What the Heinz Endowments Sees in This Historic Theater

The Heinz Endowments believes that a successful arts and culture program can improve the well being of individuals, communities and ultimately the world. That’s why the foundation annually doles out more than $10 million in funding to support arts in southwest Pennsylvania and especially Pittsburgh. One big recent Heinz grant that caught our attention is a $1,050,000 gift to Pittsburgh's Kelly Strayhorn Theater. 

Announced by Janera Solomon, the theater’s executive director, the huge donation comes at a crucial time for the terracotta-trimmed theater. This is the theater's centennial anniversary, and Solomon and her staff have been working to broaden the theater's focus to include more diverse and inclusive artistic, cultural and educational activities.

That's always a sure-fire way to get the attention of funders these days, who are anxious to ensure that the arts sector connects to the nation's fastest growing demographic groups and moves beyond a shrinking core constituency of affluent older white folks. 

This grant will support such work as well as the artist residency program, which includes choreographer Kyle Abraham, a 2013 recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship.

“It's a great vote of confidence,” Solomon said. “It's something that's really important for a community-based organization to get the kind of cultural capital that comes with being supported in this major way by the Heinz Endowments. It signals to our community that we're doing something important, and that actually helps us do our work better.”

With Heinz's backing, the theater—which was renamed in 2000 for Pittsburgh’s own Gene Kelly, a dancer, choreographer and movie director, and Billy Strayhorn, a jazz pianist, composer and arranger who had a lifelong collaboration with Duke Ellington—will work to grow its attendance, the number of fellowships it offers to artists, and the theater’s donor base.

This isn’t the first time the Heinz Endowments has supported the Kelly Strayhorn Theater. Shortly after the on-again, off-again theater closed its doors for renovations in 1999, the Heinz Endowments donated $370,000 to aid the theater’s expanded focus to offer original programming. And in 2012, the foundation granted the Kelly Strayhorn Theater $30,000 to support the residency of choreographer and performer Kate Watson Wallace.  

Since then, the theater has continued to grow and now offers original programing that includes music, concerts, fashion and film events. Two years ago, the theater merged with Dance Alloy, which also gave the theater the wherewithal to offer original dance and movement programming as well.

“The majority is for operating support,” said Justin Laing, Heinz Endowments senior program officer for arts and culture. “That's because of our excitement about the programming that the Kelly Strayhorn is doing in a variety of different communities. It connects to arts education and dance.

 “The other major part of the award is to support the Kelly Strayhorn Theater in bringing in African-American artists interested in social practice, connecting directly to neighborhoods and communities and to incubate them, perhaps even to locate to Penn Ave.,” Laing said.

The Kelly Strayhorn Theater originally opened as the Regent Theater in 1914 and only accommodated 1,100 people. This fall, The Kelly Strayhorn Theater's East Liberty Live! 2014 will offer more than 20 shows, including music, dance, film and family events, representing the theater's largest-ever line up of summer programming.