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Digging into 'Pittsburgh's Cultural Treasures'

Ndudzo Makhathini performs at a Kente Arts Alliance concert in February.
Jim Humphrey
Ndudzo Makhathini performs at a Kente Arts Alliance concert in February.

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.

Last week, the latest round of Black-led arts and culture groups to be identified as Pittsburgh’s Cultural Treasures received grants from a joint initiative of The Heinz Endowments, the Ford Foundation, and the POISE Foundation. It was good news for these 16 nonprofits, each of which received an unrestricted grant of $10,000 and the promise of three years of help in preparing themselves for the future (or “capacity building,” as they say in foundation land).

Recipients ranged from youth troupe Alumni Theater Company and Texture Contemporary Ballet to the Josh Gibson Foundation (which serves youths with academic and athletic programs) and the Barrel & Flow Fest for Black-owned breweries and small businesses. (A complete list is here.)

But the announcement made me wonder how the first round of 16 Cultural Treasures, which were named in December 2021, had fared. Those groups received much larger grants, the biggest being the $1 million awarded to the August Wilson Center for African American Culture. I checked in with two of the organizations, and it turns out they’ve taken markedly different approaches to how they’ve used the funds.

The Kente Arts Alliance is best known for bringing touring jazz artists to town. It received $250,000 — a figure well over the annual budget for any of its 16 years of existence.

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The group used its Cultural Treasures grant in part to realize a longstanding goal of expanding its programming, said Gail Austin, who co-founded the group with her husband, Mensah Wali.

“We kept plugging away and plugging away, and didn’t make as much progress as we wanted to until we were awarded Cultural Treasures,” she said in an interview last week.

Since getting the grant, Kente Arts has grown its mainstage season from four shows to six. (The current season continues March 25 with a concert by the Steve Nelson Quartet at the New Hazlett Theater.) The group also added a summer concert series, called Kente Summer Madness, and last fall launched its youth-education programming initiative with jazz and African-dance classes at Dilworth Traditional Academy. In addition, Kente formalized its administrative operations by adding its first two salaried staffers.

Austin called the Cultural Treasures grant “a resource we’re really grateful for. … It’s certainly taken some of the pressure away from trying to go from year to year not knowing where your next dime is coming from.”

The challenge now, Austin acknowledged, is to make the expansion sustainable by securing new sources of funding. “We’ve got to work at it,” she said.

The Legacy Arts Project took a different tack. Legacy promotes health and well-being through Africana arts, with dance, drumming and art classes for youths and adults. The group’s pre-pandemic budget was about $600,000, said executive director Erin Perry. So the $250,000 Cultural Treasures grant was a big deal.

“As a one-time opportunity, we want to be able to leverage it, so we’re able to work really smart with this investment and [use] it not to support our general operating expenses, but to advance in the next stages of our organization’s life cycle,” Perry said.

So how did they use the Cultural Treasures funds? “We still have our money,” she said. “We haven’t spent it.”

The grant, it turns out, arrived just after Legacy completed a new strategic plan that called for it to move from its current, rented headquarters, in Homewood, to a permanent space, as either a long-term tenant or a building owner. Legacy has banked the Cultural Treasures money for that very purpose

In this goal, Legacy is comparable to several other Cultural Treasures awardees. About a dozen groups in the 2021 cohort who either rent offices or don’t have formal headquarters at all have formed a real-estate working group to explore strategies like sharing spaces. Legacy and Kente are among them, as are the Kelly Strayhorn Theater (a tenant in its historic building) and Balafon West African Dance Ensemble.

A nonprofit called Program to Aid Citizen Enterprise (PACE) is guiding such efforts for the groups, providing coaching and learning opportunities, especially for those that have not traditionally received foundation funding. If the experiences of Kente and Legacy are any indication, the Cultural Treasures program is helping not only to address long-standing inequities, but also to strengthen the Pittsburgh arts community as a whole.

WESA's Weekend Picks

  1. Original Talking Head Jerry Harrison and guitarist Adrian Belew celebrate the Heads’ classic 1980 album “Remain In Light” with the band Cool Cool Cool, Fri., March 3, at the Roxian Theatre.
  2. At press time, just a handful of seats remained for the irascible raconteur and essayist Fran Lebowitz’s visit to Carnegie Lecture Hall, Fri., March 3.
  3. The Mattress Factory Museum opens three shows, with new installations by Lenka Clayton & Phillip Andrew Lewis, Lydia Rosenberg, and Katie Bullock, Fri., March 3.
  4. Pittsburgh’s Pillow Project debuts “(in person),” a full-length improvisational work featuring 11 dancers who vocalize their thoughts and fears as they perform, with live music, in three shows Fri., March 3, through Sun., March 5, at the Space Upstairs, in Point Breeze.
  5. With planting season imminent, Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens hosts A Celebration of Seeds: Eleventh Annual Seed and Plant Swap, featuring free seeds, workshops and more, Sat., March 4.
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: