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.
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.