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In Brown we trust

On her watch since 1986, Downtown's Cultural District experiences a flourishing arts and entertainment scene

Sunday, June 04, 2000

By Caroline Abels, Post-Gazette Cultural Arts Writer

Call her the Curator of the Cultural District. With 14 blocks of Downtown as her "gallery," and theaters, parks, plazas and historic buildings as the "artwork," Carol R. Brown over the past 15 years has fashioned a permanent exhibition out of an area once known as the scourge of Downtown.

Like a curator who chooses which paintings hang in a museum, Brown, as president of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust since 1986, has overseen the projects that have turned the Penn-Liberty corridor from a den of pornography into a lively arts district where, last year, events drew an attendance of more than 1.2 million.

  Carol Brown (Darrell Sapp - Post-Gazette)

Some of Brown's achievements include the renovation of the Benedum, Byham and Harris theaters; the building of the O'Reilly Theater; the opening of the Wood Street Galleries; the creation of Katz Plaza, the Allegheny Riverfront Park and numerous public art projects; the attraction of new businesses to the district; and the presentation of avant-garde programming and Broadway shows.

Like a curator, Brown has made sure these projects have conformed to an artistic ideal. And like a curator, she has integrated them to form a holistic environment.

But unlike a curator, she's also had the responsibilities of a museum director: raising money, lobbying politicians, marketing her product and juggling many competing interests -- all during some rough economic times in Western Pennsylvania.

Brown, 66, who has earned the top spot on this year's Post-Gazette list of the most influential cultural leaders in Pittsburgh, will retire in December with so many successes because -- as the people who work with her say -- she's had the vision, tenacity and strength of character to forge ahead with her goals, even though she's been a woman working in a male-dominated city for a cause that few people took seriously at first: the arts as a catalyst for urban renewal.

"The key to her success is her absolute, unwavering belief that what she's doing is right," said Jeanne Pearlman, executive director of the Three Rivers Arts Festival, which rents a gallery and office space in the district.

At the same time, Brown's strength of belief has led her to employ a style of management that some consider aggressive and, at times, defensive. Still, few find fault with how the district has turned out.

"The arts are often seen as something nice but not essential," said Mayor Tom Murphy. "But the Trust has proven that the arts and entertainment make a great city."

Brown prefers to give credit to others for the success of the Trust. But there is no doubt she has been synonymous with the 14-block district ever since Jack Heinz, former CEO of H.J. Heinz Co., asked her in 1986 to become president of the private, not-for-profit organization he had recently formed to improve the environs around Heinz Hall.

Brown didn't want the job at first. She was head of the Allegheny County Department of Parks, Recreation & Conservation at the time and before that had led the county's Bureau of Cultural Programs, where she developed arts programming at Hartwood Acres and implemented public art projects for the Port Authority Light Rail Transit System.

But in the end, Brown said yes to Heinz, and soon she began networking with the powerful people who could help her develop the northern swath of Downtown. Whatever arguments she used worked: By 1999, Brown had drummed up nearly $70 million in federal, state and local funding for the district and $455 million in corporate and philanthropic support and commercial investment.

"I've always admired her ability to work a room," said Steven Libman, managing director of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, which performs at the Benedum. "Carol remembers names and really understands the importance of connections. She understands how to put developers, funders and politicians in a room together and convince them that what's good for the Cultural District may also be good for them."

Brown said it was difficult at times to convince elected officials of the value of the arts. As turnover occurred in city and state government, she had to keep making her case to newcomers, sometimes during unfavorable economic times in Pittsburgh.

It should also be recalled that during the late '80s and early '90s, "redevelopment" was not the buzzword it is today. In fact, James Rohr, president of PNC Bank and chairman of the Cultural Trust board, notes that if the district had not been developed, "you'd have been hard-pressed to argue that we should have stadiums on the North Shore, because you'd have stadiums across the river from that mess."

To make her case over the years, Brown has had help from the numerous corporate executives, university presidents and other leaders who have sat on her board. And like those board members, Brown is no-nonsense, articulate and a firm decision maker.

"She's very CEO-ish," said Laura Willumsen, executive director of the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts in Shadyside. "By that, I mean she's pulled together a phenomenal board of directors and has a group of loyal supporters and funders who became loyal because they trusted her judgment."

Longtime board member Jane Arkus said Brown is a quick study who has picked up numerous skills over her years at the Trust -- skills far different from those she drew on as an English professor at Chatham College, where she taught from 1959 to 1967.

Brown was born in Columbus, Ohio, but spent part of her youth in Mt. Lebanon. She earned degrees at Marquette University and the University of Chicago before joining Chatham and marrying Clifford Brown, an economist who helped form Federated Investors. The Browns had one child and adopted three before Clifford died in 1975 and Carol, a single mother of four, began her public sector work.

Asked why she's been so successful at the Trust, Brown said: "I guess I'm a very mission-driven person, and I believed in the vision of the Cultural District from the beginning. It's that belief and the support of the foundations that's carried me forward. We've never been without support, so I had no reason not to think we could do it."

Brown's work philosophy, said Barry Colfelt, the Trust's vice president for marketing, is "to hold your head down and get the work done." She's a tough boss who expects a lot from her staff and who works long hours herself, often arriving at the Trust's Seventh Street offices at 7 a.m. after doing yoga in her Shadyside home. What's more, she rarely goes out for business lunches unless there's a purpose.

"She's usually at her desk eating chicken salad and a bread stick," Colfelt noted.

Said Libman, commenting on Brown's work ethic: "Perhaps had the mayor asked her to build the stadiums, they might have been built two years ago."

Brown's effectiveness stems not only from her work ethic, vision and political astuteness but also from what many call her "forcefulness" in dealing with others -- a trait that many people connect to the fact that she is a woman. Some say it's been necessary for Brown to be strong-willed given that she's a woman working in a city where men dominate the public sector and business community. Others say her demeanor has become an issue because people are uncomfortable with powerful women.

"I wonder, if she were a different sex, whether people would point out her forcefulness," said Janet Sarbaugh, arts program director for the Heinz Endowments.

When Brown became president of the Trust, she had to forge a whole new relationship with her colleagues in the arts because, almost overnight, she was thrust into the role of developer and landlord.

Brown tells the story of when June Arey, former executive director of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, called her before she joined the Trust to tell her she was "Miss Adorable" to the arts groups because she had done extensive volunteer work for them.

"I called her when I had been in the Trust job for about a month," Brown recalled, "and I said, 'Hey June, I'm not Miss Adorable anymore, and I probably never will be.' "

That's because Brown suddenly had the responsibility of scheduling the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, Pittsburgh Opera, Civic Light Opera and Pittsburgh Dance Council in the Cultural District's theaters. (The Trust owns and manages all the theaters except Heinz Hall.) Later, she took on the O'Reilly project and began co-producing the Broadway Series -- a source of contention because of the competition that touring Broadway shows can have with local shows.

Managers of the resident arts groups have felt over the years that Brown exercises excessive control over scheduling and other details, and that she too often makes decisions before seeking the approval or input of the arts groups she works with.

"She leaves nothing to chance," said Charlie Humphrey, executive director of Pittsburgh Filmmakers, which rents the Harris. "But when everything is said and done, she does what she does for all the right reasons and believes it down to her very soul."

Indeed, arts managers laud her achievements and acknowledge the built-in tension in any landlord-tenant relationship.

"I can imagine we're a difficult lot to deal with because we always want something," said Libman. "At times it's easy to forget that she can't give us everything we want."

As to the feeling among some small arts groups that the Trust has focused too much attention on the largest local arts organizations, Brown and others note that the Byham is available to small groups at a sliding rate scale based on their annual budgets, and that the Trust maintains office space for small groups above its Wood Street Galleries.

"It's inevitable that the largest physical arts entity in Pittsburgh -- and something called the 'Cultural Trust' -- would be considered the Big Bad Wolf, the dominating institution," Sarbaugh said. "But Carol has done so much to champion the small arts behind the scenes that nobody knows about, and the small arts groups should be aware of it."

Brown contributes much of her own money to small arts groups and promotes the arts locally by serving on the boards of the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance, Greater Pittsburgh Convention and Visitors Bureau and other organizations. She currently serves on the boards of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies and Americans for the Arts.

"She walks the talk," said Philip Horn, executive director of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, a state agency. "She's held just about every post on the national level that you can imagine."

Other cities have even sought Brown's advice and looked to the Cultural District as a model as they've tried to establish cultural centers of their own.

But regarding the tensions back home, Arkus said: "It's been tough for her at times, and she's learned to develop a hide, but it's because she's so focused on her mission that she's been able to slough off the slings and arrows."

Brown is most happy that the district's venues and amenities have been created or restored with an eye toward artistry: The O'Reilly was designed by renowned architect Michael Graves; the park along the Allegheny River was designed by New York artist Ann Hamilton; and world-famous architect Richard Gluckman and artist Robert Wilson designed "light walls" along the sides of district buildings.

"Artistic sensibility infuses everything she touches," Sarbaugh said. "She hasn't just plopped artistic activities into Downtown development."

It was also Brown's decision not to create a central performing arts building in which all groups perform, but to make the Cultural District an assemblage of restored theaters, parks and commercial buildings.

"That was a smart and important decision, because those performing arts centers can become like walled cities," Horn said.

Brown suffered a disappointment, though, when the Trust's plan to build an office tower as part of the O'Reilly Theater fell through because of a soft real estate market.

But she takes pride in the avant-garde programming presented by the Trust at the Byham -- programming such as "Voices for a New Millennium," an annual gathering of eclectic artists presenting contemporary work.

Any arts manager would say such programming is risky at the box office, yet over the next few years the Trust plans a greater emphasis on such programming -- a move that has led the resident companies to wonder how it will affect their audiences and bookings.

A search for Brown's successor recently began and is expected to go national. Brown, who is described as a spiritual and family-oriented person, intends to teach, write and travel after she retires. She said she has enjoyed this life-defining job she is leaving.

"There's been terrific community support for the district, and I've had the time of my life working with the arts teams and the artists," she said. "I've gotten more kicks in the last 14 years than most people have in a lifetime, in terms of seeing really wonderful projects happen."

Brown and the Trust would still like to see more housing and restaurants in the district, some nightclubs and even a supermarket. And they are waiting for funding to come through for the building of a new garage, cabaret theater and ticketing center next to the O'Reilly.

But the cornerstones of the district are in place, and the Trust is getting more calls than ever from businesses inquiring about moving into the district -- not to mention more calls to the district's box offices and more people just passing through, admiring the "artwork."

"I can't imagine Pittsburgh not having had Carol Brown," said Willumsen. "It would be a very different place to live and work."

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