Checking in with Germaine Williams, the new head of Pittsburgh Filmmakers/Pittsburgh Center for the Arts | Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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Checking in with Germaine Williams, the new head of Pittsburgh Filmmakers/Pittsburgh Center for the Arts

“We’re no longer thinking about just stabilizing, just operating in safe mode.”


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Germaine Williams first visited Pittsburgh Filmmakers around 1999, when, new to town, he took a photography class at the group’s then-new Oakland headquarters. In those heady days, Filmmakers was growing, from its real-estate footprint and film-exhibition program to enrollment at its school. In 2006, Filmmakers merged with another venerable arts organization, Pittsburgh Center for the Arts; Williams, for his part, went on to become a senior program officer for arts and culture with the Pittsburgh Foundation.

This past December, PF/PCA hired its first chief executive officer: Williams, 43. The hiring comes following a few years of crisis for the group, which in June 2015 was running big deficits when it laid off 18 full- and part-time workers, one-fifth of its staff. Six months later, following a statement of no confidence signed by more than 30 staffers, longtime executive director Charlie Humphrey resigned. In 2016, under interim leadership, restructuring began. But the group’s once-expansive film festival was reduced to a single weekend, and many questions about the organization’s future remain.

Interviewed Feb. 1, 10 days into his tenure, Williams says he has begun looking for answers. As the Pittsburgh Foundation’s program officer for PF/PCA during his nine years there, he arrives at his new job well informed. He was joined for the interview by two longtime staffers: director of administration Dorinda Sankey and director of education Susan Howard. And, says Williams, he was busy talking to staff and others, “just really getting to understand where the organization is.”

PF/PCA is out of crisis mode. It now has 25 full-time and 30 part-time workers (the latter number fluctuates seasonally), and few dozen adjuncts and teaching artists. After three straight years of deficits in the mid six figures, its budget of $3.9 million is balanced. PF/PCA revamped its bylaws, transitioning from a membership organization to a more conventional community-based arts group. Its organizational chart was revamped to save money and clarify its mission.

Other promising developments included, last fall, a new arrangement with the University of Pittsburgh that was years in the making: Pitt’s film-studies major now has a production track, and PF/PCA is providing many of those classes. That’s important because while the group might be best known for its film screenings and gallery exhibits, it makes most of its money from education — a revenue stream that took a huge hit after Point Park University started its own film-production program, in 2003.

The arrangement with Pitt “means that we have a film-production major at a major university in our city, and Filmmakers is partnered with that,” says Howard. (“We’re thrilled,” says Robert Clift, director of Pitt’s film-and-media production track. “I think it’s going to draw a lot of students.”)

Other initiatives include marketing to independent students the group’s certificate programs in film, digital video and photography. Conventional wisdom suggests that independent media students have been lost to higher-quality consumer-grade gear and YouTube tutorials. But PF/PCA’s braintrust believes its classes still appeal, in any art form. (PCA offers classes in things like ceramics and painting.) “We have community, we have expert mentorship, guidance, feedback — that critical process of responding to people’s work,” says Howard.

“This issue of artmaking, and building community around artmaking, is central,” adds Williams. “That’s the core of what the organization offers.”

Williams with director of administration Dorinda Sankey (left) and director of education Susan Howard - CP PHOTO BY JOHN HAMILTON
  • CP photo by John Hamilton
  • Williams with director of administration Dorinda Sankey (left) and director of education Susan Howard

PF/PCA’s educational offerings through classes and summer camps and in community-based settings for students of all ages remain extensive. The group is exploiting a resurgent interest in analog filmmaking and photography among younger people — it still has darkrooms, after all. And it’s embracing new technology, for instance with classes incorporating 3-D printers and drone photography.

While the group’s visual-art exhibitions have continued apace, the film side has seen changes. Programming for its three theaters (Regent Square, Harris and Melwood) has been outsourced. But that’s a temporary development, Williams says — and so is the scaling-back of the Three Rivers Film Festival, run last year by Film Pittsburgh. “The goal, ultimately, is to have it be a vibrant festival that people want to come to, and that people in the region want to travel to,” he says.

Big financial challenges remain, among them simply maintaining the group’s five aging buildings. “There are huge needs,” says Williams. Sankey, the director of administration, says estimated maintenance costs for the group’s 85,000 square feet of space are $100,000 this year, and then $1.1 million in 2018.

Other challenges trace to the 2006 merger. Critics within the organization had long contended that the two groups were too different to merge, and bad feelings had persisted. “Those artist communities are deep,” acknowledges Williams. “But as an organization, it’s critical for us to be as efficient as possible. … By and large, folks that I hear from are not wedded to a separateness. They are interested in really coming together and realizing a true merger.”

During PF/PCA’s crises, employee morale, not surprisingly, sank. Williams’ hiring seems to have generated optimism. “I’m really hopeful, actually,” says Will Zavala, a Filmmakers associate professor. The choice for CEO of someone with an arts background like Williams’ suggests “that they really want to build an organization for the community, and not just one that survives.”

“We’re no longer thinking about just stabilizing, just operating in safe mode,” says Williams. “We are really out in the community, we’re vibrant, we’re taking risks, we’re firing on all cylinders. That’s where I want the staff to feel like it’s going.”

“I think everyone is looking forward,” he adds.


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