After a three-year search, the board of the August Wilson Center For African American Culture named its new president and CEO Thursday. Janis Burley Wilson, who is not related to the center’s namesake, has overseen programming at the center since the Cultural Trust took over temporary operation two years ago.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said Burley Wilson’s hire means the conversation is no longer about saving the center, named after Pittsburgh Playwright August Wilson.
“We’re talking about building on it, of having something that is not only precious for our city and our region, but for this country and will become a place where people will want to come to to understand a culture,” he said.
Peduto, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Maxwell King, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Foundation, each said Thursday that the hire signifies the next era for the center to accomplish what it set out to be – a place to celebrate African American heritage and culture.
The center opened in 2009 at the height of the economic crisis. In 2014, it declared bankruptcy and the building was eventually purchased by a coalition of local foundations. Burley Wilson said her first priority is to develop a strategic plan for the center. She declined to comment on programming changes until that happens.
“We are here today because stakeholders in the city felt that August Wilson’s legacy was too precious to relinquish. Too important to fall into the hands of callous commercialism and too historic not to share with the world,” she said.
Burley Wilson most recently was the vice president for strategic partnership and community engagement for the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. She is a Penn Hills High School graduate and said her connection to the city’s arts community will help her lead the center.
Recently, community members worked to create a mural incorporating characters from August Wilson’s plays that is now displayed on the first floor of the center. The playwright’s image is featured in the center of the mural.
“His name on the front of the building for so long has been the only part of him here,” Burley Wilson said.
She plans to bring more of his legacy to the center. In her programming work, she brought an exhibition of costumes from the movie “Fences,” based on the Pulitzer-Prize winning play, to the center.
“We will continue to search for insightful, poignant and powerful artists, lecturers, poets and musicians with a universal appeal to present at the Center,” she said. “We will make our education and enlightenment initiatives more robust moving forward. I want to be opportunistic, entrepreneurial. I will be open to opportunities and partnerships that will further the mission of the African American Cultural Center.”