With only a few months left before its one-year anniversary, the August Wilson Center for African American Culture is experiencing some serious economic struggles. In order to right the sinking ship, the Center plans to cut its 2011 budget by 25 percent.
|AWC TEAM—From left: Andre Kimo Stone Guess, Aaron Walton, Nancy Washington and Oliver Byrd.
“The potential here is to be the preeminent institution. We’re going to do that by being inclusive. The hard part is done; we’re sitting in the building,” said Executive Director Andre Kimo Stone Guess. “If it weren’t built no one would do it today because on the other side of this recession no one would do it.”
The laundry list of problems has included construction costs that totaled $43 million, close to $7 million over the initial budget and last year’s state budget catastrophe that delayed the release of state funding.
However, several of those who have a history with arts organizations, including Guess, say what the center is experiencing is not rare. Many claim it takes the first few years for an arts or cultural institution to get its footing.
“Where the August Wilson Center finds itself is par for course. We raised a significant amount of money to have this one of kind institution that will be a model for African-American institutions,” Guess said. “Even if we weren’t in what people call a recession, the organization would still be suffering growing pains. There’s always a collision between building something and operating it.”
The lasting impact of the recession has made matters worse for the center with many traditional philanthropists tightening their wallets and local government already scraping to get by. Still, Guess is hoping the African-American community will contribute what they can in lieu of a $5 million fundraising shortfall.
“We’ve raised over half a million from the African-American community since I’ve been here. The philanthropic community has been amazing,” Guess said. “Even though there’s a significant part of the African-American community who’s below the poverty line we’re asking them to throw us your pennies, your nickels.”
One of the center’s funders is the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts’ Preserving Diverse Cultures, an organization that supports organizational stabilization and expansion of arts and cultural programming in culturally specific communities. Philip Horn, their executive director, agrees that this kind of financial difficulty is not uncommon early on.
“It’s not all that unusual. You’re sort of figuring out what works and what doesn’t. It’s not uncommon for organizations to have debt. You have to look at debt as is it good debt, is it bad debt, are they still able to do their programming,” Horn said. “Our experience has been that people find a way, whether it’s cutting back on expenses or re-strategizing. It’s hard to find more funding in this environment.”
Guess’ vision for the center is dependent on a welcoming environment that is open to everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status. This involves several free programs including live entertainment at events such as Lunch on Liberty from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. on Thursdays with live entertainment and off center on Thursdays from 5:30-8 p.m. and 9-10:30 p.m.
“We have probably the best opportunity of any cultural institution in this community to reach a constituency that is underserved and that community is not only the African-American community but those who find themselves on the other side of the bell curve of socioeconomic status. So if we were to ignore that, we’d be going after middle class Black folks and we’d miss the boat,” Guess said. “World class and accessible are sometimes exclusive and that’s not going to happen here. This institution exists because of the people of Pittsburgh and it’s their center. We want everyone to come down and take part in it and that’s why a lot of our programs are free. You’ll never be made to feel less than by the amount of support you give us or don’t give us.”