Visiting the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in Pittsburgh, or even just browsing their website, one might get the impression that the center is a thriving bastion of culture. Behind the public game face of the beautiful facility, however, is an arts institution fighting for its life.
A recent message posted by a visitor to the center’s Facebook page gives a glimpse into the center’s current state of affairs:
I pray this beautiful place (AWC) stays open. Just a suggestion, why not go through your own (I’ve done this,) list of FB Friends and see if they can either like the place, page, etc. , help in any manner… I am blest beyond measure (not bragging, but, thanking our Lord God..) to know of soooo many talented artists, singers, craftsmen, etc. Perhaps if we all ask of our own individual groups of friends, family, loved ones, maybe it can help. And, don’t look at the color of skin of those people and possibly, immediately rule them out. AWC is not just an “African-American” thing/ place/ venue. It represents a vibrant multicultural venue. we shouldn’t stomp out the efforts and suggestions of everyone simply because of skin color. I wish, too, that some how better publicity of events would occur for those in the suburbs, and affordable prices of tickets and admissions to make it open for families, etc.
When the $42 million August Wilson Center opened in 2009, there were high hopes that it would revitalize the Pittsburgh cultural arts community. Pittsburgh, after all, is the birthplace of celebrated African American playwright August Wilson. It is also the setting of nine of the ten Wilson-penned plays that comprise the famous Pittsburgh Cycle. Though the playwright later made his home in Seattle, August Wilson is synonymous with Pittsburgh, and the center that bears his name is a testament to the city’s love of its native son.
Just last month, however, a judge ruled that liquidation of the five year old center could go on as planned in foreclosure proceedings against the institution. The center has a monthly mortgage in excess of $53K and reportedly hasn’t managed to make a payment in a year. Many in the Pittsburgh arts community and the African American community have been adamantly vocal about their desire to see the center remain in operation, but in general, people have yet to step forward to put their money where their mouth is.
August Wilson left this world at the young age of 60, but his extensive body of work, including Fences, The Piano Lesson, Jitney, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and many other classics, are evidence of a life well spent. The elaborate center named in his honor is an extension of his legacy. It boasts multiple exhibition galleries, an education center, a 486 seat theater for performances, and several beautiful spaces for community events. According to its website, the mission of the August Wilson Center for the Performing Arts is “preserving, presenting, interpreting, celebrating and shaping the art, culture and history of African Americans utilizing the rich history, legacy and culture of African Americans from Western Pennsylvania as a foundation.”
There are precious few institutions in America dedicated to the preservation of African American art, culture and history, and certainly not many as expansive – or expensive – as the August Wilson Center. Some might argue that the effort was a bit ambitious, but nobody would dare make such a statement about, say, the Kennedy Center. Not unlike many efforts of renowned African Americans, the center is in very real danger of being one-and-done in terms of generational continuity, not even a decade after August Wilson’s demise. What would be beautiful, and a fitting tribute to Mr. Wilson’s legacy, would be for all Americans, and particularly African Americans, to come together and do our part to preserve this institution so that it may continue its mission and fulfill the potential its founders envisioned.
Like Gabe, the challenged brother of Troy Maxson in August Wilson’s Fences, however, we often blow our horns about preserving the memory of our fallen heroes, but all too often fail to truly produce a substantive sound. If this is true of our efforts to save the August Wilson Center, we’d better get ready for the judgment of history. To donate to the Capital Campaign, an effort to fund the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, or to become a member of the center, visit http://www.augustwilsoncenter.org/capital/index.php.
Brian C. Scott