Pittsburgh Cultural Trust Board Chair Richard Harshman announced today that J. Kevin McMahon, President and CEO, plans to retire at the end of this year. Under McMahon’s two decades of dedicated leadership, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust advanced downtown Pittsburgh’s cultural and economic transformation and continued to earn international, national, regional, and local recognition for how a non-profit organization can utilize the arts as a catalyst for urban revitalization.
“It has been an absolute honor to serve Pittsburgh for the past 21 years and be a part of a community that has generously supported and attended tens of thousands of events and programs in Pittsburgh’s vibrant Cultural District,” said McMahon. “The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust is in a very strong position today because of the incredible collaboration among our amazing team of highly passionate and skilled professionals, hundreds of loyal volunteers, community leaders on our Boards, our wonderful arts partners and resident companies, and the visionary philanthropic supporters who have created a solid foundation for arts and culture to continually evolve and thrive for the betterment of Pittsburgh and the region.”
From the moment of his appointment on May 1, 2001, Mr. McMahon fully embraced the vision of the Cultural Trust’s so-called “band of dreamers” that included H.J. “Jack” Heinz II and other community leaders, corporations, and foundations including The Heinz Endowments, The R.K. Mellon Foundation, and The Benedum Foundation. That vision focused on creating and renovating spaces for world-class arts and entertainment that would lead to robust 24/7 activity, creating a market for commercial and residential development, and manifesting in a colossal transformation for Downtown. Reputed as a seedy red-light district just a few decades ago, Pittsburgh’s 14-block Cultural District has become a magnet destination for arts lovers, residents, visitors, and business owners in large part due to the Cultural Trust’s founders and its first president Carol Brown, along with McMahon, who built upon that vision. While Mr. McMahon was provided with an excellent and growing Cultural District, his ambition and leadership have led to many significant cultural and economic advances in Downtown’s history.
“Kevin has accomplished so much during his time at the Cultural Trust and we are grateful that he has led Pittsburgh’s Cultural District to prosper as one of the country’s premier cultural destinations,” said Harshman. “Kevin’s stable financial management, commitment to high quality cultural experiences, and providing access to the arts for everyone, along with a collaborative spirit, has helped us to accomplish significant goals at a faster pace than many thought was possible. His leadership capabilities will be missed by all of us,” said James Rohr, former Chairman, President and CEO of PNC Financial Services Group, past Cultural Trust Board Chairman, and community leader largely responsible, along with Brown, for bringing McMahon to Pittsburgh following his previous work as Executive Vice President at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., from 1992 to 2001. “While I am sad to bid Kevin farewell, I am also incredibly grateful for how far the Cultural Trust has come under his direction,” said Carol Brown. “His commitment to the organization and the ongoing development of the Cultural District has been unwavering. I wish him the absolute best in the next stage of his life.”
Under McMahon’s guidance, the Cultural Trust has become renowned for its ability to attract over two million people each year to more than 2,000 performing arts events, festivals, visual arts exhibitions, public art installations, and education programs. In addition to growing audiences, he has strengthened the health of the organization, setting the stage for long-term success. He nurtured an innovative shared services program that increased efficiencies and created millions of dollars in cost savings among Cultural District arts organizations. McMahon cultivated a loyal base of donors, guiding the increase of annual members to over 15,000 individuals who, along with significant foundation, corporate, and government support, make the work of the Cultural Trust possible. Until the COVID-19 pandemic devastated the arts industry nationwide, the organization did not incur an annual operating deficit. He was instrumental in securing several multimillion-dollar gifts to support the Trust’s multi-faceted mission, grew the Cultural Trust’s annual budget from $20 million to $85 million, placing it within the top five performing arts centers in the United States, and helped raise over $400 million in contributions during his tenure at the Cultural Trust.
Programming at the Cultural Trust flourished under McMahon resulting in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette declaring the organization as “the greatest creative force in Pittsburgh because of its spirit of reinvention.” Highlights during his tenure include starting the Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts, which brought the Florentijn Hofman’s beloved The Rubber Duck Project to the Allegheny River; the presentation of geographically-targeted arts and culture festivals including the Quebec, Australia, Distinctively Dutch, and India In Focus festivals; the Pittsburgh premiere of several internationally-renown theater companies including The Globe Theatre and Dublin’s Gate Theatre, increasing the scope of the Broadway in Pittsburgh series with such blockbuster events as Disney’s The Lion King, Wicked, and Hamilton, and the launch of the very popular Cultural District Gallery Crawls.
Tapping into McMahon’s proclivity to bring organizations together to find where two plus two can equal five, he oversaw several highly successful artistic mergers with the Cultural Trust including the Pittsburgh Dance Council, First Night Pittsburgh, the Three Rivers Arts Festival, Gateway for the Arts, and the Pittsburgh Children’s Series and Festival. These venerable Pittsburgh institutions became strengthened and have prospered since finding a home at the Cultural Trust.
Investing in and promoting Pittsburgh’s arts ecosystem is a central tenet of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s strategy to create a vibrant cultural destination. Toward that end, McMahon fostered the incubation and helped accelerate the growth of several non-profits by providing a physical space for them to thrive along with access to additional resources and connections; those companies include Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater Company, Bricolage Production Company, and Arcade Comedy Theater. When the August Wilson African American Cultural Center (AWAACC) thwarted foreclosure in the mid-2010s, the Cultural Trust under McMahon’s leadership took on the management and programming of the facility until foundation and community support was garnered to restore the Center to independent operation. “The support of the Cultural Trust and Kevin’s expertise was crucial to sustaining this incredible community resource and nationally-acclaimed cultural institution at a tumultuous time,” states Janis Burley Wilson, AWAACC President. “Partnership between the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, its Board of Trustees, and the AWAACC team has led us to where we are today- a thriving, independent performing arts center, one of the largest African American organizations of its kind known for exceptional, future-forward arts experiences. As the CEO, and also a former Vice President at the Trust, I have learned invaluable lessons in leadership from Kevin McMahon.”
As a central component of the Cultural Trust’s mission, several arts venues and creative spaces were built and renovated while McMahon was at the helm, including the building out of the Greer Cabaret Theater, SPACE Gallery, 707 Penn Gallery, Future Tenant Gallery, the Trust Arts Education Center and Peirce Studio at the James E. Rohr Building, 937 Liberty Avenue performance and gallery space, Arcade Comedy Theater, and Liberty Magic Theater. In addition, public art blossomed with such installations as Magnolias for Pittsburgh, Cell Phone Disco, Water Cube, Duo, and the installation of artistic bike racks in and around the Cultural District.
Thanks to McMahon, in partnership with many downtown stakeholders, private/public partnerships played a pivotal role in the success of the Cultural Trust and cemented its reputation as a community developer. Promotion of downtown as a residential neighborhood helped to create six residential buildings in the Cultural District, including the Encore on Seventh, the Century Building, and Eighth and Penn. These projects attracted scores of residents that helped to double the downtown Central Business District population during McMahon’s time at the Cultural Trust and created an arts neighborhood in and around the theater district that boasts the highest occupancy rates in the region. Further, with the steady increase in residents and arts and entertainment programming, downtown experienced a restaurant renaissance. The Trust opened Café Zao in 2004 at Theater Square-later attracting Meat and Potatoes in 2011-proving that a market for dining at all levels could be developed. This boom in downtown dining continues today. “The arts and cultural environment is a big part of the vitality of Pittsburgh and our economic growth, and Kevin McMahon has been at the heart of our cultural ecosystem. Kevin’s advocacy, energy, and enthusiasm for the cultural institutions has benefited this entire region and improved our quality of life,” said County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. “Congratulations to Kevin on his great work improving our Cultural District and helping make Pittsburgh a desirable place to live, work and play. We wish him all the best in his retirement.”
Imbued with a collaborative spirit, McMahon worked closely with Cultural District partners including the August Wilson African American Cultural Center, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, Pittsburgh CLO, Pittsburgh Opera, Pittsburgh Public Theater, and Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. “It has been a pleasure for me to work with Kevin for the past seven years,” states Melia Tourangeau, President and CEO of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. “He has been a terrific leader and partner, and together with our colleagues in the Cultural District, we have demonstrated that a rising tide lifts all ships. Kevin has created an amazing legacy at the Cultural Trust, understanding that we succeed best when we all stand together. I applaud his incredible service and congratulate him on all he has accomplished.”
“The wonderful thing about the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust is that it is not only an impactful organization, it is a glorious concept that ties directly to Pittsburgh’s DNA,” states McMahon. “That with a great idea and a get-it-done spirit, anything is possible. I so look forward to the next chapter of the Cultural Trust’s incredible story and I’m forever thankful that I was given the privilege to pen a few pages.”
To preserve and build upon McMahon’s achievements, as well as the contributions of all those who have helped establish the Cultural Trust as a national arts leader, a national search led by the Cultural Trust Board of Trustees and chaired by President and CEO of Highmark Health David Holmberg has begun to find the organization’s next President and CEO.
While retiring from his role at the Cultural Trust, McMahon plans to continue teaching as an adjunct professor at Carnegie Mellon University. He also intends to continue spending time in the Cultural District. McMahon looks forward to taking a seat among theatergoers-no longer concerned about how the production on stage came to be, now focused simply on enjoying the show,