Arts & Culture
12:42 pm
Wed September 11, 2013

August Wilson Center Plots New Plan for Sustainable Future

The Interim President and CEO of the August Wilson Center for African American Culture Oliver Byrd said in an interview on Wednesday that his organization is getting itself on the track to financial stability.

On Tuesday, Byrd sent a three-page letter to supporters of the center and to the media, outlining what he sees as the issues the organization has faced and the path they will take moving forward.

Since he took the helm of the organization in August 2012, Byrd said he has taken up the unglamorous work of getting the August Wilson Center’s financial house in order.

“What you’ve seen me doing is … looking at the finance and accounting function and getting it snapped correctly, making sure we have the right internal controls in place and keeping up with the production of financial statements,” he said.

The organization has faced financial troubles since its inception, when construction costs exceeded funding. This put the organization on shaky financial footing from the very beginning.

Furthermore, Byrd said, making sense of the financial records at the center was a challenge.

“Typically, when you look at a set of financials, what they do is more than tell you a story, they raise questions,” he said. “And typically you have somebody sitting there saying, ‘And the answer to that question is this.’ What we lacked was the somebody sitting there.”

Byrd said he is grateful for the help of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, whose controller assisted Byrd with preparing an audit for the Allegheny County Regional Asset District (RAD). The RAD needed to see the audit before they could release any funds for the center for 2014. The audit was presented to the RAD in March and should become publicly available in the next couple of weeks.

In addition to getting the August Wilson Center’s finances in order, Byrd examined the partnerships to which the center was committed. He said that sometimes, he would question staff about a certain arrangement, and they would respond by saying that group or organization was one of the center’s partners.

“Well, partnership implies that each side gets something out of the deal,” Byrd said. “It was very easy to see what the partner got out of the deal, but very difficult to see what the August Wilson Center got out of the deal.”

Byrd declined to name of any of these partners, but he said that many of these arrangements were dissolved while others were restructured. He has also worked to develop new partnerships with well-known organizations like FashionAFRICANA, a local curator of African-inspired fashion and arts events.

“Those kinds of relationships that extend the August Wilson Center brand, associate the brand with other brands that are well respected and regarded here in the community, are the kinds of things we’re looking for,” he said.

In his letter, Byrd also called out the media for misrepresenting the August Wilson Center, saying that “frequent and inaccurate reporting by particular media sources has damaged the image of the Center and hurt both ongoing business prospects and audience development.”

Specifically, Byrd took issue with the consistent characterization of the center as “financially troubled.” While he does not disagree with the description, he said that singling out the center ignores the fact that most nonprofit arts organizations face the same type of financial challenges.

In addition to focusing more on education, rather than entertainment, the center will focus on renting out their facility for events in order to raise revenue. They have also spun off the critically acclaimed August Wilson Center Dance Ensemble, saying that the missions of the two organizations have diverged, and that the company is strong enough to stand on its own.

Read the full text of Byrd’s letter