André Kimo Stone Guess has decided not to renew his contract as president and chief executive of the August Wilson Center for African American Culture.
But Guess says he's leaving, in part, because he's accomplished the goals he set when he came to the Center two years ago.
Those goals included: improving the Center's arts programming; making it more accessible to the community; and refinancing its debt, largely incurred in the construction of the Center's landmark $40 million Downtown headquarters
Before coming to Pittsburgh, Guess had been a vice president at New York's prestigious Jazz at Lincoln Center (a job he left in 2006). In an interview today with City Paper, he says he wanted to make the Wilson Center -- which had opened just a year prior to his arrival -- into a home for "a world-class [arts] program that everyone could be proud of."
He cited well-received performances by the Center's dance ensemble and jazz orchestra; showcases including last year's Black Dance Festival; and visual-art shows like a recent exhibition of work by Romare Bearden. And he noted the Center's theater initiative, headed by Pittsburgh-based, nationally known director Mark Clayton Southers.
While the Center has one of the newer, and better-appointed, performing-arts facilities Downtown, Guess says he wanted to "make sure the entire community knew [the Center] was for them." Accessibility initiatives included free shows, ticket giveaways, and rental subsidies for groups that wanted to use the Center's theater, dance studio or other facilities. "I'm proud of what we've done in that regard," he said.
On the financial front, Guess says that when he arrived, the Center owed $11.2 million, said Guess. But last week it closed on a refinanced mortgage for $7 million.
The reduction reflects grants from funders, including the R.K. Mellon Foundation and the Kresge Foundation, Guess said. It also reflects a $2 million grant from the Heinz Endowments, secured in late 2011 after the Center successfully raised matching funds.
Meanwhile, Guess said that the Center's operating budget had improved as well. Tax records show that in the year ending June 30, 2010 -- shortly after Guess arrived -- the Center ran a deficit of about $1.4 million. "It's gotten better over time," he said. Guess said that the current year's deficit (which is still pending final accounting) will be much smaller, on a budget of $3.4 million.
He added that the Center's operating budgets have also been dented by expenses related to the newness of the building, like paying contractors' bills. "The organization has never really had a normal operating year," he says. That should change now, he says.
The Center's original mortgage was an interest-only arrangement, Guess says. He says the Center was actually unable to pay down principal on its debt until its recent receipt of the grants. Now it can begin to pay down the rest.
Reached by phone, Center board chair Aaron Walton told CP that the Center plans to launch another capital campaign shortly. "Long way to go, but we're headed in the right direction," said Walton.
After his contract expires June 30, Guess will remain with the Center for three months to facilitate its transition during the search for a new executive. After that, he plans to return to his hometown of Louisville, Ky., where his parents and his wife's parents live, and resume running the arts and nonprofit consulting firm he ran before taking the Wilson Center job.
"It was a good time to pull the chain and get off at the next stop," he said of his departure from Pittsburgh. "I've enjoyed my time here. It's been great."