side, where the group hosts a full calendar of free literary readings and musical performances; he also witnessed the horrific knife attack last year on Salman Rushdie at a City of Asylum program at the Chautauqua Institution. All three leaders piloted their groups through the pandemic-induced shifts in programming and protocols.

As leadership posts at these and other institutions continue to open and be filled in the months and years to come, it’ll be interesting to see what sort of imprint these new leaders leave on Pittsburgh’s arts scene. Whatever happens, this newsletter aims to be a place you can rely on to stay up to date on this story and all other arts news in our community.

A photo from the exhibit "Vikings: Warriors of the North Sea" at the Carnegie Science Center.
Courtesy of Carnegie Science Center
A photo from the exhibit "Vikings: Warriors of the North Sea" at the Carnegie Science Center.

WESA's Weekend Picks

  1. Dracula Downtown: Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre offers four performances of choreographer Michael Pink's popular adaptation of "Dracula," at the Benedum Center Friday, Feb. 10 through Sunday, Feb. 12.
  2. Set sail with "Vikings": The exhibit "Vikings: Warriors of the North Sea," opens Friday, Feb. 11 at the Carnegie Science Center with more than 140 authentic artifacts, including a full-size replica of a Viking ship.
  3. Celebrate the Queen of Soul: The Kelly Strayhorn Theater hosts "R.E.S.P.E.C.T. An Aretha Franklin Tribute Concert," featuring vocalists Anita Levels and a 10-piece ensemble on Friday, Feb. 11.
  4. "We the people": City Theatre's Pittsburgh-premiere production of playwright Heidi Schreck's Broadway hit "What the Constitution Means to Me" completes its run with shows Feb. 8-12.
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: