A Year of Debuts in Pittsburgh’s Cultural District
With a new president and CEO, a re-introduced Greer Cabaret Theater and more premieres in the works, the city's sprawling arts district is in the midst of a revitalization.
It’s easy to forget how remarkable Pittsburgh’s Cultural District is.
Four decades of development have turned a formerly seedy portion of Downtown into a sprawling arts hub. Under the stewardship of the Cultural Trust, blocks of Penn and Liberty avenues (and beyond) have transformed into a massive center of performing and visual arts. This is an area with room for a staggering variety of events, incorporating spaces ranging from towering halls such as the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts to intimate venues including Liberty Magic and Arcade Comedy Theater.
The job of maintaining and tending those spaces is complex and ever-evolving — and the Cultural Trust has made it a priority to continue offering memorable experiences to the more than 2 million annual guests who attend Cultural District events.
Now, with a new president and CEO in place and a $150 million capital campaign completed (and exceeded; they raised $175 million), the Cultural District is in the midst of a refresh — one that will include changes both visible and subtle, all aimed at drawing more artists and more visitors to the Golden Triangle.
Those visitors will find new features and new shows. They’ll also find spaces and programs that have been part of their lives since childhood. That’s the goal in this unique and sprawling Cultural District — honoring the past while evolving for the future.
The Leading Role
For only the third time in the 39-year history of the Cultural Trust, there’s a new name on the marquee.
Kendra Whitlock Ingram, 48, in February succeeded J. Kevin McMahon as president and CEO of the Trust. It’s not her first stint in Pittsburgh; Ingram in 1997 graduated from Duquesne University with a degree in music education. While attending, she was introduced to the complicated, if undersung, world of arts administration.
“Some of my teachers at Duquesne said, ‘You know, you’re kind of good at this, maybe you should look at getting an internship at one of the arts organizations Downtown,’ in the relatively new Cultural District that was being developed at the time.” She spent a semester interning with Pittsburgh Opera — and loved it.
She found a summer gig as the assistant to the general manager of the Texas Music Festival. Her path later led to the University of Nebraska-Omaha, where she earned her MBA, and leadership positions at performing arts centers and symphonies around the country. She’s held roles in Denver; Detroit; Phoenix; Tulsa, Oklahoma and beyond; prior to accepting the job at the Trust, she was president and CEO of the Marcus Performing Arts Center in Milwaukee.
It was more than just a fondness for the Steel City that drew her back to Pittsburgh. “As an executive who came from another market, who has known the Cultural Trust, we look to Kevin and [the Trust’s first president and CEO] Carol Brown and this organization as kind of what we all should aspire to,” she says.
“The sheer volume of square footage of performance spaces — and non-performance properties — is unique to the Cultural Trust … [My husband and I] were at the Public Theater’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Harlem.’ There was a pop show at the Benedum, the symphony had a Sunday-night performance, Con Alma was completely full — this is 9:30 on a Sunday night.
“It was this completely vibrant, exciting, happening place.”
As she settles into the position — she’s quick to point out that she’s “still on a big listening tour” — Ingram is focused on the audience.
“The goal is to be of service to the community — from an arts and cultural lens,” she says. “I’m really trying to assess, frankly, where we can fill some gaps. I think that’s going to drive what the next step is.”
Setting the Stage
The most visible change — this year, anyway — will involve helping a once-hidden gem find the spotlight.
The Greer Cabaret Theater, which for 20 years has offered lounge-style performances, musicals and more, is nearing the completion of a massive renovation (scheduled to be completed by fall). Formerly a modular and unadorned black box, the theater will re-emerge as a lush, state-of-the-art showroom with a throwback vibe.
According to Scott Shiller, the Trust’s senior vice president of artistic planning and venues, the new Greer “is much more elaborately decorated and designed, sort of inspired by the cabaret experience from New York and Los Angeles and Vegas.” Guests will sit in booths and be able to order drinks and small plates while they take in shows — including more shows from the Pittsburgh CLO, which has always brought crowd-pleasing musicals to the Greer.
The refresh of the Greer will go beyond the theater walls, including a much more visible streetside presence; previously, the theater was tucked at the end of a hallway beyond the Theater Square Box Office and the restaurant Meat & Potatoes (both of which will continue to operate in the building).
“We’ve completely opened up the space,” Shiller says. “The elevator lobby has now become a grand lobby … As the house doors open into the Greer Cabaret, we’ve created an entry experience that takes guests through these tunnel-like portals.”
A new chef will be named soon — “It’s going to be an elevated theatrical experience as well as an elevated culinary experience,” Shiller says — who will design a menu both for guests inside the theater as well as those at the revamped lounge, which will now feature an additional stage, appropriate for smaller performances.
“It’s a really cool space,” Ingram adds. “Once it’s activated, I think it’s going to make a big impact.”
The House is Open
While the Greer Cabaret may be the most noticeable, an arts organization this sprawling always has plenty of coming attractions to tout.
The space at 937 Liberty Ave. — formally the home base of theater companies Bricolage and Pittsburgh Playwrights — is being renovated to include two theaters and a visual-arts gallery, with plans to cycle different performance groups (including the former tenants) and offer programming 52 weeks a year. A major, outdoor touring installation is being teased for this summer — after the conclusion of the Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival. (The Arts Festival has been the subject of some dissatisfaction after its move out of Point State Park and into the Cultural District; Whitlock says they’re still looking carefully at how best to present the long-running event.)
And the Benedum Center is getting a new marquee. The historical marquee has sustained extensive weather damage over its decades in place and can no longer be maintained; a digital replacement has been custom-designed to replicate the look of the classic design, a prime example of an advancement that retains the look and feel of Pittsburgh past.
“As my mother always says, ‘Nothing stays the same forever — neither the good nor the bad.’ You really have to embrace that,” Ingram says, “without letting go of the things that matter to us.”
Visible, outdoor changes are also philosophical for the Trust. “We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the street-to-seat experience,” Shiller says. “If you look to the past, there’s this idea that the art was only from curtain up to curtain down … We’re now thinking, ‘How can we amplify the stories both prior to guests arrival in the district and after guests exit the district?’” Shiller cites possibilities in fields such as virtual and augmented reality, as well as in-person enhancements such as those in place at Liberty Magic, where magicians perform for guests on the street and in the lobby before the show begins.
Ultimately, he says, these efforts are to engage more people — including those who may not consider themselves typical arts patrons. “We want to welcome new people into the district with new entertainment and cultural options.”
Ingram agrees. While she says that the Cultural Trust will always provide content for the dedicated supporters who have always patronized the district, three words define her intentions as the Trust looks ahead: “Broadening our reach.”
“It’s absolutely not about leaving anyone behind — and that’s beyond generational. That’s racial [and] ethnic. That’s gender … Broadening our reach is 100% part of our vision for the future.”