The bank has sued to foreclose. The city’s philanthropic groups, with names like Mellon and Heinz, have withdrawn support. The $42 million August Wilson Center for African American Culture, a bow-front building inspired by a Swahili sailing ship, is high and dry.
Named for the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who found a street-savvy poetry in the lives of poor Pittsburgh Blacks, the culture center’s plight has been especially painful for those who had hoped it would enshrine the music, art and literature of the urban world he knew. Instead, it appears to be a victim of mismanagement by its senior staff and board of directors, who borrowed to build a grand palace of culture, but failed to find a wide enough audience and donor base in the hometown of Wilson, whose plays are mostly set in the Hill District just blocks away.
“It’s extremely sad,” said R. Daniel Lavelle, a city councilman who represents the Hill District, a largely poor neighborhood. “I know what August Wilson’s name means in terms of history, and I know the impact a national African-American theater can mean to both Pittsburgh and the country.” On Monday, a state judge handed control of the cultural center to a conservator, usurping its board in a final effort to avoid liquidation. The bank that holds the mortgage, which has gone unpaid for months, is advancing $25,000 to pay the conservator. The culture center is flat broke.
Mark Clayton Southers, a former director of its theater program, said the Wilson center struggled to find an audience among the people Wilson portrayed: working-class Blacks, many of whom feel unwelcome downtown with its skyscrapers and largely White-owned businesses, he added. “You can’t build it and they will come,” Mr. Southers said. “Not when you’re trying to work with a community that is not traditional theatergoers or cultural consumers.”