Gail Austin has hired a couple of staff members for Kente Arts Alliance and is looking for a permanent home for the group, thanks to a $250,000 grant to support Black arts in Pittsburgh.

Kente Arts Alliance, formed in 2007 to present “art with a purpose” of the African Diaspora, is one of 16 groups awarded grants totaling $5.4 million as the first Cultural Treasures honorees by The Heinz Endowments and the POISE Foundation. In this initial round of grants, the largest award — $1 million — went to the August Wilson African American Cultural Center.

All of the organizations produce work that advances the people and culture of Black communities in southwestern Pennsylvania, says Grant Oliphant, president of The Heinz Endowments.

“We are grateful to be able to invest like this in the future of local Black cultural organizations and the amazing contributions they will continue making to our region,” Oliphant says.

“This grant has done so much for us. … The best gift is one that is a surprise,” says Austin, Kente’s managing director and president of the board. Though the Alliance is supported by foundations, some event revenue and individual donations, the grant will fill gaps for an expansion in 2022 that could lift it out of the pandemic funk that has restricted many performing arts groups.

Austin, artistic director Mensah Wali, and new operations manager Suzanne Rideout have big plans for Kente Arts Alliance, which often performs at the New Hazlett or Kelly Strayhorn theaters. The money not only enabled a formal administrative structure but also will help them to expand programming, including for youths, next year.

“We bring in some of the most distinguished jazz musicians in the country and we ask them to conduct a workshop for students, so they get exposed to the very best,” says Austin. “We’re kind of a small organization with a really big heart, and we’re known outside of Pittsburgh, which I’m really proud of.”

The August Wilson Center, Downtown, has galleries, a theater and several event spaces. Photo courtesy Pittsburgh Cultural District.

The Cultural Treasures program was launched this summer as part of America’s Cultural Treasures, a national initiative by The Ford Foundation to boost support to arts groups and cultural organizations representing communities of color. Ford selected 10 regional partners in seven cities to join the initiative, including the Endowments, providing each region with $5 million to develop a Cultural Treasures program.

“I’m a firm believer in community arts,” says Austin. “I would like to see a lot of arts presence in every community — in the Hill District, in East Liberty, in Homewood. That’s my primary wish, to make the arts accessible.”

With $5 million in local matching funds, the Pittsburgh program will run for four years, initially focusing on Black-led organizations. The contributions are housed with POISE, the country’s oldest Black community foundation, which helped to design and will help manage the program.

A steering committee composed of people from local and national philanthropic and cultural organizations evaluated 165 Black-led groups and presented recommendations for the Endowments to choose the finalists.

“Black ingenuity, creativity and grit are the bedrocks of this country — from plantations to factory production lines and proscenium stages,” said Shaunda McDill, arts and culture program officer for the Endowments.

“Scarcity often creates a challenging environment within which to find joy and celebration. However, Black people continue to do it. We hope we will all find both joy and an opportunity to celebrate with this announcement,” she said. “There is more work to be done, more resources to be raised and more counties we need to connect with in order to truly celebrate and honor the artistic and cultural contributions from which we all benefit.”

The first grantees have undeniable legacies of stewardship in Pittsburgh’s African American arts scene, says Janet Sarbaugh, the Endowments’ creativity vice president.

Though diverse in their disciplines and longevity, she says, “what they have in common is a commitment to ensuring the presence of Black arts and culture in our city and region.”

Photo courtesy of Kelly Strayhorn Theater.

In addition to Kente Arts Alliance and the August Wilson Center, the other grantees are:

The Cultural Treasures initiative included a public process for nominating groups and roundtable conversations with Pittsburgh youths, Black media members and others. CJAM Consulting, a New York-based firm helping to structure the program, is developing a digital asset map that can become an online reference tool for information about Black-led cultural organizations.

The program’s leaders also hope to collect stories and artwork to commemorate the people, places and historical moments that have helped to shape the region’s Black cultural amenities.

The initiative also plans to invest in a capacity-building program for Black arts and cultural organizations and to provide special grants in 2023 to combat systemic challenges that such groups face.

“While we are very excited about this first round of grant awards, we also are looking ahead to what we hope will be a transformative impact of the entire Pittsburgh’s Cultural Treasures program on Black cultural organizations … and on region’s cultural landscape overall,” says McDill.

Sandra Tolliver

Sandra Tolliver is a freelance writer, editor and public relations professional in Upper St. Clair.