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August Wilson Center makes big move from arts presenter to arts producer

New season to feature art by Romare Bearden, a world-premiere play and more



Andr Kimo Stone Guess
  • Andr Kimo Stone Guess
The arts organization named for famed playwright August Wilson has injected a plot twist into the local arts scene. 

Already a key Downtown venue for performing arts, the August Wilson Center for African American Culture plans to focus less on presenting other groups' work -- and more on producing its own.

Center president André Kimo Stone Guess announced the change at a June 21 press conference at the Center. Alongside him stood his team of artistic directors: Greer Reed-Jones, dance initiatives; Cecile Sherman, visual arts and exhibitions; and Mark Clayton Southers, theater. Music-initiatives director Sean Jones attended by Skype. Also present was Damon Young, the blogger who'll run the center's newly announced online magazine, The Hill.

Guess said the programming change is meant to support local artists -- to make it so the next August Wilson or Ahmad Jamal needn't leave town to pursue his or her dreams. "We want to create a local ecology of the arts," he said, including both training and employment.

Ideally, Guess said, that will eventually mean providing a living wage and health benefits for performers like members of the Center's Dance Ensemble -- and the 11 members of the brand-new Theatre Ensemble, notably including actors Vanessa German and Joshua Elijah Reese.

Guess also announced the Center's new season. Highlights include: an exhibition of works by famed Pittsburgh-raised artist Romare Bearden, opening July 15; a September jazz tribute to legendary drummer Art Blakey; September's world premiere of Samm-Art Williams' play Last of the Line; the center's first annual Regional Visual Arts Invitational, opening in November; and November's Black Dance Festival, featuring nationally known troupes like Ailey II.

Meanwhile, an ongoing subplot at the Center involves funding. As of last summer, the Center still owed more than $8.5 million toward construction of its landmark headquarters, which opened in 2009. On June 21, Guess acknowledged that the Center had not raised "significant" funds toward retiring that debt. But he said he's working with the Center's board on a plan to do so.

Guess offered brighter news on the operating budget, which he says "was in dire straits when I got here." But in 2010, Highmark signed on as title sponsor for Center programming for three years. The health-insurance giant's support is one reason, Guess says, that the Center's operating $3.1 million budget will be nearly balanced by the end of this fiscal year.


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