Last week the New Pittsburgh Courier received word that the August Wilson Center for African American Culture would be closing its doors on May 30 due to financial difficulties. When news broke on May 10 of massive layoffs at the Center, it seemed the rumors could be true, but the Center’s interim president and CEO Oliver Byrd said the Pittsburgh community shouldn’t count the AWC out yet.

“The rumor is completely unfounded, no merit to it whatsoever,” he said in an interview with the Courier May 13 hoping to set the record straight. “What’s happening is after four years of being in the building the board is looking at what’s working and what’s not working and to look at how we have to recast the business model to ensure the Center stays around for a long time.”

The $40 million AWC was opened in 2009 with $11.2 million construction debt. The debt was reduced to $7 million in January with help from foundation grants, which have long made up the base of the AWC’s funding.

The center is now behind with loans payments on the $7 million debt and despite Byrd’s optimism, 10 members of the AWC staff lost their jobs on Friday.

“Given the escalating expenses and the imbalance between the expenses and our revenue, we had to lay off some employees. I think the media has focused on the layoffs and we’re always disappointed when we have to lay people off, but with the appropriate course corrections, I think it’ll be healthy for us in the long run.”

Part of those course corrections will include bringing in more revenue by reducing the amount of free programming. Byrd also said the AWC is looking at other avenues for telling the stories of African-American people, beyond the arts, as a way to increase revenue.

“The marketplace will have to pay for the programming that’s offered,” Byrd said. “There will still be a big mix between free programming and ticketed programming because it’s part of our mission, but we need to have a better mix of contributed revenue.”
In April the AWC announced the inclusion of five new fellows in their 2012-2013 fellowship program. Byrd said their First Voice Festival debut set for May 17 to 25 would continue as planned.

“A lot of what we do at the AWC has been looked at positively not just locally but nationally. So we’re very proud of the quality of programming that we’ve been putting out there,” Byrd said. “Very often when you’re looking at the financial reality that we’re dealing with, those kinds of stories get lost. But we’re not at all dissimilar from other arts institutions at this stage.”

However, he also noted that some contributions originally promised during the capital campaign for construction of the facility were not honored. This could be a contributing factor to the AWC’s current financial situation.

Byrd is filling in for Andre Kimo Stone Guess, former AWC executive director who departed in September 2012. Byrd said the board has delayed their search for a new executive director, but plans to commence the search within three to six months.


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