For the past couple of years newspaper stories and editorials have commented on the issues facing the August Wilson Center for African American Culture. It has garnered a great deal of conversation among politicians, non-profit professionals, culturists, activists, columnists, museum professionals, and supporters of the AWC. Its financial and operational issues are serious, complicated and revealing.
For all the positive impact it was having on the cultural landscape underneath it all lie a financial storm linked to its initial capital plan to build a $40 million dollar institution.
Some feel that the AWC was too aggressive to achieve such a high budgeted project—that the waters had not been tested in a region that has plenty of entertainment and cultural attractions to compete with. And still yet there are those who feel that the mission of the AWC was not firmly planted and followed to the letter.
The plan to build a $40 million facility to present African American culture was ambitious for a Pittsburgh audience. I don’t pretend that I am aware of the details of its financial profile but understanding that a $7 million shortfall is not an easy task for any institution to overcome, especially one that is new and trying to develop trust and build relationships with a broad community.
The question had to be asked by the organizers if the region would welcome and support a project that aimed for the top and would require significant financial support to maintain. As we can see the capacity to sustain the AWC is enormous.
As president of the Association of African American Museums I have the opportunity to converse with numerous colleagues about the AWC and other institutions that are suffering some of the same issues. To date the AWC has had five CEO/Directors since it opened its doors in 2009—a four-year period. Anyone in or outside of the cultural non-profit professional can tell you that is an issue. No institution can maintain and grow capacity with that much change at the top in a short period of time.
Generally, it takes at least five years for a CEO to be effective for an established institution let alone a brand new one. That leader would have to put in place their vision and develop relationships with the major players in the region—funders, elected officials, cultural partners, corporations, and the populace.
What we all recognize is the potential asset of the AWC to Pittsburgh’s cultural landscape and would like to see it survive. The reality is that if it does survive a different type of organization may emerge—one that may not appeal so much to the African-American community.
(Samuel W. Black is president, Association of African American Museums. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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