The Advancing Black Arts in Pittsburgh initiative has a new high-profile patron and $2 million to spend on its mission of supporting Black artists and creating a more vibrant cultural life in the region.

The joint program of The Pittsburgh Foundation and The Heinz Endowments was one of just 286 organizations that will receive a share of $2.74 billion from MacKenzie Scott, the billionaire philanthropist.

“It’s still a little bit surreal. There aren’t too many times you can wake up to a $2 million check that doesn’t require grant writing,” says Celeste Smith, senior program officer for arts and culture at The Pittsburgh Foundation. She manages the Advancing Black Arts program along with Shaunda McDill, program officer for arts and culture at The Heinz Endowments. 

“I think I’m still digesting the news,” McDill says. “It’s really humbling because we’ve worked hard over the years and it’s great to be recognized.”

She also notes that the Advancing Black Arts in Pittsburgh initiative traces its roots to the 1980s and is the culmination of the work of many people, including “those who have toiled and are no longer here to see this day.”

McDill says that the list of the other grant recipients can be a resource as she works to connect Pittsburgh artists with the larger community.

“We are excited about the other organizations that are being supported; to be honored along with them is affirming,” Smith adds.

Since the news just broke in Scott’s blog post on Tuesday, there are no plans yet for the grant. But both women agree it is greatly appreciated and needed.

“Do you know how many times we have dreamt about things to do and there is not enough money?” McDill asks.

“There is never enough money in the Black nonprofit arts community,” Smith says. “The program is going to grow so much but so many people still need help after a year of closures from the pandemic.”

Bypassing the normal grant-making process, the Advancing Black Arts in Pittsburgh initiative gave everyone who applied during the pandemic at least $500 as a token of encouragement and as appreciation for the time and effort put into the process.

Pittsburgh Glass Center was a 2019 Advancing Black Arts in Pittsburgh grantee, receiving $20,000 to support an artist residency with Percy Echols II. Photo courtesy Advancing Black Arts in Pittsburgh.

In her blog post, Ms. Scott wrote that the money was going to “organizations in categories and communities that have been historically underfunded and overlooked.”

Smith says that Scott’s donation could have an impact that exceeds the $2 million.

“When you get an external donation that is so substantial it makes other donors pay attention,” she says. “My hope is that people will see this is demographic of the field that has been underfunded.”

“It’s an affirmation of the work,” McDill agrees. “It says this is fertile ground.”

The donation comes as Pittsburgh and the nation are celebrating Juneteenth with artists often being a driving force of that celebration.

Mikael Owunna, whose work will be featured on digital billboards as part of Juneteenth, is one of many recipients of a grant from the Advancing Black Arts in Pittsburgh program.

“Increasingly people are starting to understand the benefits of the arts,” McDill says. “The more we engage creatively, the better we will find the solutions to things we are grappling with in society, including issues of our humanity.”

“The arts are a throughline for everything. We need to rely on art as the basic need it is,” Smith says. “Whenever I’m able to amplify someone that doesn’t necessarily have a seat at the table, I will. And I help them build a new table.”

The Advancing Black Arts in Pittsburgh initiative was launched in 2010 and since then has awarded 356 grants totaling $6.1 million, according to its website.

This is not the first time Scott has given money to a Pittsburgh nonprofit; The YWCA of Greater Pittsburgh received $20 million in December.