August Wilson Center's Humanae project.

Michael Polite is no stranger to community development and public service. Now the CEO of urban residential properties developer Ralph A. Falbo, Inc., he was the director of economic development of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, leading initiatives in public and private housing and minority and micro-business development.

Last week, Board Chair Maxwell King announced that Polite – along with CEO of ImbuTec Richard W. Taylor – was selected to serve two three-year terms on the Governing Board of the August Wilson Center for African American Culture. On his fourth day on the board, Polite, 53, talks about the the August Wilson Center’s  next chapter.

Michael Polite, new board member of the August Wilson Center
Michael Polite, new board member of the August Wilson Center

Why does Pittsburgh need the August Wilson Center?

I think Pittsburgh is really kind of a star in terms of the people and the work that they have produced. Beyond that, I believe that the arts is a place where all Pittsburghers can come together because we all consume art. That gives us a chance to see what we have in common. When I was growing up there were separate radio stations and from the outside, it looked like our popular arts were separate, but in reality, lots of people were enjoying the music I thought only black people listened to. And we see the fruits of that now. So in the same way Pittsburghers rally around their sports idols – Roberto Clemente brought together people who wouldn’t ordinarily sit around and talk together–it’s an opportunity for this to happen in an area that has a lot more depth and importance than sports.

What will it take to become a financial success?

We’ve got a board meeting in a couple weeks so we’re going to drill down on that. This is my first board assignment on an arts organization, and I can tell you one of the things that Max King (president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Foundation) and Kevin McMahon (president of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust) have said over and over again is that arts organizations, all of them, require subsidy. So what we need to do is drill down on what does it mean to be an economic success in this case.

Will the African-American community embrace it this time around?

I know that one of the core elements of our approach will be to reach out to the African American community in a very direct way, through the institutions that African American people trust – so that means through churches, through men and women’s fraternal organizations. For sure that is going to be a part of what we’re doing.

What types of programming can Pittsburgh look forward to at the August Wilson Center?

Last week, the Heinz Endowments, leading a group of funders in support of The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s work at the center, announced a $300,000 grant to support a wide variety of projects. Recipients of this funding will be announced at a later date.

Concerning programming, earlier this summer, the Cultural Trust issued a “call for bookings” to the regional arts community, inviting them to explore the August Wilson Center for productions, meetings and other arts-connected events. About 60 confirmed bookings have already been planned through the end of this year. They include a genre-based series of productions highlighting Gospel music, theater and dance. On September 20th, the Trust kicks off the Soul Sessions series with Grammy-winning vocalist Gregory Porter. Other performances include the Pittsburgh Dance Council presentation of Philadanco and Ailey II and August Wilson’s “Piano Lesson.”

As part of the August Wilson Center’s initial activation and The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s Gallery Crawl, an “I AM AUGUST” window installation art project, displaying the photography and work of Brazilian artist Angelica Dass, will be unveiled on September 25th. Other artistic and educational programs are currently being reviewed as part of the Center’s community programming.

What is your vision for the August Wilson Center?

It will be a place where there will be performance, art and some exhibits as well. It will draw on local folks, but outside of local as well – essentially following what its name is, to be a showcase of African American art and culture. We think people ought to be able to learn, to celebrate, even to study there. So depending on the relationship … we’ll have relationships with institutions of higher learning, so they will have a role. The space is pretty flexible.

Laurie Bailey is a freelance writer who has reported for many local publications. When she isn't writing she serves as a media consultant for nonprofits and other local companies.