Pittsburgh Arts Organization Employees Question CEO's Ability To Lead It In New Direction

Jun 4, 2018

On Aug. 16, Sarah Huny Young started work at Pittsburgh Filmmakers/Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. 

Young is a branding, marketing and design consultant, and relatively new to Pittsburgh; she hadn’t been looking for a full-time staff gig. But she was intrigued when the nonprofit arts group’s CEO, Germaine Williams, recruited her to be its new director of marketing and communications.

Young, who’s from New York, was then unfamiliar with PFPCA, but Williams was upfront that the venerable group was going through rough times, including financial struggles and a series of layoffs. Still, Williams was formerly a program officer with the Pittsburgh Foundation, from which Young had once gotten some funding, and her exploratory meetings with Williams and other PFPCA staff had gone well.

But her first days at the group’s offices, in Oakland, were difficult.

“I realized very quickly that this job was going to be a lot more duties than I thought it was going to be,” she says. Still, she got to work, learning about the organization, reaching out to press, looking for new ways to distribute materials about the group’s film screenings, art exhibits and classes. The group hadn’t used its Twitter account in a year, she says; there was a new course catalog to design; and more. The budget was so tight that Young even started photographing in-house events herself – just one more task she hadn’t planned on.

Yet from there, things only got worse. Young was “frazzled and stressed” from all the work. But the problem wasn’t her co-workers, most of whom seemed passionate about the place; it was Williams, the man who’d hired her. And the trouble went beyond the escalating scope of her job, and even beyond her discovery that the group was in much worse shape financially than she says Williams had led her to believe, thanks mostly to plummeting enrollment in its classes and huge maintenance costs for its half-dozen buildings, including the center’s big, century-old landmark yellow mansion on Fifth Avenue.

The landmark yellow century-old building on Fifth Avenue.
Credit Bill O'Driscoll / 90.5 WESA

For one, she says, Williams was a verbally abusive boss. “The way he spoke to people was very off-putting and aggressive,” she says. “There are people there who would actually cry sometimes after he left their office.”

Moreover, he was uncommunicative with her and other staff. He seemed to disdain other people’s opinions, rejecting recommendations from consultants and in-house experts about things like revising the group’s poorly functioning website. PFPCA was badly understaffed – everyone else was as overworked as Young was – yet Williams laid off still more people, including the director of education, in September. With his background in the foundation world, Williams had been expected to be good at getting resources for PFPCA. But even though funds failed to materialize, Young says, Williams often seemed disengaged.

Case in point: One day in November, with the PCA’s signature Artist of the Year show pending, Young learned that supporters of awardee Jo-Anne Bates were angry about a rumor that the opening reception would be poorly funded. The rumor was misleading, Young says – but although she was “desperate” to reach Williams by phone to address the matter, “he was nowhere to be found” all through the late afternoon and early evening. With “a potential public-relations emergency” brewing, she said, “his lack of urgency was really upsetting to me.”

A screengrab from the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts' Artist of the Year: Jo-Anne Bates.

Finally, there was that website, which includes pages where students can register for classes.  Everyone within the organization agrees that the site has been inadequate for years. But Young says that while a consultant had suggested a fix for the website’s rickety database in the fall, Williams wouldn’t pull the trigger.

“I saw that decision as extremely costly,” she says. The site “still to this day looks the exact same. It has not been touched,” she adds. “That was kind of my breaking point.”

In December, Young was laid off – a week after she complained to PFPCA’s director of administration about Williams’ approach to the website, and a day after he praised her overall performance during a staff meeting.

But Young’s characterization of Williams as “an absolutely terrible boss” can’t be dismissed as the complaints of a lone disgruntled employee – especially not when the prominent arts group he runs is at a crucial juncture in its history. Two weeks ago, Williams announced that PFPCA had cancelled its fall film and photography classes, and that it would sell Filmmakers’ long-time headquarters, in Oakland, and consolidate operations at the Center’s own landmark complex, in Shadyside.

The nonprofit group, which has a budget of about $4 million, has been running six-figure deficits for years; this year’s shortfall is anticipated to be more than $500,000. The sale of the big building on Melwood Avenue – with its classrooms, darkrooms and editing suites – is meant to provide a cash infusion that buys the group time to craft a plan for the future.

But interviews with multiple current and former PFPCA employees, conducted by 90.5 WESA over the past two months, back up Young’s portrait of Williams. They indicate widespread dissatisfaction with him and the job he’s done since taking over in January 2017. And they cast doubt on his ability to lead the group into the future. Although everyone acknowledges that Williams was dealt a tough hand at PFPCA, many say he has made a bad situation worse.

"There is no plan"

The new direction Williams announced for PFPCA in May is radical. Filmmakers is known primarily for the foreign-language and arthouse films it shows at its three theaters, and for the college-level classes in film, video and digital media that have long been its major source of revenue. Williams says that the film screenings will continue, as will art exhibitions at the Center, and the Center’s long-running summer art camps for children. But he says that Filmmakers’ decades-long focus on classes for college and university students is over.

That’s big news. College students account for more than 60 percent of Filmmakers’ enrollment. The vast majority of them are University of Pittsburgh students taking production classes – some 300 students a year. Pitt is relocating those classes in-house. This is nothing less than Filmmakers giving up on the business model it’s relied on for decades.

In a May 25 interview with 90.5 WESA, Williams said that taking PFPCA in a new direction was difficult but necessary. Faced with years of declining enrollment, and mounting maintenance costs on its two campuses, PFPCA had a “structural deficit.” It had to reinvent itself or die.

“We need to make a fundamental change,” said Williams during the two-and-a-half-hour interview. Of selling the landmark Oakland building that’s been Filmmakers’ home since 1995, he said, “We could keep operating this building, but it would drive us deeper and deeper into financial ruin.” Also on the table is selling the Regent Square Theater, in Edgewood, but leasing it back so it could continue to show films there.

The foundation community reacted with guarded optimism. PFCA “has made a first move toward reinventing itself by shedding programs and possibly shedding buildings,” says Janet Sarbaugh, vice president of creativity at the Heinz Endowments, a longtime PFPCA funder. “It’s made necessary decisions to right itself financially and it’s ceding ground in the media-education arena.” However, Sarbaugh emphasizes that “what matters most” are the decisions the group makes in upcoming months about what shape the new organization will take.

While his critics acknowledge that PFPCA’s troubles were years in the making, they say Williams himself isn’t the best person to help mold that future.

“I think he’s a very, very ineffective choice for CEO,” says Sarah Huny Young, the laid-off director of marketing and communications. Her assessment was echoed by several current and former staffers who declined to be named, one of whom said bluntly of Williams, “It doesn’t seem like he gives a crap about us or the future of the place.”

Prior to his hiring at PFPCA, Williams, now 44, had worked for years at the Pittsburgh Foundation – he was, in fact, PFPCA’s program officer there. And in early 2017, after months of turmoil that included massive layoffs and the ouster of longtime executive director Charlie Humphrey, staffers were hopeful that Williams could right the ship.

“At the beginning, I had hearts in my eyes: ‘Yay, Germaine!’” says one former employee.

But their hopes, these current and former staffers say today, were misplaced. Sources say that Williams has been indecisive, as well as uncommunicative with staff, and has never seemed to have a plan to better the organization.

“He operates solely by himself, without the assistance of people here,” says a current employee.

Even a current employee who said, "I'm kind of sympathetic to Germaine's situation," agreed that "there's been very little transparency."

“He doesn’t communicate with people,” says a former employee. “He falls off the face of the Earth. The joke is just, ‘Where is he?’” The former staffer echoed Young’s charge that Williams treats employees unkindly: “he’s manipulative and abusive.”

"Very sarcastic, very dismissive," said Young. "Everything I say is not only 'no,' but a condescending 'no.'" She said Williams often called suggestions from staff "ridiculous."

“I think he’s just in over his head,” said another former employee.

Williams' salary is $150,000 -- a number staffers are well aware of, as it's several times what a typical full-time PFPCA employee makes. During his tenure, budget deficits have continued, and enrollment has kept dropping. Layoffs continued as well, to the point where key staff positions including director of marketing and director of exhibitions are now unfilled, and remaining full-time employees are each doing multiple jobs. (Asked how many full-time employees remain, William said “less than 20”; a staffer put the number at “no more than … 12.”)

In May, the day after Williams announced the changes at PFPCA, there was yet another layoff, of longtime employee Kelly Bogel Stokes, who both ran the equipment office and was artist-services manager.

Director of Education Susan Howard was fired in the fall, and replaced with longtime instructor John Cantine – who, when the cancelation of classes was announced in May, was himself made an adjunct instructor. Another blow to morale was the layoff in March of Director of Exhibitions Lauren Goshinski, the well-regarded local programmer whom Williams had personally recruited and then hired only last June.

“They got rid of all the bosses and brought in people who didn’t know how anything worked,” says one current employee. “They basically threw away all the institutional memory.”

“The morale here is absolutely beyond rock-bottom,” says another current staffer.

The Pittsburgh Filmmakers building on Melwood Avenue.
Credit Bill O'Driscoll / 90.5 WESA

Interviewed about 10 days before PFPCA announced it was canceling fall classes and selling the Melwood building, one current employee said of Williams, "He hasn't really done anything, that's the problem."

But even a week after the announcement of the cancelled classes and the building's sale – which some might see as decisive moves – staffers expressed doubts about Williams’ leadership ability.

“There is no plan,” said a current staffer. “There has never been a plan.”

The announcement dragged morale even lower; one staffer said going to work was "like walking into a morgue."

Staffers complain that Williams stopped holding monthly all-staff meetings, with only a few held during one period of roughly a year. But Williams said that was because he held such meetings only after board meetings, and for a time made the board meetings quarterly so that the board would focus less on short-term issues and more on long-term planning. (He has since resumed monthly board meetings.)

Williams, for his part, defends his level of communication with employees. He says he holds weekly meetings with department managers, and relies on them to relay information to other staffers. He speculates that the perception that he is incommunicative involves “an adjustment to a different leadership style.”

Williams denies being verbally abusive.

“I don’t think that’s my way of interacting with people,” he says. “I don’t view my communications with staff to be belittling, and it concerns me that someone would think that.”

Asked about the Artist of the Year incident and marketing director Young’s inability to reach him, Williams says he addressed the problem not by calling his marketing director, but by phoning the source of the complaint. “My call was to the person because I knew who it was,” he says.

"I don't view my communications with staff to be belittling, and it concerns me that someone would think that."

And if he seems to his staff not to have a plan for PFPCA, Williams said, it was simply because it took a while to formulate one. Williams says that when he took the job, he thought the group was out of crisis mode, with a balanced budget, if many challenges still ahead. But he says that within six months, he learned that PFPCA was in worse shape than he thought. For one thing, initiatives he had inherited that were meant to address declining revenue, like the “intensive” courses in film and photography – special certificate programs for full-time students – drew fewer students than hoped.

Williams says PFPCA explored options to save money or generate revenue, like starting partnerships with other organizations and leasing space in its buildings, but "nothing panned out." Williams says he had no choice but to lay people off: All the layoffs he’s made, including that of director of exhibitions Goshinski, were for financial reasons, he says. (During the interview, he emphasized his respect for Goshinski’s talents as an arts programmer. Goshinski declined a request to comment for this article.)

He acknowledges the work environment has become challenging. "A number of staff people are wearing multiple hats and doing multiple full-time jobs," he says. "That's extremely exhausting and difficult to do."

In June 2017, Williams convened a day-long board retreat to develop an action plan for the coming year. According to a written summary of the retreat supplied by Williams, a key outcome was a commitment to “raise more contributed income from more diverse sources to maintain our current organizational footprint.”

But the group’s subsequent request to the taxpayer-funded Allegheny Regional Asset District for $630,000 in operating funds – twice PFPCA’s standard request – netted just $230,000 (about what it usually gets). And save for an unexpected anonymous donation of $300,000 in December – which Williams says gave PFPCA “breathing room” – attempts to increase donations were not successful. (RAD did provide $72,000 in matching funds to repair the elevator at PCA, but PFPCA couldn’t raise the match, and the elevator has remained inoperable for over a year.)

Despite all these problems, Williams says, PFPCA’s board of directors last year was reluctant to change. Today, he says, 10 of the board’s 13 members are new within the past year. And the new board’s willingness to sell off assets means that the group can move out of crisis mode, he says.

“What we’re doing is trying to be more responsible in the mission of this organization,” he said. “This move gives us resources to do it.”

“Once we get through this period, this becomes a very different organization,” he said.

An email to PFPCA board president Yasmeen Ariff-Sayed seeking comment on PFPCA’s new direction went unreturned. An email to board member Charlee Brodsky was answered with an email that cc’d Ariff-Sayed and promised a response “at a later date.”

Critics say they doubt that the cancellation of classes and sale of the Melwood are the best way forward.

“The selling of the building is still not a plan, it's just a way to get cash quickly,” says Heather Mull, a professional photographer who teaches at PFPCA.

“It’s a plan of desperation,” said one current staffer.

Others emphasize that PFPCA’s troubles are hardly new – enrollment has been declining for more than a decade. They ask why these changes, if needed, weren’t undertaken long ago. “Not one program was cut in that time,” say Susan Abramson, a photographer who taught at Filmmakers for some three decades, until 2016. “Not one change was made programmatically, and that just makes no sense when you are in debt and you have no money. You have to downsize and the organization never did until, you know, right now.” Abramson praises the group’s instructors and other staff, but condemns the “big disconnect” that’s been longstanding between staff and leadership.

Members of the arts community, meanwhile, lamented the forthcoming loss of the facilities at the 36,000-square-foot building Filmmakers has occupied for two decades.

“That facility is incredible. And the darkrooms are amazing,” said Abramson, who still use the photography facilities as an artist member. “I can’t imagine anyone building those darkrooms again.”

Photographer Heather Mull, who teaches at PFPCA, said the diminishment of the education program is also hard to take. “We have such good teachers at Filmmakers,” said Mull, who before teaching also took classes there. “It’s such a loss for the community and for people who want to learn media, specifically photography and filmmaking, which are very difficult skills to learn.”

Site Unseen

Criticisms of Williams’ performance at CEO go beyond his relationship with staff. For instance, the group has had no director of marketing since Young was laid off in December. That time period has witnessed some notable gaps in informing the public about PFPCA programming. For instance, the online listing for PFPCA’s most recent gallery exhibits included no mention of the May 4 opening reception – the event that typically draws the lion’s share of visitors to the gallery.

Likewise, PFPCA brought back the Three Rivers Film Festival as part of this year’s Three Rivers Arts Festival. But as of May 29 – just three days before the arts festival began – the PFPCA site still included no mention of the film festival. (A notice had been posted as of May 31.) As for the education programs, critics inside and outside the group argue that it’s contradictory to complain about falling enrollment if you are not aggressively marketing your classes.

Williams acknowledges that without in-house marketing staff, outreach efforts have flagged. But he said those resources were needed elsewhere. And even if marketing efforts managed to double or even triple enrollment and attendance at programs, he said, it wouldn’t be enough to overcome the structural deficit.

Asked about complaints about the lack of action on the group’s website – from Young and others –Williams agreed that the site is inadequate.

“If we drive traffic to our website now, we generate a lot of confusion,” he said.

But, he says: “It’s an IT project, these things typically take longer than expected.” He said revamping the site first requires redoing the database, and that he rejected a consultant’s proposal to use a custom database because he didn’t want to be locked into one provider for fixes. He said the database challenge will be simplified now that PFPCA is no longer offering classes to college students. “We have to get away from it and we will,” said Williams.

While Young suspects she was laid off for complaining about Williams’ failure to redo the website, Williams says she was let go for financial reasons. (Young and Williams also dispute the terms of her hiring: Williams says Young was hired as an interim employee; Young says that Williams’ offer letter called the position an interim one, but that she struck out that language and Williams signed off on the change. She provided 90.5 WESA with documents to that effect.)

Yet here is one thing Williams and his critics agree on: their affection for the organization.

“I believe in that place and I care about it,” said one former employee.

“The vast majority of people I worked with there are great,” says Young.

“The thing that everybody wants,” say a current employee, “is for the organization to stay open.”

Rise And Fall

Pittsburgh Filmmakers plays a storied role on the local arts scene. It was founded in the early 1970s as an artists’ co-op and equipment lending library. For most of its early years, it lived in a ramshackle building on Oakland Avenue, in Oakland. Sue Abramson, the photographer and former instructor, recalls a cramped space with artists rubbing elbows with students.

“If someone flushed the toilets, the water temperature in the darkroom changed,” she recalls.

The move to Melwood Avenue, in 1995, changed everything. Under executive director Charlie Humphrey, the facilities were outfitted with brand-new darkrooms, editing suites, classrooms and offices, not to mention the 140-seat Melwood Screening Room.

“It was pretty amazing to have all that space and for everyone to have their own room,” says Abramson.

Filmmakers purchased the building for $1.2 million in 1998. It was in the midst of the era’s indie-film boom, and those were the group’s salad days. Humphrey excelled at getting support from foundations. The building was full of students – both college kids and adult learners – shooting and splicing film, mixing darkroom chemicals and more. Independent artists like Abramson bought memberships to use the gear. Shortly, Filmmakers bought the vacated, single-screen Regent Square Theater, in Edgewood, and to this day programs art films there and at Downtown’s Harris Theater, owned by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. The group’s Three Rivers Film Festival was running 17 days each year.

The nearly 80-year-old Regent Square Theater in the East End.
Credit Maria Scapellato / 90.5 WESA

But all this was at the dawn of the digital-cinema era. In 2003, Point Park University, which had supplied most of Filmmakers’ students, announced it was taking its film and photography programs in-house. (The capital costs of doing so had gotten a lot cheaper.) This was bad news for Filmmakers, but Point Park’s withdrawal was phased, and in 2005, Humphrey, the executive director, was confident enough in Filmmakers’ future to take on the fate of Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. The similarly venerable nonprofit – it was founded in 1945 – had gone dark after years of poor business decisions, Humphrey engineered a merger.

It’s surely only because of that merger that PCA still exists. But some say the group that saved it has never recovered: Overnight, Filmmakers took on not just the Center’s popular classes in painting, drawing and ceramics (including its long-running summer arts camps for kids), but also its slate of expensive but unremunerative visual-arts exhibitions and its campus of aging buildings (which PFPCA leases from their owner, the City of Pittsburgh, for $1 a year in exchange for maintenance). A capital plan done for the group by Oxford Development Company in 2016 estimated that repairs on its buildings over five years would cost some $2.8 million.

“Nothing has really worked for Filmmakers since the merger with the Center,” says one current employee, which seems to be the consensus among staff.

While the photography classes PCA once offered, for instance, were moved to Filmmakers’ facility, the programming, and to some extent the cultures of the two groups, remain stubbornly separate. Meanwhile, Filmmakers’ own fortunes continued declining. By 2015, things had gotten bad enough that Humphrey laid off 18 full- and part-time workers, or one-fifth of its staff. Months later, more than 30 remaining staffers signed a statement of no confidence against Humphrey, who subsequently resigned. Restructuring began under an interim director; more layoffs followed, and the film festival, which had already dropped from 17 days to 10, was reduced to a single weekend.

The hiring of Williams seemed promising. He is a photographer himself, and his years as a Pittsburgh Foundation program officer suggested he might improve the group’s ability to garner contributed income.

But the honeymoon ended quickly. Much of the tension was internal, but the months-long closure of the Regent Square Theater – Filmmakers’ flagship cinema – didn’t help. (PFPCA said the problem was a burnt-out bulb it couldn’t replace.) The Regent finally re-opened in October – about a month after Dollar Bank withdrew as lead sponsor of the Three Rivers Film Festival, a role it had played for two decades.

The need to cancel last year’s film festival, however, was probably not Williams’ main worry: Filmmakers’ cinema program was always a break-even affair, at best. The big problem was the continuing decline in enrollment: As recently as the 2008 school year, some 1,500 independent and college students were taking classes at Filmmakers; this year the number was fewer than 600. Much of the loss is due to the departure of the last of Point Park’s students, who still numbered 376 in 2008 but have since zeroed out.

Pitt, for its part, has been sending students to production classes at Filmmakers for years. The University’s decision to start a film-production track, and send the students to Filmmakers, seemed promising. But in April, “issues about the health of Pittsburgh Filmmakers[’] education division” and the advent of new broadcast facilities, at Pitt convinced the university to take those classes in-house, said Randall Halle, director of Pitt’s Film and Media Studies Program, said last week in a statement.

Halle said that it was “at the start of May” when Pitt informed Williams of its intent to bring classes in house. (Asked whether Pitt’s decision had affected PFPCA’s cancellation of fall classes, Williams said that he and PFPCA’s board had decided to cancel classes prior to that notice.)

Meanwhile, PFPCA’s roster of independent students was dropping, too, from more than 500 in 2013 to 173 this year, a 67 percent loss in just five years. Williams says that the type of semester-long, college-level courses Filmmakers has long specialized in are no longer appealing to independent students; most observers blame this on the declining price of prosumer cameras and other gear and the ease of finding technical instruction online.

Whatever the reason, one result, Williams says, is that one any given day, the Melwood facility is at only 40 percent capacity, making the building expendable.

Williams calls the still-controversial merger “a noble effort to keep PCA on the landscape,” though, he acknowledges, “I don’t think there was sufficient consideration to how the two organizations would integrate.” Now, however, with no university students to educate, he envisions a future where the group returns to its core mission of serving independent artists, and he thinks there is room at the Center for the Arts to do it. “We can make this work over there.”

End Credits -- Or A New Beginning?

What is the future of PFPCA?

Should it vanish entirely, it would hardly be the first arts group to do so, though it would certainly be the biggest in Pittsburgh in some time. Elsewhere, other organizations with a media-arts focus have gone by the wayside, too, says Wendy Levy, executive director of the Alliance for Media Arts and Culture, a national advocacy group based in Oakland, Calif.

“It’s a hard business to be in,” says Levy.

AMAC includes 600 member groups, whom Levy says are adapting to the new media landscape in different ways. Some partner with for-profit companies, and others diversify into things like workforce development, she says.

What PFPCA does now will depend largely on the planning process Williams puts into place. He intends to seat a steering committee composed of staff and board members, but also to engage the public.

Engaging funders, too, will be crucial. Janet Sarbaugh, of the Heinz Endowments, acknowledges that arts organizations can’t stand pat. “Cultural institutions have to assess their situations and change to stay relevant and to stay viable,” she says.

The question with PFPCA, she says, is, “What is the new organization going to look like? What's being invented or reinvented? How will it meet the needs of artists? What do people in Pittsburgh want and need in terms of community and informal arts?

“So we have to hope that the reinvented organization is going to be able to answer those questions in a compelling way, in an exciting way, in a 21st-Century way.”

"It's going to close. I can't imagine it's not going to close."

Williams, who tells 90.5 WESA that he finds his job “energizing,” says he sees such questions as possibilities.

In a world were semester-length course no longer attract artists, what kind of instruction do you offer? In a landscape where more artists work across disciplines, what might be the benefit of bringing filmmakers, photographers, printmakers, painters, ceramacists and more all under the Center for the Art’s single roof?

“That’s more of how artists work today,” he says. “We have a unique opportunity to be able to serve that.”

One current PFPCA employee interviewed for this story said, “It’s going to close. I can’t imagine it’s not going to close.”

That was days before Williams announced the group’s new direction. But he dismisses fear for the organization’s future as “overblown.”

“This continues to be an important organization for the region,” he says. He adds that the promise of crafting a way forward that can serve artists is “exciting.”

“This has been a challenging year,” he says, “but I think the future’s bright.”

Editor's note: Bill O’Driscoll took several film and photography classes at Pittsburgh Filmmakers between 1995 and 2001. From 1998 to 2007, he was the volunteer curator for Film Kitchen, a monthly screening series co-sponsored by Filmmakers.