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August 12, 2014

Pittsburgh Foundations Slam Sale Plan for Arts Center

A coalition of Pittsburgh philanthropies is stepping up its opposition to a tentatively court-approved deal to sell the debt-ridden August Wilson Center for African American Culture to a hotel developer for $9.5-million, writes the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

The Heinz Endowments, the Richard King Mellon Foundation, and the Pittsburgh Foundation favor a $7.2-million bid submitted by the latter group with an aim of keeping the center wholly devoted to African-American arts programming. The prospective buyer, New York-based 980 Liberty Partners, wants to build a hotel atop the existing structure.

"You don't go to a hotel to see unique art or attend a performance that's going to challenge your thinking on social and racial equality," said Molly Beerman, the Pittsburgh Foundation's interim chief executive. "The two just do not mesh." Heinz Endowments President Grant Oliphant also blasted the deal in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette column.

The $39.5-million venue, built with a mix of taxpayer and philanthropic funds, went into receivership last fall, four years after opening. Conservator Judith K. Fitzgerald, who is charged with clearing the center's $10-million debt, defended the 980 deal. "The foundations seem to be saying that somehow the August Wilson Center is going to disappear into a hotel, and that's just not the case," she said.