Saving August Wilson: Despite liquidation order, community still hopeful arts center can survive | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Saving August Wilson: Despite liquidation order, community still hopeful arts center can survive

"Anything can be turned around. You have to want to turn it around."

Although its future is uncertain, many hope the August Wilson Center can be saved
Although its future is uncertain, many hope the August Wilson Center can be saved

While a judge has ruled that the liquidation of the August Wilson Center for African American Culture can move forward, many in the city's black community and arts community say they're working to save the ailing arts institution.

The $42 million August Wilson Center opened in 2009 with the help of funding from tax dollars, foundations, private donors and an $11 million mortgage from Dollar Bank. But the center has struggled financially, and this past September, Dollar Bank began foreclosure proceedings after the center repeatedly failed to make mortgage payments.

The news since has mostly been grim. A court-appointed conservator, Judith Fitzgerald, petitioned Allegheny Common Pleas Court Judge Lawrence O'Toole for the power to liquidate the center's assets. Such a move was necessary, she wrote in a legal filing, because local foundations and other potential funders "are unwilling to provide any additional funding whatsoever" to keep the center operational.

That's not to say the center has been abandoned.

"When [Fitzgerald] said not a single person has come forward, a lot of people scoffed," says Kimberly Ellis, niece of the late August Wilson, and who attended the Jan. 24 hearing.

In fact, an anonymous group of Pittsburgh foundations has sought to purchase the center, transferring operations to the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, according to Ellis and attorney E.J. Strassburger. But its price, $4 million, was well short of the center's estimated $10 million debt. Roughly $7 million of that is Dollar Bank's mortgage; the bank could take hold of the property if no one submits a bid large enough to pay off the loan.

Still, supporters see the offer as a good sign, and say it would be a mistake to rush into liquidation.

"One of the things [the offer] indicates is there is some interest in the foundation community to do something for the center," says Strassburger, an attorney who offered to take over as conservator of the center, in an effort to keep it intact. "I think that sends a positive sign."

"Anything can be turned around. You have to want to turn it around, and that's the biggest thing I'm not hearing," says Christiane Leach, a local artist who received a fellowship from the AWC. "The money that needs to be raised is not a lot."

Many institutions face struggles early on, contend supporters of the Wilson Center.

When the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati was experiencing financial difficulty in 2010, the community came together to retire $27 million in debt — thanks in part to debt forgiveness by a group of lenders. (The center's financial difficulties continued, however. It ultimately merged with the Cincinnati Museum Center.)

"I was hoping something like that would happen here with the August Wilson Center [and] the bank would work out a plan" says Samuel Black, president of the Association of Black Museums, of which AWC is a member. "I am disappointed with the work [Fitzgerald] did because the way it looked is basically a hatchet job."

The August Wilson Center's difficulty "is absolutely in line with what other arts organizations experience all of the time and what other museums experience," says Ellis.

The center's supporters say they understand the concern about its finances. The facility's monthly mortgage is $53,639, and it hasn't made a payment since last February. It's also facing potential lawsuits from other creditors. Due to annual withdrawal restrictions, meanwhile, the AWC is unable to access a $450,000 fund with the Heinz Endowments. (Dollar Bank will cover the cost of utilities at the center through June.)

Still, even if the center is sold, many hope it will be purchased by an arts group that can continue the center's mission.

"Our hope is that in whatever solutions are found for the future of the center, that they take in the important mission of the center," says Mitch Swain, CEO of the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, which partnered with the AWC several times.

Fitzgerald echoed that sentiment at a Jan. 31 meeting, convened by Pittsburgh Public Schools board member Mark Brentley, to discuss alternative uses for the center.

"I'm not looking at any kind of piecemeal sale of assets," Fitzgerald said at the meeting via telephone. "We're trying to concentrate first on ... trying to keep the mission of the center alive." Fitzgerald said she'd been contacted by groups interested in potentially acquiring the site — and "all expressed interest in keeping that mission."

Fitzgerald will present bids for the center to Judge O'Toole, who will ultimately decide how to dispose of the facility. If the winning offer exceeds debts owed to creditors, O'Toole will decide how to allocate the remaining funds.

"The receiver has a difficult job," says Eric Shaffer, attorney for Dollar Bank. "And we appreciate her diligence in carrying out the court's instruction."

There will be a town-hall meeting at 11 a.m. Sat., Feb. 8, at the Carnegie Library Downtown. The focus of the meeting will be on finding a solution to save the August Wilson Center.

Chris Potter contributed reporting to this article.

The 2024 Pittsburgh Dyke March
24 images

The 2024 Pittsburgh Dyke March

By Mars Johnson