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Some question cost of new cultural center

Sunday, August 10, 2003

By Jan Ackerman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

At the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center, the story of African-Americans is integrated into permanent displays depicting the history of Western Pennsylvania's early residents.

Neil Barclay is president and chief financial officer of the African-American cultural center. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

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Design unveiled for African-American Cultural Center

The museum has 10 displays explaining the roots of the Underground Railroad, the 19th century road to freedom for enslaved blacks. Among its exhibits are posters of the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords of the old Negro League baseball, sizable exhibits of a historic black church and of the Pittsburgh Courier, the country's most influential black newspaper in the 1920s, including its premier photographer, the late "One-Shot" Charles "Teenie" Harris.

City Councilman Sala Udin said the history museum's efforts to tell the story of black Western Pennsylvanians are "appreciated and welcomed, but it is not the whole story."

"It is not sufficient," said Udin, a leading proponent in plans to build a $33 million African American Cultural Center Downtown at Liberty Avenue and William Penn Way, near the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

The proposed cultural center, which would rely heavily on government funds for both construction and operations, would be more than a museum.

It would have a 379-seat theater, the sixth auditorium in the Downtown cultural district. It would have permanent exhibits dedicated to everything from jazz to the Negro baseball leagues and the Pittsburgh Courier. It also would have changing exhibits, drawn from around the world, reflecting contemporary African-American art, computerized classrooms, artists' studios and a music cafe that would function as sort of a cabaret, said Neil Barclay, president and chief financial officer of the nonprofit corporation that will run the center.

But proposed funding for the project raises many questions.

Barclay projected that between one-third and one-half of the $33 million to build the center would come from government funding, including city, county and state money. In February, the city Urban Redevelopment Authority established two grants, one totaling $941,000 and the other $20.8 million, using the repayment of loans from the Liberty Center construction project of the mid-1980s. The balance is supposed to come from corporate and individual fund raising, admissions, rental fees and collaborative initiatives.

The cultural center's proposed $4 million annual budget, submitted to city officials a few months ago, requires an annual contribution of $600,000 in government funds, half from the URA and half from the Allegheny Regional Asset District, for each of its first five years of operations.

Last week, Barclay said the budget figures in those business plans were not firm. "Given this economy, we would not carry a $4 million budget," said Barclay, former associate director of the University of Texas Performing Arts Center in Austin who came here in March.

In 2002, the Heinz and Pittsburgh Foundations committed $510,000 for the recruitment, salary and benefits for Barclay and his staff for 18 months.

The RAD board has allocated $750,000 to the project since 1998, said David Donohoe, executive director. He said that for any future funding beyond this year, the African American Cultural Center would have to compete with other cultural entities such as the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and Pittsburgh Opera and the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust for a portion of RAD funds.

Last week, Jake Haulk of the Allegheny Institute, a think tank that is often critical of government subsidies, questioned why the URA would be providing operating funds and why either the URA or RAD would support a project that includes another auditorium for Downtown.

He suggested that the cultural center should try to rent space from other performing arts centers, rather than build its own.

"I think we are up against it now," Haulk said. "When the city is laying off policemen, I think that puts it in perspective. How many cultural events can we afford?"

At public hearings earlier this year, Clifford Levine, vice-chairman of the city planning commission, questioned the purpose of the cultural center. If it was supposed to serve the African-American community, he said, it might be better to build it in a black neighborhood such as the Hill District. If the purpose of the center is historic, Levine suggested, its goals would be more consistent with the Heinz history center.

Levine also questioned whether it was good public policy to wait until the government-subsidized David L. Lawrence Convention Center is constructed before buying prime real estate, at inflated prices, for the cultural center.

Udin, however, is not dissuaded by any of these arguments. He said the center represents a "strong economic development engine" that will draw both residents and out-of-town visitors Downtown. He said African-Americans needed to tell their own history, through their own cultural center. He said "no other community can do that adequately" and Downtown is the right place for it.

"Even in difficult times, the city has to find a way to provide a quality of life for its residents that makes them want to stay here," Udin said. "You don't close shop because you come on hard times."

The cultural district has theaters at Heinz Hall, Benedum Center, the Byham, the O'Reilly Theater and the Harris.

Veronica Corpuz, spokeswoman for the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, said the Benedum and Byham were both quite busy and the Harris operated predominantly as a movie house.

"The more venues, whether larger or smaller, the better," Corpuz said. She said the cultural trust was hoping to raise private funds to open a small cabaret theater in its Theater Square project, on Penn Avenue next to the O'Reilly Theater. In 2003, the cultural trust was allocated $595,000 in RAD funds for capital and operating expenses.

Haulk said each new cultural offering sought support from ever-decreasing endowments and slices the RAD money into ever smaller pieces.

At the same time that plans are moving forward for the cultural center, the Heinz history center will be building a $9 million addition that will have its own Western Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame, scheduled to open in the fall of 2004. Part of that hall of fame exhibit will include stories about Negro baseball teams such as the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords, as well as other famous local black athletes.

Andrew E. Masich, president of the Heinz history center, said his organization explored with the black leaders the possibility of developing a room in the new wing that would be devoted exclusively to the local history of African-Americans, instead of developing a full-fledged center.

"It didn't seem that the steering committee for the cultural center wanted to pursue that option," said Masich, adding that his museum hopes to find other ways to work with the center.

"We are not likely to duplicate," Barclay said. "We want to take a piece and look at it from different points of view. ... Even our permanent exhibitions won't be static."

Nationally, Kansas City, Detroit, New York City and Chicago are among the cities that have African-American museums or cultural centers. In Cincinnati, the $110 million National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is scheduled to open next summer, but it is a federal partnership involving the National Park Service and the Smithsonian Institution.

In Pittsburgh, the cultural center could capitalize on noted African-Americans, including musicians George Benson, Ahmad Jamal, Erroll Garner and Mary Lou Williams, writer John Edgar Wideman, Pulitzer-prize winning playwright August Wilson, and baseball greats such as Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell, just to name a few.

One of the cultural center's permanent exhibits would be Harris' photos from the Pittsburgh Courier, which tell of local black history.

The Carnegie Museum of Art is working with the Carnegie Libraries of Pittsburgh on a $1 million project to identify and catalog 80,000 Harris photo negatives that don't have any printed information accompanying them. Tey Stiteler, spokeswoman for the Carnegie Museum of Art, said they were gathering oral histories and building a database.

"We fully intend that Teenie Harris will have a presence at the cultural center," Stiteler said.

Last month, City Council approved plans to buy the remaining properties in the 900 block of Liberty Avenue, through eminent domain if necessary, and the architectural drawings were unveiled by architect Allison G. Williams, of San Francisco. Barclay said the silent phase of fund-raising is under way, and the initiative is moving forward. The question is whether there is enough money available to make it happen.

Jan Ackerman can be reached at or 412-263-1370.

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