Kevin McMahon, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust since 2001, is leaving in February after overseeing many successes, including the Rubber Duck. Photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.

Like many managers who hunkered down at home during the Covid pandemic, J. Kevin McMahon held virtual meetings and went for months without seeing colleagues in person.

But the top executive of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust may have been the only individual making Zoom calls from his laundry room to ask donors for $10,000. 

“I won’t kid you; I had moments of anxiety,” says McMahon.

The laundry room in the Downtown apartment he shares with his wife, Kristen, transitioned to a remote meeting spot for McMahon in early 2020 when much of the world — including theaters and galleries the Trust oversees — abruptly closed due to the coronavirus. 

As he prepares to step down from the job he’s held for more than two decades, McMahon, 71, acknowledges the pandemic “was the most difficult thing I ever had to experience … a complete and total game changer.”

Established in 1984 by community leaders and local philanthropies as an arts and residential district that would revitalize Downtown, the Trust manages 1 million square feet of real estate that includes anchor venues like the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts and the Byham and O’Reilly theaters.

The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s Distinctively Dutch Festival fostered relationships between businesses and educational institutions in Pittsburgh and the Netherlands. Photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.

When McMahon’s retirement was announced in May, he was scheduled to leave at the end of 2022. But he’s staying on until February when his successor, Kendra Whitlock Ingram, takes over. 

Ingram identifies as a biracial Black woman, and says that access and inclusion for diverse audiences are among her top priorities. 

McMahon believes the new CEO will step into an organization that has made significant strides in diversity. 

“The proof is in the pudding,” he said during an interview in the Trust’s offices on Liberty Avenue. 

During his tenure, Trust offerings “have transcended from the traditional, classical arts [such as ballet, symphony and opera] to something for everyone,” he says, including new art galleries, public art exhibits, comedy and magic shows.

“And what I’m most happy about is that every ZIP code in Allegheny County is represented in our ticketing.”

Kevin McMahon got in the spirit to celebrate the success of “Kinky Boots.” Photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.

McMahon holds up the Trust’s board and senior management team as “the most diverse of all arts organizations in Pittsburgh.”

Of the current board of trustees’ nearly 60 members, just over one-third are women and approximately 18% are people of color. 

He’s a native Pittsburgher, but McMahon left the city as a baby and grew up in Connecticut.

By the time he was recruited by the Cultural Trust in 2001, “[Pittsburgh] was a new city to me.”

McMahon describes his career as a “Forrest Gump”-type tale that “was not a straight line.”

He graduated in 1974 from Hiram College in Ohio, with a bachelor’s degree in economics and psychology and an offer to join the management training program at General Motors. 

After the automaker put the program on hold because of a recession, McMahon was working in a supermarket when Hiram’s president recruited him as assistant for alumni affairs, development and admissions. 

That led to a series of jobs in higher education fundraising before he made the leap to the arts with a position at Cleveland’s Playhouse Square — an organization that, like the Trust, was renovating old theaters and creating an arts district in that city. 

He later landed at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and spent nearly a decade as its executive vice president. 

At a meeting of arts center executives, McMahon joined then-Cultural Trust CEO Carol Brown for a glass of wine and she suggested he consider applying for the job from which she was retiring. 

Kevin McMahon wasn’t afraid to pitch in and work to make the Cultural District better. Photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.

His original mission for the Cultural District, he says, was “to fill it up, bring artists here and make it thrive.”

He accomplished much of that by growing the Trust’s annual budget from $20 million to $85 million — though that figure dropped during the pandemic — and its donor base to 15,000. 

The Trust maintains it never carried an operating deficit until the pandemic.

“Kevin’s stable financial management … helped us to accomplish significant goals at a faster pace than many thought was possible,” says James Rohr, former Trust board chair and former chairman of PNC Financial Services Group. 

Besides attracting smash Broadway hits including “Hamilton,” “Wicked” and “The Lion King,” the Trust has helped transform the Cultural District into a vibrant urban neighborhood with the addition of restaurants and residential units. 

But it’s still trying to recover from the pandemic. 

The organization lost between $125 million and $150 million in revenue because of closures and its projected budget for 2023 is $60 million, down from a pre-pandemic high of $85 million. 

The Trust laid off 50% of its 130-person staff and those who remained, including McMahon, took pay cuts of between 20% and 30% for about 18 months.

McMahon compares the pandemic’s impact to “the lowest moment of Downtown Pittsburgh in the 1980s” after the steel industry collapsed and major corporate headquarters disappeared.

Despite theaters and galleries being shuttered for months, McMahon says donors stepped up.

“Board members would call me on Saturday mornings and ask to donate.”

A capital campaign put on hold during the pandemic has raised about $145 million and McMahon projected it would top its $150 million goal by the end of 2022. 

Projects slated for those funds include converting a former fitness club on Sixth Street into a six-screen movie house. 

J. Kevin McMahon. Photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.

Getting people back Downtown into performances and venues is taking longer. 

Among the challenges is a significant decline in people working and shopping Downtown. In November, the daily average number of workers, residents and visitors was about 87,000, down more than 30% from November 2019, according to the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership.

Crime is another high-profile deterrent.

“It’s a reality,” says McMahon. “We can’t hide from the unfortunate daily incidents including shootings.”  

The Trust is spending more on security including more off-duty police officers at its venues, he says, and “taking a leadership role” to address crime with partners including Mayor Ed Gainey’s administration and the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership.

“We’re mostly doing what we do best: filling halls and galleries with things people want to see,” says McMahon. “People feel safer when a lot of us are together. The arts are our last hope to bring people together in a society where every day that goes by brings an increasingly divided society.” 

Joyce Gannon is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer.