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Leading Ladies in the Arts

Janis Burley with Harry Belafonte
Janis Burley with Harry Belafonte

Women have been shattering glass ceilings in corporations and in STEM fields, and the arts is no exception. While nationally there may be a dearth of women in leadership positions in the arts, things are improving on that front. Pittsburgh is leading by example. In this two-part series, we will be talking with women who are leaders in the Pittsburgh arts community about their journeys, as well as the importance of arts in our culture.

Janis Burley, President, CEO and Artistic Director, August Wilson African American Cultural Center

Since 2017, Janis Burley has been responsible for the artistic output of the August Wilson African American Cultural Center.

Burley has had a long run in the Pittsburgh arts scene. “I started working for the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust in 2002 and was the Vice President for Education and Community Engagement. I created a number of programs, like the Gallery Crawl, the Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival, and I was also involved in the opening of the Trust Arts Education Center,” she said. Before she became its leader, Burley also created the Black Bottom Film Festival and a series of other programs for the August Wilson Center, which are still part of its repertoire programming. She is the first woman in a presidential role at this organization.

Pittsburgh has a rich African American history, and the August Wilson Center, named after one of America’s most prolific playwrights, celebrates that history through a variety of programming. “I think it is important to recognize that African American culture is American culture. If you think of any aspect of American culture, people of African descent have made an impact in that way. It is important to recognize those contributions and to have a place where all people can get a greater understanding of people of African descent, and the triumphs and challenges they have faced,” she said.

Much of the programming is free to the public. “We are proud of the work we have done and hope to continue to be a major artistic destination in the city and around the country,” said Burley.

Burley sees Pittsburgh as a city where women can thrive in arts management. “Women play a very important role in leadership in the arts and nonprofits in general in Pittsburgh. We are very fortunate to have so many talented and brilliant women in different roles and backgrounds, and we work together and celebrate one another,” said Burley.

Karla Boos, Founder and Artistic Director, Quantum Theatre
Karla Boos, Founder and Artistic Director, Quantum Theatre

Karla Boos, Founder and Artistic Director, Quantum Theatre

Quantum Theatre, a sophisticated theater company, recently celebrated its 100th production with a remarkable Klezmer musical based on the love story of artist Marc Chagall and his poet wife, Bella: The Flying Lovers of Vitbestk.

Founded in 1990 by Karla Boos, what distinguishes Quantum Theatre from a traditional theater is that it is not bounded by four walls. “We threw out the theater—the canvas for this experimental work was not a traditional theater, but the exciting possibilities this city offers. We love outdoor spaces, new and old, so for 34 years, we have made work in places that are mostly not theaters,” said Boos.

For example, the 2023-24 season opener, Hamlet, was staged at the Carrie Furnace. Quantum audiences have traveled far and wide, to nearly 100 locations through an industrial blast furnace, parks, cemeteries, swimming pools, warehouses, museums, and cathedrals.

This type of international and interdisciplinary theater was uncommon in Pittsburgh when she first founded the company.

When Boos first came to Pittsburgh over 30 years ago, she was befriended and mentored by several women who were at the helms of their respective arts organizations. She felt welcomed and heard, joining formal and informal collaborative organizations. “Thanks to those efforts long ago, we are a very diverse ecosystem,” she commented, adding that women as decision-makers in the arts will filter into the kinds of stories that are told.

Boos is encouraged by how the number of women in arts leadership roles in the city has grown and spoke well of its general cohesiveness. “Women bring an important kind of creativity and openness to leadership in general. I’ve found Pittsburgh to be a place that nurtures women’s leadership; I’ve been privileged to be a member of several important women’s professional organizations. You find, if you get to be a regular part of a group of high-powered women, that we are very supportive of each other, very collaborative and very open to new ideas,” she said.

Melia P. Tourangeau, President and CEO, Pittsburgh Symphony

Melia Tourangeau is the first woman to hold the positions of president and CEO of the world-class, 127-year-old Pittsburgh Symphony. As the outward facing voice of the organization, Tourangeau oversees a 34-million dollar annual operating budget, manages 101 full-time musicians, 86 full time administrative staff and 50 part-time staff.

The Pittsburgh Symphony is one of the best orchestras in the world; it tours internationally, has received multiple Grammy nominations and awards, and it’s the only American Symphony invited to the Salzburg Festival, the most prestigious music festival in the world, in both 2022 and 2024.

“What is great is that because we are in a relatively small community, the orchestra, just being citizens of the city, has an extensive reach into the education ecosystem and economic impact of the region. For every dollar spent, there is four dollars that go back into the community. For every job we offer, there are seven jobs that are spun out into the community,” said Tourangeau.

After graduating from Oberlin Conservatory majoring in piano performance, Tourangeau started learning the business side of the arts, with the goal of running a major orchestra. After leading orchestras in Akron, Grand Rapids, and Salt Lake City, she applied for the job of executive director of the Pittsburgh Symphony nine years ago.

Tourangeau does not think of herself as being ‘different’ as a leader by virtue of her being a woman. Still, she said, “I recognize it’s a male-dominated field, and we’ve been able to break through that glass ceiling, but for me, it’s about leading an incredible institution. Looking at arts groups in the Cultural District, there are a lot of women emerging in the field, and I personally feel it’s because of our qualifications and our ability to do a good job. It’s harder than ever leading a nonprofit arts organization now, and more women are breaking into the field because they are ready for the challenge, and they are ready to do the hard work.”

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