Arts & Entertainment: Giving the Poor a Beautiful Opportunity; George Bush and Hillary Clinton Are United in Their Admiration for What Cultural Entrepeneur Bill Strickland Has Achieved in Pittsburgh. Terry Grimley Finds out Why

By Grimley, Terry | The Birmingham Post (England), October 19, 1999 | Go to article overview

Arts & Entertainment: Giving the Poor a Beautiful Opportunity; George Bush and Hillary Clinton Are United in Their Admiration for What Cultural Entrepeneur Bill Strickland Has Achieved in Pittsburgh. Terry Grimley Finds out Why


Grimley, Terry, The Birmingham Post (England)


Leading American musicians Herbie Hancock and Quincey Jones have committed themselves to helping Bill Strickland build a new arts centre in San Francisco.

The project was initiated by the city's mayor, who was impressed by what Strickland had done in Pittsburgh over the last 30 years. But it was Strickland himself who insisted it should be built in the area the city nominated as its worst - Bayview, Hunter's Point, where, as he says: "The people have been left for dead."

Arriving to address a noisy meeting of 200 local residents, Strickland began by assuring them that if they didn't want the project, he would be happy to go back to Pittsburgh and forget about it. Then he began his slide presentation on the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild and Bidwell Training Centre, which he has run in Pittsburgh since 1968.

"The first slide I put up showed the building with the fountain," he recalls. "I told them it had a fountain because I believed welfare mothers, ex-steelworkers and poor kids deserved a fountain. After that, you could hear a pin drop for the next 45 minutes."

Last week, Strickland made the same slide presentation in Birmingham, where he inaugurated the lecture series for the recently-formed Midlands branch of the Royal Society of Arts.

Born in Manchester, Pittsburgh, in 1947, Strickland has lived there all his life. But he is adamant that there is nothing unique about it and that what he has done there could be replicated in any city in the world.

"Back in the 1950s, it was a pleasant multicultural area but it went downhill. Now it's almost exclusively Afro-American people and it's on the way back up.

"I've spent all my life in this neighbourhood. Once upon a time, it was the focal point of Pittsburgh, the HQ of the town, founded by very wealthy people from England - hence the name."

Strickland was just another under-achieving, inner-city black kid until, walking through the hallway of his school one day, he happened to see a ceramic artist at work. The interest quickly took over his life, though he says: "I had enough sense to give my pots to the other teachers, so they gave me pass grades."

Eventually he went on to the University of Pittsburgh to study history, initially being admitted on probation as his grades were technically not good enough.

"Today, I'm on the university's governing body and I tell them: 'I was that black kid probationer 30 years ago'," he says.

Strickland's career as a social entrepeneur began in 1968 when he set up the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild to replicate his own experience for other disadvantaged young people. His model was the English medieval craft guilds, the idea being to apprentice local youngsters to learn craft skills.

Almost immediately, he was asked to take over the ailing Bidwell Training Centre, an existing but shambolic centre for job training. An early discovery was that the former management had run up a large bill for unpaid income tax.

Today, the two complementary institutions are widely regarded as model social projects which have attracted enthusiastic endorsement from both sides of the US political spectrum, as represented by former president George Bush and first lady Hillary Clinton.

Eighty per cent of young people who complete the arts programmes go on to college. Without them, says Strickland, they would have been more likely to end up in the penitentiary.

As well as offering training in ceramics, photography and jazz, Strickland trains gourmet chefs. In fact, only gourmet food is served in the centre's canteen.

Strickland is at pains to point out that the key to his success is treating people with respect. He commissioned a building from a student of Frank Lloyd Wright because Wright's famous Pittsburgh house built over a waterfall, Falling Water, had impressed him as a teenager.

Hence the fountain, as well as the specially-commissioned, hand-made furniture, the art and the fresh flowers always on display inside. …

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