Saving the Gem of the Ocean: A Hearing to Save or Sell the August Wilson Center for African American Culture

Saving the Gem of the Ocean: 
A Hearing to Save or Sell The August Wilson Center
by Dr. Kimberly C. Ellis aka Dr. Goddess
http://drgoddess.com

Aunt Ester holding the boat that takes Citizen through the Middle Passage

300+ year old Aunt Ester holding the small, paper boat that takes Citizen through the Middle Passage

The Ship on Liberty Avenue. Hello...

The Ship on Liberty Avenue, designed by Architect Allison Williams. (Michael Henninger / Post-Gazette)

The Outline
Here’s a bullet point summary if you don’t want to read the full narrative. Feel free to also jump to the end for news articles. Let me remind everyone that the courts are public and anything shared in them is fair game for reporting:

  • It was a bitter, cold-blooded day on Friday, Jan 24, 2014 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
  • The August Wilson Center for African American Culture is at 960 Liberty Avenue in Downtown, Pittsburgh and has been open for four years, since 2009.
  • Approximately 30 people showed up for the hearing on the August Wilson Center.
  • The purpose of the hearing was to convince Judge Lawrence O’Toole that Judge Judith Franklin, the Conservator of the August Wilson Center that he appointed on behalf of the State Attorney General Kathleen Kane (aka the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania), should be transitioned from Conservator to Receivership, so she could liquidate the August Wilson Center and manage the sale of the property, including the artwork and collections within.
  • There were four different legal entities at the table:
  • Retired Judge Judith Fitzgerald, the appointed Conservator of the AWC and her lawyer, Beverly Weiss Manne;
  • Dollar Bank’s lawyer, Eric Schafer
  • The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania via Attorney General Kathleen Kane, Deputy Attorney General Sandra Renwand
  • Joe Lawrence, lawyer and legal representation for four of the founders of the AWC – Nancy Washington, Sala Udin, Yvonne Cook and Mulugetta Birru.

So…

  • Attorney Joe Lawrence filed a “Petition to Intervene” on the Conservatorship and Liquidation of the AWC. Judge O’Toole denied the petition, after hearing testimony.
  • Judge Judith Fitzgerald, Conservator of the AWC, said that while many persons have offered lip service support, “not a single person or entity” has approached her with a plan or money to save the August Wilson Center. She “regretfully” requests that the Judge allow her to become a Receiver to Liquidate the assets of the August Wilson Center and to sell it.
  • The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Deputy Attorney General Sandra Renwand cross-examined Judith Fitzgerald, is concerned about impropriety and possible unjust enrichment between she and Dollar Bank in a settlement negotiation and recommends a change in Conservatorship to EJ Strassburger. This means the people who hired Judith Fitzgerald now want to fire her (i.e. not renew her contract which ends on Feb. 3, 2014).
  • Judge Judith Fitzgerald and her staff charge $350/hr and work 12-16 hour days on the AWC. Attorney EJ Strassburger said he would come in and do the job for free.
  • Six people spoke in the courtroom to directly appeal to Judge Lawrence O’Toole, on behalf of the August Wilson Center, to ask for more time to sort out the issues and pay off the debt, reorganize the AWC and garner public support locally, nationally and internationally. They were: Dr. Kimberly C. Ellis (Scholar-Artist and niece of August Wilson), Sala Udin (Founding Board Member of the AWC), Malcolm Hardie, Germaine Williams (The Pittsburgh Foundation), Yvonne Cook (Founding Board Member of the AWC) and Mitch Swain (Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council).
  • Judge O’Toole heard everyone, is deliberating and said he would declare a decision on Monday, January 27, 2014.
  • Update: Judge O’Toole ruled to support the Conservator, made her the Receiver and Judge Judith Fitzgerald is allowed to take bids to liquidate the August Wilson Center. But there are also calls to Save the Center. There is danger here; but also opportunity. We intend to Save the August Wilson Center. Click here (http://SaveTheAugustWilsonCenter.com) for more updated information. We’re also on Facebook!
The Legal Eagles

The Legal Eagles in Judge O’Toole’s Courtroom

The Narrative

I didn’t even want to get out of bed today. I had just returned from an overnight bus trip to Cincinnati, so my back was hurting a bit, I needed more sleep and the polar vortex meant it was way too cold to move from the fetal position underneath my covers. What got me out of bed and out of the house was my desire to see “The Mommy” (who’s in a nursing home and whom I visit almost daily), my desire to purchase a new heater and this nagging notion that I should really be at this hearing on the conservatorship of the August Wilson Center. I didn’t know what I would hear or what could really be done but I just knew it wouldn’t sit right with my soul if I, at least, didn’t attempt to add my energy into saving the AWC and at least telling others the hearing was happening and where. And it’s not just because the AWC is named after family.

Like many of us, I was right here supporting the new “Center for African American Culture” long before anybody’s name was attached to it, which came years later, anyway. In fact, my two, favorite projects I did with the Center years ago was performing “Poetry in the Street” as a precursor to a Flux performance downtown and conducting an oral history project on Black women artists in Pittsburgh during the late 20th Century for the “Women of a New Tribe” project. I still bristle at that title but the overall project was awesome. I have Kamau Ware (and those who approved it) to thank for bringing me on for that project. And, as a result, I was able to provide an historical, scholarly and artistic analysis of some of the most meaningful and impactful artistic influences of my youth. Everything from programs at the YWCA to the Ozanam Cultural Center to the Hill House to the Harambee Festival in Homewood to the Kwanzaa Celebrations around the city and Downtown, it was phenomenal.

I also consulted on the “Art for August” project conducted by Janis Burley Wilson of The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, which was undoubtedly an offshoot and extension of my work on the “August in February” events at the Byham Theater, which was created by Mark Clayton Southers. So, all of that to say, the Center for African American Culture was doing some really good work, long before there was a building and when there was only a visual arts exhibit space on Ninth Street. Please don’t forget that because it underscores the shamefulness, the tragedy, the disgrace but still the hopefulness of what is happening with the “August Wilson Center for African American Culture” right now. And, I guess a part of the point I must make is that there were a lot of people doing a lot of hard, good, excellent and impactful work long before YOU (whomever you are) came along.

Like many others, I have only found out about what’s happening to the AWC through the newspapers. That is a travesty, in and of itself, but it’s the truth. Sure, I may get a nugget here or there but there is just so much disjointed information out there, it’s a shame. And, frankly, as a caregiver going through my own, unrelenting drama everyday, I simply had neither the time, energy or even interest to hunt folks down for information. I reached out to a couple of people to find out details about the court case and, perhaps due to the time constraints, just didn’t hear back. So, I spent Friday morning calling down to Orphan’s court to find out what time the hearing would be and where. When I tell you I was transferred at least six times and given five different numbers…(SMH) but I’m an organizer, so I hung in there. Finally, I found out the information, typed it up and put it on Facebook for everyone to see. I think I completed this task before 9:30am, which is good because the hearing was at 3:00pm. Still, it would have been much better had we had this information beforehand.

As an organizer who has engaged in protest politics (marches, holding down street corners, signing petitions, etc.), I find it pivotal and more than considerate to let people know how they can be most effective with their time and energy BEFOREHAND. Most of the time, disenfranchised people are not at the table, engaged in decision-making, so that’s what leads to us/them filling the streets. But it’s also a tiring affair, isn’t it? And it’s not fair, is it? Especially when people who are not disenfranchised need but make a call, send an email, have a conversation or attend a sit down meeting (or lunch or dinner) to discuss the important aspects of their lives and how they can influence the direction of a particular item of concern. As it turns out, today’s court hearing was a pivotal, defining moment in the future of the August Wilson Center and it baffles me that this understanding and just the basic details about the hearing were not shared by various, interested parties. It really was time to fill the courtroom. Thankfully, the courtroom was pretty small, had about three rows of chairs and, as a point of fact, it was full.

The Notes

The hearing began at 3:00pm, 1700 Frick Building, 17th floor in Orphan’s Court with Judge Lawrence O’Toole. Please remember that, for the most part, I’m just reporting. I can’t confirm or deny any of the allegations made during this hearing. Court is free and open to the public. Let’s begin..

The purpose of the hearing was to convince Judge Lawrence O’Toole that Judge Judith Franklin, the Conservator of the August Wilson Center that he appointed on behalf of the State Attorney General (the Commonwealth), should be transitioned from Conservator to Receivership, so she could liquidate the August Wilson Center and manage the sale of the property, including the artwork and collections within.

There were four different legal entities at the table:

  • Retired Judge Judith Fitzgerald, the appointed Conservator of the AWC and her lawyer, Beverly Weiss Manne;
  • Dollar Bank’s lawyer, Eric Schafer
  • The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania via Attorney General Kathleen Kane, Deputy Attorney General Sandra Renwand
  • Joe Lawrence, lawyer and legal representation for four of the founders of the AWC – Nancy Washington, Sala Udin, Yvonne Cook and Mulugetta Birru.

Joe Lawrence began with a petition to intervene in this transfer of Conservator to Receiver because the four founders wanted a new Conservator appointed and because they had legal concerns over how the situation was handled, considering that they might be financially responsible for and/or Dollar Bank may come to them to recoup some of the money the Center owes. This could have just been legalese but remember this for the future, especially if you’re ever asked to serve on a Board. You are legally responsible.

Joe Lawrence said the Conservator and/or other entities responsible had not responded to some of the legal requests he made, including Discovery (various pieces of info necessary for decision making) and that an answer should be filed around why the bank needed to foreclose at all, at this juncture, instead of just ignoring their requests. According to Mr. Lawrence, the founders of the August Wilson Center had raised a ton of money to get it started and they could do it again. Further, a sum of $4.2 million dollars was just paid to Dollar Bank in 2012, bringing the debt down to $7 million and bringing them nearly current, so somebody should explain this rush to foreclose on the Center, which prompted the Conservatorship in the first place.

After Mr. Lawrence concluded, there was some discussion by Judge O’Toole as to whether or not we should continue with hearing testimony from Judith Fitzgerald and other witnesses or should there be a postponement or what? Judge O’Toole joked that we “shouldn’t come out in this cold for nothing, right?” Damn right, Judge! (oops).

So, Judge Judith Fitzgerald was called to the stand and raised her right hand. There were more jokes because her lawyer was used to calling her “Judge” for the last 30 years and didn’t want Judge O’Toole to be offended. He said he was not, so there were two judges up there.

Judith Fitzgerald, the Conservator of the AWC, was asked questions about her experience, education, etc. There’s clearly no question she has extensive experience in bankruptcy law and has seen thousands of Chapter 11 and Chapter 13 cases throughout her career. What I noted, however, is that she had zero arts organization experience. Like, zero. Which is not to say she doesn’t love or appreciate the arts but this lack of experience is important. I had the following questions for Judge Fitzgerald, that I wrote out:

  • Do you have any arts organization experience?
  • You said you met with constituents of the AWC? Who were they? There’s lots of disagreement over this claim that you met with constituents, as many people feel you didn’t meet with many people, at all.
  • What donors or potential donors did you contact or meet with?
  • Did you conduct any fundraisers? Locally? Nationally? Internationally?
  • Did you write any grants?
  • You said you met with the URA and that they URA was willing to work with the Conservator and wanted to see the AWC survive. Any followup?

Judith Fitzgerald said she met with RAD and asked for money for engineering studies and for a business plan to outline the success of the AWC in this economic and political climate. RAD said they would commit $112,000 of matching funds if any other foundations would match. No other foundation supported this matching fund. And no foundation would offer any funds for the ongoing operations and programming of the AWC in its current state.

The AWC has a $450,000 endowment that Judith wanted access to, for billpay and operations and she was refused access to withdraw that money, due to the yearly restrictions of withdrawals on funds of this nature (this is typical for endowments). She asked The Heinz Endowments and the Attorney General for the release of the funds and both entities said, “No.”

She met with government representatives, including Rich Fitzgerald (no relation) and Mayor Bill Peduto. Everyone says they want to see the AWC survive but no one is coming up with a dime. No one is offering any money.

All of the events were losing money because they were not subsidized. She could not continue losing money for each event, so she began to “right size” events that they could afford.

Dollar Bank has paid the utilities, maintenance, insurance, repairs and her $25,000 retainer fee. Judge Judith Fitzgerald and her staff charge $350/hr for their services and she presently works 12-16 hour days. (bling, bling!)

She met with the Union. They want to see the AWC survive because there are union laborers with jobs at the Center. The Union provided “gracious courtesies” to the AWC, including providing advice on how to minimize the amount of union workers utilized, to lower costs. (I couldn’t help but wonder if the Unions could have, possibly, offered that advice beforehand?)

Judith Fitzgerald said she had some discussions with members of the Arts and/or African American community, however, she saw no need to continue having these discussions or meetings until AFTER the hearings were concluded.

Later, she said she has not spoken to the Board. She just knows they all resigned. And no, she has not put together an Advisory Board for the AWC. Once again, she saw no need before any of these hearings.

She also said “not a single person or entity” has come forward with a plan or money. She said this twice and in a dramatic fashion so that the point could be underscored. Some people in the courtroom scoffed at her assertion and I could tell this was and would continue to be a major point of contention.

Per chance, I was sitting next to Nancy Washington, a Founding AWC Board Member; and to say she was heated would be an understatement. She felt there were various untruths stated and was very upset with how the Conservator was handling her affairs. At one point in time, she got into a heated, whispered argument with Margaret Good (Maggie) of Meridian Financial Group, who’s serving as a type of Treasurer to Judith Fitzgerald, and I thought Judge O’Toole was about to say something, as people were turning around in their seat and we could all hear them. As a playwright, I was highly amused; but as a stakeholder, I totally understood the passion as well. I didn’t even think about interrupting either one of them.

Janera Solomon had come in a bit later and ended up sitting behind me. I certainly turned around to comment to her a few times, myself. Plus, I was sitting behind Tim Stevens, so it was like a family reunion, basically… Courtroom drama will move you!

The cost of the audits for 2012-2013 would be $30,000 – $40,000 and they don’t have the money, therefore, they are unable to provide potential funders with the AWC’s financial status, which hinders operations and the opportunity to pay on the debt, so Judith Fitzgerald says, “I do not see a way…given insufficient funding from ANY source…I regretfully request that the court liquidate the assets” of the August Wilson Center.

My Lawd…

FYI: The August Wilson Center for African American Culture has been open for four years. ANY business needs five years before it becomes profitable. Just saying…

The Bomb

Judith Fitzgerald continued by requesting 1) to continue her contract for Conservatorship, which ends on February 3, 2014 and 2) to convert her Conservatorship to a Receivership for the sale of the AWC.

Then, it was time for cross examination and like all of those episodes of “Law and Order” you’ve seen, this is where the drama begins (if the above was not enough for you).

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Deputy Attorney General Sandra Renwand stood up and engaged in the cross examination of Judge Judith Fitzgerald. During opening statements, the lawyer said that they discovered new information just earlier that day and their position regarding everything, including supporting the Conservator, was now in flux. No one but insiders could have understood what she meant but now it was coming out…

The lawyer asked a series of questions to Judge Judith Fitzgerald beginning with, “Do you understand that…,” which served to reinforce some key points Atty Renwand wanted to assert and to make sure Judge Judith would enforce in her role as Conservator OR Receiver and they were (paraphrased):

1. Do you understand that the building of the August Wilson Center serves a charitable purpose for the public at large? That it is a 501c3 organization? (Judith: Yes, I do).

2. Do you understand that the August Wilson Center’s assets are restricted and may not be used outside of the purpose of its mission, as stated in the deed? (Judith: I don’t know about that, I would not agree with that beyond the four years and/or without Judge O’Toole’s approval that I could sell it on the open market).

3. Do you understand that this restrictive covenant goes with the land? (Judith: For the four year period, yes). <– This means the Judge doesn’t think she is legally obligated to the mission of the AWC in the sale of the building, land, etc. Atty Renwand clearly disagrees.

4. Are you aware that the Fair Market Value for the August Wilson Center (at least $18 million) significantly exceeds the debt owed to Dollar Bank ($7 million)? (Judith: Well, I don’t know what the exact fair market value is right now but the AWC was appraised a couple of years ago and that was $18 million at the tiime. As of right now, I don’t know what it is but, yes, it’s significantly more than the debt owed, yes.)

At one point, the Judge said something about how the physical building was not included in this restriction when it came to the mission and I wanted to stand up and shout, “The Building is Built Like a Slave Ship! It’s the Gem of the Ocean!!!” but I didn’t want to get kicked out.

And then the lawyer for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Attorney Sandra Renwand dropped a bombshell question:

5. Is it true that in your agreement with Dollar Bank, in your settlement negotiation were you to become Receiver for the August Wilson Center, that you are set to receive 5% of the sale price of the August Wilson Center, if it were to be sold? (Judith: What? I don’t understand your question…)

*gasps, mumbles and moans in the courtroom*

Judge Judith Fitzgerald’s lawyer was up at the bench so fast. “Objection, your honor, objection…” Judge O’Toole allowed the Commonwealth to continue, especially if Judith knew the answers to the questions. Her lawyer was not amused, not in the least bit. But the questions continued…

5a. In other words, if the August Wilson Center were to sell for $10 million, would you then receive $500,000, a half a million dollars for your fee? (Judith: I would receive a fee for my services, yes, but our settlement negotiations have not yet concluded. I haven’t signed anything yet, so I can’t say for sure… I don’t know what you may have read today but we have not solidified our agreement).

6. And Dollar Bank can credit-bid on the August Wilson Center, correct? (Judith: Well, yes, they would be eligible as well…)

*more moans and mumbles from the courtroom*

Judge O’Toole then said to Atty Renwand, “you’re not suggesting that Judge Judith Fitzgerald is seeking to enrich herself via her Conservatorship and possible Receivership on this deal, are you?”

Atty Renwand: “Oh no, Judge, we have the highest respect for Judge Fitzgerald. It’s just that what we’ve learned…”

Mmph. Mmph. Mmph. There was no conclusion here, as the deal has not been signed. But anyone can see that even the POTENTIAL for massive impropriety exists here. The bottom line here is that we now have in our heads, at least the possibility that the August Wilson Center’s mission, charitable status and restrictive covenant could end, that the Center could be sold at fair market value to the highest bidder and that, Judge Fitzgerald could get “up to 5%” of the cost of the sale of the Center, if she signs that agreement (i.e. settlement negotiation) that she has not yet signed, with Dollar Bank.

Further, that Dollar Bank can credit bid on the August Wilson Center and get it on the cheap ($7 million), which would then allow the bank to sell it at Fair Market Value.

These are all just ideas, all suppositions and possibilities. But they were all put on the table as very real possibilities, in court today. And if any of the above is true, it’s appalling… and yet so telling as to why, within only TWO months of an appointed Conservatorship, the AWC is being asked to be put up for sale.

It was now time for Joe Lawrence, legal rep for four of the founders of the AWC to ask questions of Judge Judith Fitzgerald.

Mr. Lawrence asked Judith Fitzgerald if she really believed she had “done all you could do?” as Conservator? She said, “yes, given the time and lack of money… yes.”

She explained that one of her first, alternative plans was from an entity that wanted to purchase the building for $4 million, then have The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust manage it for five years. Dollar Bank refused. (As an aside, many of us didn’t understand how this statement was in congruence with her previous statement that “not a single person or entity has come forward with a plan or money” but let’s move on.)

She explained that, thus far, $150,000 has been accrued for her fees and her staff, managing the August Wilson Center, which produced more moans from the courtroom.

During this cross examination, Renee Gray, who is Paradise Gray’s wife and also formerly Renee Wilson, who is also a second or third cousin of August Wilson, appeared at the door. She had announced that she was coming on Facebook and that she was bringing some children, so I was pleased to see her at the door and beckoned them all in. There was a bit of rumble in the courtroom while the children piled in, stood at the door for a moment and then Tim Stevens encouraged them to sit right in front of the seats, basically at the front of the courtroom. It was so awesome! The Judge then jokingly stated, “I’m gonna need the Sheriff to clear these kids from the courtroom” and everybody laughed. “This is not a sit-in,” said Sala Udin. Nope, it wasn’t a sit-in, it was perfection. Because in all of our conversations about children and Pittsburgh and Black culture and the arts and legacy, the children and their interests often fall by the wayside. They never spoke to the judge, never testified but their sheer presence shifted the energy in the room and anybody with even a modicum of spirituality had to feel it. Thank you, Renee Wilson Gray!

Renee Wilson Gray and Pgh Children

Renee Wilson Gray and Pittsburgh Children

A Call to Replace the Conservator

Joe Lawrence then called Attorney EJ Strassburger, a partner with Strassburger McKenna Gutnick & Gefsky to the stand, which produced another bombshell moment in the courtroom. 

EJ Strassburger said he was totally willing to assume the role of Conservator to SAVE the August Wilson Center and that he would do it FOR FREE. (Remember that Judge Judith Fitzgerald and her staff charge $350/hr for their services and she presently works 12-16 hour days. (bling, bling!)

EJ Strassburger offered the following (paraphrased) ideas about what he would do to save the AWC:

1. With all due respect to Judith Fitzgerald, he sees a strategy that is 180 degrees different than what she has done and that a move to sell the AWC is hasty, at best.

2. In order to secure funding from Pittsburgh non-profits for the AWC, they have to feel confident that they are not throwing “good money after bad.” They need to know what they are buying into, therefore, he would have hired a new, Executive Director, that would inspire great confidence from the funders and who has a proven record in managing and presenting as an arts organization. That person, for him and many others, is Janera Solomon, who is currently the Executive Director of the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater.

3. He would also put a new Board together and that Board would also inspire confidence in funders.

4. He would reconvene the original funders of the AWC, especially given the fact that they raised at least $30 million.

5. He would remind everyone that a $7 million debt is not a lot and is entirely manageable. This idea that it’s an insurmountable number is simply untrue, even in the Pittsburgh region and Allegheny County.

6. Closing a facility due to a $7 million debt, when its equity is at least twice that amount seems “ill-conceived and hasty.”

7. There is space for a small restaurant or at least a catering kitchen within the building and that needs to be utilized and would bring in a tremendous amount of income.

8. The facility needs a (rolling) lead time of at least 12 – 15 months in order to get back on track. You can’t schedule a wedding, cultural or any other type of event in advance if the public thinks the doors will close at any minute.

EJ Strassburger was then cross-examined by Judith Fitzgerald’s lawyer, who basically tried to ask questions that would lend themselves to Strassburger stating he could not really do what he claimed he could do. He said that he did have a strong network and that his ideas were far more supported and could be implemented, even though it’s true “nothing is guaranteed…”

She then asked Strassburger if he had a vested interest in volunteering his time because he works for the firm for whom the founders are being represented? He said, “No,” and that he has experience doing this type of work. He was asked to consider it approximately five weeks ago and said he had to think about it.

There was another suggestion of slight impropriety, which had something to do with what would happen if the founders were sued for monies owed and for having been Board members but I did not totally understand the connection and, quite frankly, it seemed to be a bit of a stretch.

Margaret Good (Maggie) of Meridian Financial Group, who’s serving as a Treasurer for Judge Judith Fitzgerald was then asked to the stand and she basically verified some aspects of what Fitzgerald offered in her testimony— that the AWC was insolvent, unable to pay its bills, needed to pay Dollar Bank and could not carry on in its present state.

After she concluded, Judge O’Toole was ready to close after there were no more witnesses to offer testimony, so he said “the Petition to intervene is denied” (yes, it happened just that fast) and that he would consider the present motion before him and give us a response on Monday.

Yvonne Cook, Mitch Swain, Malcolm Hardie, Germaine Williams

Yvonne Cook, Mitch Swain, Malcolm Hardie, Germaine Williams

Testifyin’

Attorney Joe Lawrence then stood up and told the judge that there were people who had come, who wanted to speak to him. Judge O’Toole asked, “to share their thoughts and feelings on the importance of the August Wilson Center?” Joe Lawrence said, “Yes and perhaps other thoughts…,” so Judge O’Toole allowed it and asked us to come forward.

I raised my hand to speak, first and walked up. He told me there was no need to take the stand, as I wasn’t offering testimony, per se, so I gave my name. As soon as I said, “Kimberly Ellis,” the Judge said, “Are you Paul Ellis’s sister?” “Unfortunately,” I answered. And we shared a knowing chuckle and then moved on.

I told the Judge that although I am related to August Wilson, as his maternal niece, that wasn’t the totality of the reason why I was present and wanted to speak to him. I said that I supported the Center for African American Culture long before there was any name attached to it and that the mission is important to me, as a young person in the city, as an African American, as a professional, as an artist. I said I was disturbed at this whole process because most people do not really know what is going on and didn’t even know about today’s hearing. He asked me how I found out. I said, “The Post-Gazette.” (SMH). I said that August Wilson is internationally known and that if we put out a clarion call for help, people would come running to assist and that I agreed, $7 million is not an insurmountable amount of money to help pay off the debt and I understood that Dollar Bank needs to be paid. Earlier, the Judge made a comment stating that “Dollar Bank knows math,” so he is not going to give any of us too much time to get the finances in order and he may grant no more, at all.

I said it was disturbing to hear Judge Fitzgerald say that “not a single person or entity” had approached her with a plan or money because as a professional, Black artist and consultant in this city, I knew for a fact she had not reached out to many of the people I know to provide insight, a plan, a fundraising strategy, nothing. I specifically stated names like Janera Solomon of the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, Christiane Leach of the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, Justin Laing of The Heinz Endowments (although I had to qualify that because she may have spoken to Justin at the Heinz but not Justin as an individual artist and probably not in a separate meeting). I said we have a lot to offer, on every level and… the Judge asked me if I reached out to Judith Fitzgerald. I said, “Actually, yes, I went down to meet her on Monday (MLK Day) to offer my services and she can verify that.”

I went back to the point of fundraising and told the Judge many of us have large networks and we could raise this money and restructure the August Wilson Center but this process has been way too fast and while most people had heard there was some trouble at the AWC, we weren’t sure exactly what to do and when. I told him there are a huge amount of persons who were influenced by August Wilson and they would help. I told him Barack Obama’s first date with Michelle Obama, once he became President, was to see an August Wilson play, “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” on Broadway. The Judge interrupted to say he thought I was going to say something negative about the President. I told him I could but I wouldn’t. We all laughed. My bad, President Obama…

I continued, telling him that Oprah went to many August Wilson plays, that Tyler Perry said he was specifically influenced by August Wilson and that he could buy the August Wilson Center a million times over, if he wanted to. But I knew that he would help. I said Danny Glover, too. I was about to add Glynn Turman and Wiz Khalifa when the Judge asked me why can’t help out now? I told him I can but that nobody was going to save some vague center or give money for a name, only. That the people who will give money that I know to ask would want to save the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, period, and that they were not just going to randomly send money in and even I would not do that. I reminded the Judge that, as Attorney Joe Lawrence said in his opening statement, “if you foreclose on the August Wilson Center, you are closing the August Wilson Center” and I asked the judge to please not allow that to happen and to just give us more time to get the job done and to pay Dollar Bank. He thanked me and I went to sit back down.

Sala Udin got up and his comments were brief but impactful. He said that, as a founding member, they had the ability to raise the money to save the August Wilson Center and simply needed a bit more time. He said the AWC was important to the city, the state, the region and the nation and that this process has been too hasty. He reminded the judge that the mission of the AWC is extremely important.

Malcolm Hardie got up to say that the mission was important and that we all deserved more time to pay off the debt and get the Center on track. He reaffirmed the importance of a Black Cultural Center in Pittsburgh and the City and State’s responsibility to help maintain it.

Germaine Williams of The Pittsburgh Foundation made several points. 1) He said that in the Foundation Community, the funding cycle is important and trying to gather funds at the end of the year was hard and fell outside of most cycles for funding. This is another reason why the process shouldn’t be so hasty. 2) He reiterated his support for EJ Strassburger’s idea that having good leadership would instill confidence in the AWC, which would produce more funds; and further reiterated the idea that Janera Solomon has an excellent reputation with funders and would instill that confidence in them, to garner support for the AWC. 3) He said the August Wilson Center is not just a place for cultural expression, it is a key development space for producing professional, Black artists. That the city, state and region NEED these artists to thrive, to produce their work, to be able to grow, as professionals.

Yvonne Cook, a Founding Board Member of the AWC, echoed all of our previous statements and the Judge had asked her what happened to the Center to let it get to this condition? She then stated that it’s always difficult, when you have one vision as a founder and then you hire an Executive Director and they take your vision in another direction and then it happens again. The Judge asked her, “what about the money owed to Dollar Bank? What should the bank do?” She replied that if there’s one thing she knows in being here half a century is that “the banks do what they want to do and for whom they want to do it.”

Boom!

Finally, Mitch Swain of the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council said he also echoed the concerns of everyone who spoke before him and added that there are serious implications for the responsibility of the August Wilson Center and that “the whole world is watching,” literally, to see what happens here. He explained that GPAC had just held an International Arts Conference in Pittsburgh this past June and that the AWC was one of the venues and the event was phenomenal and filled with excitement about the future. All of the attendees felt a vested interest in the AWC and that should not be ignored. He also reiterated that there were “serious racial concerns” when it came to the AWC and those should be considered as well.

And then, that was it. Judge O’Toole thanked everybody for coming and speaking and court was adjourned.

As we were leaving out, Judge Judith Franklin came up to me and wanted me to know that she did not have the opportunity to say everything she wanted to say on the stand. She wanted to be clear that she had reached out to some people, some of whom had never called her back and that she really does care about the Center, August Wilson’s legacy and that this is not a “fire sale” or “liquidation sale” in the same way we might see in the commercial sector (I immediately thought of those mattress commercials…); and that even at this juncture, there is still time to pay the bills and save the center, as is. She said she was distressed at the false perceptions some people have of her and what she’s doing and that she had intended on reaching out to myself and others, just “after this hearing.”

I told her that, for me, solutions should have and could have been explored before a hearing of this nature and that anybody in their right mind would be concerned to hear about a “liquidation” of ANY nature, of the August Wilson Center.

I left there thinking what a complete mess this has been for so many people involved, including the Judge, who should have never been involved, quite frankly. Things should have never gotten to this point and if I dwell on it long enough, I would be angry but we have to keep our eyes on the prize about preserving our culture, in this region and in this way.

We have to be beyond even the blame game (although history is important) and stay focused on our mission, which is to save the August Wilson Center for African American Culture—the building, the mission, the objectives, the people, the artists, the supporters, all of it. The AWC “as is” is a misnomer right now. The point is, we can save what is left of our dreams and goals of a Black Cultural Center. I don’t mind anyone renting and sharing some of the space but it MUST have as its primary goals the support and sustenance of Black culture. Come on, people!

Do I need to even call on the names of family who just joined the ancestors? Rex Crawley, Bernadette Turner, Amiri Baraka, Nelson Mandela, James Avery… I mean, do we really need to be reminded how important such a space is, at THIS juncture? And in supposedly new, Progressive Pittsburgh?

The August Wilson Center is, literally, a ship. Literally! It’s the Gem of the Ocean. Don’t let it and its people sail away from you, from us.

I don’t have all of the answers; but I am determined to make sure we can produce a better result and we cannot let the unbridled capitalists win.

I’m standing MY ground in THIS day and time and I hope you will stand with me, with us, for me, for us! I will be calling on you for your help!

http://www.SaveTheAugustWilsonCenter.com

Amen and Ashe!

More Info:

Judge Denies Pitch for Pittsburgh’s August Wilson Center

Judge Grants Motion to Sell August Wilson Center

Despite Last Minute Pleas, Wilson Center to be Sold

Saving Grace: The August Wilson Center Needs More Time

Conservator Asks to Liquidate August Wilson Center

Attorney General Seeks New Conservator to Save August Wilson Center

New Conservator Suggested for August Wilson Center

Real Estate Experts Say August Wilson Center Uses Are Limited for Suitors 

Looking to Save the August Wilson Center

 

Your Thoughts?

This post will be made available as a PDF here on Facebook as well.

 

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6 Responses to Saving the Gem of the Ocean: A Hearing to Save or Sell the August Wilson Center for African American Culture

  1. yvette ganier

    Ancestors Chuck Cooper, Leslie Lee, Tommy Hollis, Willis Burkes, Paul Butler, Theresa Merritt, Lou Myers!

    I am so proud of you and all the represented the Center. Logic and law are on our side. We will win this and when it happens you better be on every committee involved. As an actor, artists, August Wilson actor (he gave me my career)and native of Pennsylvania and daughter of civil rights leader Cecil B. Moore, I stand with you and I am ready to do my part. We fight the good fight. Sending you love and light!

  2. Christopher Rawson

    Thank you for this illuminating, moving account, Kim. There are so many people who care intensely about the AWC, but we have not known of any useful way to get involved. If the judge will give us time and good leadership takes over, surely there is more than enough support (moral, artistic and spiritual — but mainly organizational and financial), both in Pittsburgh and around the country, to lift this relatively light burden and let the AWC pursue its potential.

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  4. Randall Taylor

    Kim, great information. I too believe we are going to be successful in this battle. But, we need to know ALL the facts and players.

    How many more African-American institutions can we continue to lose? WAMO, Black Horizons, Kuntu Theater, Dwelling House, Urban Youth Action– Pittsburgh America’s Most Livable City?

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