Although he scoffs at the suggestion that he’s an arts czar, Pittsburgh Cultural Trust President and CEO J. Kevin McMahon presides over an empire that embraces cultural events, finance, and real estate. With the Cultural District encompassing a 14-square-block swath of the southern Allegheny River bank, Liberty Avenue to Allegheny Riverfront Park, Stanwix to Tenth Streets, beneath its wide wings the Cultural Trust manages more than a million square feet of property, including galleries, parking, restaurants, and residences.

Then there are the theaters—historic Heinz Hall, Benedum, Byham, Harris. And their newer siblings—the O’Reilly, Cabaret, even the lovely little Backstage Bar.

Outdoors, Katz Plaza and Allegheny Riverfront Park are major Downtown attractions in their own right.

Collaborating with such cultural heavyweights as the Pittsburgh Symphony, Ballet Theatre, Public Theater, and a host of others, under its wide wings McMahon’s organization oversees or partners with everything from the Pittsburgh Dance Council to Broadway Across America to JazzLive.

It all adds up to some 2,000 annual events that attract two million people.

Imported in 2001 to oversee it all, McMahon was born in Oakland but raised in Southwestern Connecticut. After a CUNY MBA, and fundraising for New York’s New School, he developed his arts chops at Washington’s Kennedy Center. Tapped by legendary Cultural Trust prexy Carol Brown as her successor, McMahon came in 2001 to find a successful organization in midstride. While the Cultural Trust had plenty of mileage since one man–H.J. “Jack” Heinz II–and his gloriously restored Heinz Hall were the cornerstones of a dream. Nevertheless, for its myriad successes the Cultural Trust still had a long way to go.

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Kevin McMahon/ photo by Brian Cohen

Bustling into his Liberty Avenue office on a sunny May morning, late, apologetic, gracious as always, Kevin McMahon sat down with NEXT’s Abby Mendelson to look back on 30 years of success, weigh his own stewardship, and peer into the future. Crisp and thoughtful, McMahon started at the beginning.

NEXT: Thirty years ago, the founders—Jack Heinz and his band of dreamers—were quite visionary, weren’t they?

McMahon: One of the great things about the Cultural Trust is that its founders were truly in the vanguard of using the arts as an economic tool to revitalize Downtown. While this is an almost-common practice today, back in the ’80s it was quite unusual—especially in the context of what was going on. In Pittsburgh it was the end of the steel industry, by and large, and people were abandoning the region. Not just the city but the region—in droves. So it took courage to say, “we’ve lost half of our population, but were going to create this great Cultural District.”

A second piece is that they used real estate as an additional support to help the arts. Most arts organizations depend on earned revenue—admission fees, annual fundraising, endowments. That’s the three legs of the stool. This group felt that if we were smart about the surrounding real estate we could utilize that as a fourth revenue stream to enhance the cultural offerings. To a large degree that worked. It’s been a great asset for the Cultural Trust and the Cultural District.

A third piece is that we used a lot of the existing infrastructure. We didn’t go into the Cultural District and clear cut—get rid of the old buildings and start building fancy new iconic structures. Now there’s nothing wrong with that—and certainly the O’Reilly Theater is a good example of a Trust project that’s new. But the Benedum and the Byham and Heinz Hall and the Harris—as well as a lot of other buildings in the Cultural District –were all saved. I think Pittsburgh and the Cultural District are a lot more interesting because of that. We’re very fortunate that that happened.

We were also fortunate to have large legacy foundations—the legacy of the tremendous wealth that was created a century ago. While a lot of those industries are largely gone, their wealth remains. That’s our secret weapon. Those foundations enabled the Cultural Trust to be created and sustained.

NEXT: Nice start, but the Cultural Trust evolved over time.

McMahon: It certainly has. When the Cultural Trust was first conceived it was largely about the big performing arts organizations—the symphony, ballet, CLO. They’d been around for a long time—in the symphony’s case, over 100 years.

What we tried to do is transcend that, to make sure we opened the doors as wide as possible, to more arts and culture and entertainment with an even broader appeal. As tastes and interests changed, we wanted to make sure that there was something for everyone. To make sure that everyone in the most diverse fashion thinks of the Cultural District as their place. That’s critically important.

We’re well on our way to that, especially with many of the outdoor festivals. The International Children’s Festival. Three Rivers Arts Festival. Jazz Festival. Gallery Crawls. They’re all open, all free to the public. It’s magical to go out in the middle of Penn Avenue and see thousands of people from all backgrounds, people having a great time with art.

Public art in the Cultural Trust District--real blooms against the year-round blooms/ photo by Tracy Certo
Public art in the Cultural Trust District–Magnolias for Pittsburgh. Five live trees with two hand-sculpted that bloom year round. Photo by Tracy Certo
Public art in the Cultural Trust District–Magnolias for Pittsburgh. Five live trees with two hand-sculpted that bloom year round. Photo by Tracy Certo

Along the same lines, we’re also seeing a substantial increase in individuals who care about sustaining the Cultural Trust. We’re fortunate in that regard, too. We can’t have one without the other. We had to have the philanthropic capacity to build the Cultural Trust. But building it was only half the program. We need people to use it. We have millions of people a year who come to the Cultural District.

NEXT: How solid are those numbers?
McMahon: A little more than 10 years ago the Cultural District was bringing in around a million people a year. Now we’re routinely bringing in about two million a year. We’re happy with that.

In terms of residential apartments, the market has absolutely exploded. It wasn’t too many years ago that there were just 800 or 900 apartments Downtown. Now we’re approaching 10,000 residents in the Golden Triangle—a huge increase. One of the most significant elements is that 10 to 15 years ago the Cultural Trust was pretty much alone in promoting residential development. Now we’re just one of a dozen players—and no longer the largest. That’s the ultimate success, where the Cultural Trust can let market forces handle it.

NEXT: As you look out at all this real estate, which are your favorite places?

McMahon: The Benedum is our premier facility –our aha moment. I take people in there all the time from all around the world, and when they walk in those doors they just can’t believe it. We’re so lucky that we valued that building and didn’t destroy it in an effort to modernize it. Not only is the restoration beautiful, but it’s also state-of-the-art—one of the best functioning theaters in the world. There is not a single production that couldn’t work in that space.

Around the Cultural District we have such a wide variety of buildings and spaces. Michael Graves’ O’Reilly Theater. Katz Plaza—how fortunate we were to have world-renowned artist Louise Bourgeois and landscape architect Dan Kiley create that kind of public plaza of the heart of the Cultural District.

The 900 Penn Building was one of our first Downtown residential conversions. While it’s relatively small—32 units in an old warehouse—it’s gorgeous inside, raw wood, softly lit, restored brick.

NEXT: Sounds like a good place for the Cultural Trust to be, no?

McMahon: I’d love us to do even more. We have great local arts. Many cities our size don’t have a ballet or opera company—yet alone a world-renowned symphony. Above and beyond that, I would love us to have more opportunities to experience other kinds of arts and culture from around the country and around the world. We have some of that now, probably more than other cities of our size. But I’d love even more.

It’s a shame that people feel they have to go to New York or the Kennedy Center to see the Bolshoi Ballet, for example. I’d love to see that kind of national acclaim here.

NEXT: Bringing major international events — is that the Cultural Trust’s next mountain?
McMahon: It’s complicated. We run the Cultural Trust in a very business-like manner. We never run a deficit. So what we would like to do, and what we’re able to do, are not always the same thing.

So many different arts organizations count on the Cultural Trust to be there for them, to help them with their art. We are enablers. We provide first-class performance and gallery space. When things get tough economically, I don’t think it’s an option to close the Byham Theater, for example, for a year. Because if we did that there would be serious consequences if hundreds of arts organizations didn’t have an opportunity to perform in that space. So we take our responsibility of being there very, very seriously.

NEXT: You arrived at the Trust in 2001. Did you expect to be here 13 years—and counting?

McMahon: I’ve now been here longer than anywhere else. It’s been very gratifying. I enjoy every day here. It’s intense—there’s no question about that. This is a 24/7 job, at least two shifts a day. I do my job all day, then I go out every night with people—all the things I’ve done all day I experience at night. There are not a lot of free weekends. I’m pretty much here all the time.

Kevin McMahon/ photo by Brian Cohen

And that’s ok. We are making a difference in the lives of millions of people a year—and we’re making a real difference in our community. Because in Pittsburgh an individual and an individual organization can really make a difference—a permanent difference. We’re helping to transform what we are as a community. You can’t do that everywhere. But you can do that here.

NEXT: When people look back on your tenure, what would you like them to say?

McMahon: First, that this was not a solo act. There’s a lot of moving parts in the Cultural Trust and the Cultural District. We have hundreds of partners, a tremendous management team and staff, great leadership on our board. Our various boards—300 to 400 people who think of themselves in leadership roles at the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. That’s great. That’s our strength.

When people look back, one of the things that I hope they appreciate is that we continued to evolve the Cultural District. It wasn’t as if the Cultural District was finished and we just ran it. When I came here there were still adult bookstores and porn shops on Liberty Avenue. Since that time we got the Cabaret Theater built as well as Theater Square. We vastly expanded the number of art galleries. We filled the theaters. We stepped up sustainability and fund raising.

Another thing was the notion of opening up the doors as wide as we can, putting something in the Cultural District for everyone. Diversifying our offerings, making sure there’s access and opportunity for everyone.

International Children's Festival last week, in the Cultural District for the first time. Photo by Tracy Certo.
International Children’s Festival last week, in the Cultural District for the first time. Photo by Tracy Certo.
International Children’s Festival last week, in the Cultural District for the first time. Photo by Tracy Certo.

Through all that we’re creating a sense of hope. Nowhere is that more clear than the magic of seeing children in a gallery have that wow moment. When they see something, and something goes off in their heads, and they say, “gosh, maybe there is a different world out there than what I’ve experienced.”

It’s our responsibility to make that happen, to translate that hope into an opportunity. We’re working on that, too.

Abby Mendelson

Abby Mendelson is a veteran Pittsburgh writer and reporter. A novelist and short-story writer, he is also the author of numerous Pittsburgh-related books, including Arena: Remembering the Igloo, Pittsburgh: A Place in Time, Pittsburgh Prays: Thirty-Six Houses of Worship, Pittsburgh Born, Pittsburgh Bred, and The Pittsburgh Steelers Official History. As a journalist, he has written on countless subjects in a wide variety of publications, local and national, print as well as electronic.