By Isaac Butler
I had long had an idea for an essay-- one that I likely won't write now-- called The Three Houses of August, one that pivoted off a visit to his childhood home (which I've seen, and is a boarded up wreck contained within The Hill Distrcit, where his plays take place) to then profile The August Wilson Center for African American Culture in Downtown Pittsburgh just a couple of miles away before visitng The August Wilson Theater on Broadway, which currently houses Jersey Boys.
At least one leg of that trip is likely to be impossible now, as the August Wilson Center for African American Culture is in very, very serious financial trouble:
The bank has sued to foreclose. The city’s philanthropic groups, with names like Mellon and Heinz, have withdrawn support. The $42 million August Wilson Center for African American Culture, a bow-front building inspired by a Swahili sailing ship, is high and dry.
Yowch! At least this article, unlike most coverage of financially struggling arts institutions, is willing to put the blame squarley where it belongs, namely with mismanagement. It seems that the August Wilson Center made three very big mistakes in its founding that all but guaranteed its eventual failure. First, they built the center in Downtown Pittsburgh, where "working-class blacks, many of whom feel unwelcome downtown with its skyscrapers and largely white-owned businesses," were unlikely to go. Second, they stuffed the Board with people who didn't give a shit about the Center, its programming or the playwright it was named after. Third, they took on an $11 million mortgage, which required mortgage payments of over fifty thousand dollars a month with no plan for how to pay for it.
So to review: upon deciding to build the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, they build a building they couldn't afford in an area of town where African Americans feel unwelcome and put people who don't like August Wilson on the board. Bravo. Really. Bra-fucking-vo.
This is all very reminiscent of the financial crises that we saw facing various theaters in the wake of the 2008 stock market crash. A theater would be in trouble, they'd beg the theatrical community to save them, and then we'd find out that they'd, for example, moved their space to a 20-30 minute drive from their aging subscriber base when it used to be five minutes away, or that their artistic director had cannibalized the theater for spare parts in order to launch his Broadway career, or that the managing director was a pathological liar.
And almost always, almost always, at the heart of this was a misguided brick and mortar decision that made a crisis all but inevitable as new spaces bring with them huge new monthly overhead costs, or the expected fundraising and subscriber boost from opening a new space dries up after the first year. Rumor is that there are two major theaters in DC that are facing financial crises as the result of these very factors.
But it's time to just be honest-- as this very fine article is-- about these crises. These are crises of management, and they're crises of the funding community. These nonprofits didn't all get the Edifice Complex out of nowhere. This is what they can get money to do. This is where gravity is pulling them. I know I went after The Public (a theater I adore, just to be clear) for spending $40 million on a lobby while their art starves, but the truth of the matter is, that failure is shared-- and incentivized and built-- by donors and foundations and public funders who will only fund buildings and don't really seem to care about art.
Until we get reform, we'll have more cases like this. The August Wilson Center, named after the man who is perhpas the greatest of American playwrights, a man whose plays told the story of the African American denizens of the Hill District with the musuicality of Shakespeare and the quotidian detail of Chekhov, is now being rented to a White Megachurch.