How Foundations Brought This Iconic African American Cultural Center Back from the Brink

In our age of Big Data, we often see foundations cutting checks to arts organizations that deliver the goods — and have the numbers to prove it. Grantmakers measure progress, nod approvingly at the resulting metrics, and like any good financial steward, double down on their investment. It's a no-brainer.

Needless to say this quantitative perspective helps to minimize risk on the foundation's end.

But sometimes the decision to fund an organization is far from cut and dry. And there are the rare instances in which foundations find themselves single-handedly saving an organization from extinction. Such is the case with Pittsburgh's August Wilson Center, a nonprofit organization that produces and showcases performing and visual arts to celebrate the contributions of African Americans in Pittsburgh and the United States at large.

We're happy to say that the center's story has a happy ending, thanks to the help of foundation support— namely the Pittsburgh Foundation, Heinz Endowments, and the Richard King Mellon Foundation. But their challenges may (unfortunately) sound familiar to arts organizations trying to stay financially viable in an increasingly competitive arts landscape.

As noted in this more robust summary of the center's ongoing evolution, the center was plagued by faulty budgeting and unexpected environmental issues even before it opened its doors. By 2010, it was on its third executive director and many millions of dollars in debt. And so a kind of vicious cycle materialized — the center lacked the funds for compelling programming that in turn adversely affected attendance. In September 2013, the building went into foreclosure. Soon after, the center's conservator, Judith Fitzgerald, became responsible for the disposition of the center's assets.

So the center and the foundations that supported it found themselves at a crossroads. Funders could have walked away, but they didn't. In 2014, the Heinz Endowments, the Richard King Mellon Foundation, and the Pittsburgh Foundation purchased the center. (Heinz was a vested partner from the beginning. It was a co-chair of the center's initial capital campaign, establishing challenge grants up to $2 million. It also provided a $4 million construction grant.)

The purchase cleared all liens on the property and the deed was transferred to a newly created nonprofit led by the leaders of Heinz, Mellon, and the Pittsburgh Foundation. 

Fast-forward to February 2016. The Pittsburgh Post Gazette published an editorial titled Cultural Comeback: The Future is Bright for the August Wilson Center. According to the editors, "The survival of the August Wilson Center was, for too long, an open question. Step by step, it has come back to life, its future brighter than it has been in years."

But why, exactly, is the future so bright?

The editorial points to three reasons that, ironically enough, map elegantly to a recent DeVos Institute piece highlighting the challenges facing African American and Latino/Hispanic nonprofits. For starters, the center's governing board has begun the search to replace its three foundation leaders with African American professionals with extensive business and finance experience. This dovetails nicely with DeVos' recommendation that diverse organizations build stronger and more diverse boards whose members are committed to fundraising.

Secondly, the center brought in the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust to manage the venue. An astute decision, as the trust has access to an impressive roster of national acts to help bring people through the doors. This move echoes DeVos' memorable piece of advice stating that "successful arts organizations prioritize investment in great art — not buildings." (A separate programming board led by stakeholders and leaders in the African American arts community is also in the works.)

Further driving the point home, the Pittsburgh Foundation’s programming fund chipped in by awarding $300,000 in grants to six local organizations to produce works in tune with the center’s mission. The Heinz Endowments has also doled out an equal amount to the Cultural Trust for current center programming. We view this as an "it takes a village" approach. To see what we mean, check out our take on Cleveland's vibrant theater scene. Funders and organizations in that city realize they're all in this together. Collaboration is essential to building a healthy and symbiotic arts ecosystem. 

And it's worth noting that the foundations didn't act in a vacuum. They had extensive community support, which provided needed momentum to for involved parties to help right the ship.

Now don't misunderstand us. There's certainly nothing wrong with a foundation cutting a check to an organization that hits all the prerequisite performance metrics. But it's also refreshing when foundations, faced with intimidating odds, step up to the plate to rescue an important civic institution from oblivion and put said institution on a path to sustainability. 

And so we'll let Grant Oliphant, director of the Heinz Endowments, have the last word. "Every cultural center and arts facility in the country depends on charitable fundraising and donations to survive," he said. "Part of the value that foundations bring is that they can be a little more courageous."