In March 2020, theaters went dark all over the country. It’s been a long wait for patrons of the arts in Pittsburgh, but after 19 months, the curtains have opened once again. The Tony award-winning musical, The Band’s Visit, part of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s PNC Broadway series, which had been in mid-production when the theaters closed, reopened at the Benedum this past October.
We spoke with Kevin McMahon, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust (PCT), about the role that the nonprofit plays in the cultural and economic development of the region as well as what's on tap for the future.
North Hills Monthly (NHM): How did the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust get started?
Kevin McMahon (McMahon): We were founded as an economic development organization 38 years ago to help revitalize downtown Pittsburgh. The way we were charged to do that was by creating the Cultural District and in effect using the arts as a magnet to bring life back to downtown, to our city and our region. When the Trust was created in the mid ‘80s, it was a dark time for the region with the steel industry collapsing, and half the city’s population leaving. And therein lies the most amazing thing, a great Pittsburgh story—the city that wouldn’t quit.
It wasn’t a government initiative but rather a group of private citizens and civic leaders that got together and said, ‘We’ve got to do something to save our city.’ We had beautiful, mostly empty movie houses, and Heinz Hall had been renovated at that point, so they said, ‘Let’s create a whole Cultural District.’ This was a notorious red-light district of Pittsburgh and they took on the challenge of cleaning up the neighborhood.
We are tracking more than 2 million people a year now. It’s been a wonderful explosion of the widest possible variety and diversity of arts and entertainment in a city our size; it is just remarkable.
NHM: What types of cultural performances and activities fall under the PCT’s umbrella?
McMahon: One of the things that’s been our focus for more than two decades has been the fact that we want to make sure there is something in the Cultural District for everyone, and we mean that very sincerely. In any given normal year, we will have between 1,800-2,500 performances and events from all of the district’s organizations. This runs the gamut, and our partner organizations in the district include the August Wilson African American Cultural Center, Pittsburgh CLO, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, Pittsburgh Opera, and Pittsburgh Public Theater.
The Cultural Trust itself presents a number of series ranging from Broadway to dance to magic to family-oriented programs, and we also support many new forms of art, visual arts, Pittsburgh Playwrights, the Arcade Comedy Theater, and on and on. We have dozens of venues. We also run a lot of major festivals, the largest being the Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival.
NHM: What other projects has the Cultural Trust tackled?
McMahon: We have developed lots of public art, and we were at the forefront of the downtown housing movement more than 25 years ago. We helped create a mini-downtown dog park on Fort Duquesne Blvd. and partnered with the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, Allegheny Conference and Visit Pittsburgh. We all work together to create a better environment to live, work and play.
NHM: How has the Cultural Trust transformed the region?
McMahon: We’ve seen an explosion in the number of people living downtown. We have, in the last decade, more than doubled the number of people who come downtown for arts and entertainment. We have more diverse programming, and obviously the pandemic has now put a little pin in some of these things, so we are going to have to spend more effort to get back to where we were. But I’m optimistic. I really do believe people want to come back and be together and begin to experience live arts again.
NHM: Now that live performance is back, will there be COVID safety protocols in place?
McMahon: Oh, absolutely. Just like we see across the country, all of our venues are requiring everyone to be vaccinated or to provide a negative test. Everybody is wearing masks; we’ve just extended that policy out through March. We’re having a very enthusiastic response to the vaccine mandate. And of course, our objective is not just to reopen but to stay open. Protocols for backstage are incredibly layered and being carefully managed to make sure that the show can continue and that we don’t have to shut something down in midstream.
NHM: Since the Cultural Trust was established, what would you say are the biggest changes or improvements to the development of the cultural climate in downtown Pittsburgh?
McMahon: County Executive Dan Onorato said that he thought the Cultural Trust was the most important organization in the city in terms of what it has done to turn things around. This includes real estate and fixing up this part of downtown; removing the noxious uses and making it safe and clean and beautiful, and at the same time, bringing new energy.
I don’t think we’re done. I think there’s more opportunity as people decide to live downtown. Cultural tourism will continue to grow. Mid-size cities like Pittsburgh have amazing opportunities for visitors. There is so much to do here, and its affordable and easy to get to.
NHM: How did Pittsburgh, a relatively ‘small big city,’ become associated with so much culture and theater and performance venues?
McMahon: It is unusual. We clearly as a city are punching way above our weight in terms of cultural amenities and activities. Many other cities are putting huge dollars into cultural resources to be more competitive. That is a caution—we have to make sure that we don’t get complacent and that we continue to reinvest in our cultural resources. We have been ahead of that for quite some time, but we can’t just take it for granted.
NHM: Why is it important for a community to have such robust cultural offerings?
McMahon: If we want to grow and even sustain our population, this is what people want. People are choosing where they want to live based on quality of life, not just where they’re finding employment. That is absolutely the case increasingly around the country, and in order to stay competitive as a city and a region, we have to recognize that. This is why it is so critical that we have things like the Cultural District and Trust.
NHM: What can patrons of the arts in Pittsburgh look forward to in the coming year?
McMahon: All of the Cultural District organizations have incredible lineups. We’re bringing Hamilton back for example, at the end of February. It’s a phenomenon, the show that the world wants to see, that will drive tens of thousands of people downtown during that run. We will reinvent Highmark First Night this year to have a higher focus on outdoor activities; we’re excited about finally getting back to an amazing Children’s Theater Festival and the Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival in summer. There’s just a huge number, a backlog of amazing artists and programs and concerts that are all queued up. I think its almost exhausting, in a positive way, that there will be so much activity in 2022.
To learn more, visit www.trustarts.org.