Q&A with New Pittsburgh Cultural Trust Leader Kendra Whitlock Ingram

The Trust’s third president and CEO also is the second woman and first person of color to head one of the nation’s top arts organizations

By Sharon Eberson

Kendra Whitlock Ingram wasn’t looking to leave her post as head of the Marcus Performing Arts Center in Milwaukee after three years on the job. But the allure of Pittsburgh was too much to pass up.

The new president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust – effective Feb. 1, 2023 – was on a Zoom call Tuesday, a little more than an hour after her appointment was announced. 

Kendra Whitlock Ingram

She was sharing memories of her days as a Duquesne University undergraduate and going over some of the opportunities Pittsburgh and the Trust have to offer. Not to be underestimated is the importance of the big thumb’s up from her parents, who are delighted to have their well-traveled daughter within easy driving distance of Scranton, Ingram’s hometown.

“Honestly, the people that I talk to the most, and that were the most encouraging for me to consider this, were my parents., who have never been more excited about a job,” said Ingram, 47.

Her mother, a retired art teacher, has already mapped out plans for visiting exhibitions at Carnegie Museums and the Andy Warhol Museum.

Ingram’s knowledge of Pittsburgh from her college days at Duquesne University and internship at Pittsburgh Opera, back when Tito Capbianco was the general director, was among the perks that made leaving “a very good situation” in Milwaukee that much more desirable – along with leading one of the top performing arts organizations in the country.

A triathlete, Ingram already has looked up the Pittsburgh Triathlon Club and, while not thrilled about the city’s hilly terrain for her sport – the Wisconsin plains were more friendly in that respect – she expects to be giving “one or two” triathlon events a try, while also leading an organization that controls an estimated 1 million square feet of Downtown.

Here’s more of the getting-acquainted chat with Kendra Whitlock Ingram:

Question: When did you find out that Kevin McMahon was retiring and that the position would be open?

Ingram:  I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that Kevin was retiring, because a number of our colleagues had postponed their retirement during the pandemic. But I did not know until Kevin sent his announcement in May. I have been [in Wisconsin] during the pandemic years and had a great situation with wonderful colleagues and board and a beautiful community. But Pittsburgh is a bit like going home for me. I graduated from Duquesne, and my very first internship in the business was with the Pittsburgh Opera nearly 30 years ago. I spent so many hours seeing performances at the Benedum and the Byham and Heinz Hall. 

You know, I was able to convince my parents that I needed to go to Duquesne so that I could have access to seeing professional performances. That was one of the reasons I chose that school. So it’s really, really unbelievable that this opportunity would come up with such an incredible legacy organization like the Cultural Trust, That I would end up now as the successor to Kevin, who’s been such a fantastic colleague and who’s known in our business as truly a great leader … it’s a bit of a surprise. It was not something I was looking for, for sure, but it’s one of those opportunities that you can’t pass up. I’m really grateful to the board and to the organization for selecting me. 


RELATED: Trust Names Kendra Whitlock Ingram to Top Post


Q: In the Trust’s 38 short years, relative to many other arts institutions, there has been so much change. Have you been watching from afar?

Ingram: Absolutely. And to your point, it’s so different Downtown now than it was even when I was a student in the mid-’90s. It’s significantly improved and really just become such a cultural hub. You know, all the arts organizations that are in the Cultural District  have had great legacies, but I think what’s happened with the Cultural District itself is really an incredible achievement. So yeah, it’s absolutely something I’ve watched, but of course, all of us who are road Broadway presenters, we pay very close attention to how our other colleague markets are doing. I have been following what’s happening in Pittsburgh and the CEOs of our performing arts center consortium, which are 54 large performing arts centers around the country. We meet very frequently, so we all know each other. And I was literally just talking to Kevin not too long ago, before he announced his retirement, about what’s happening in Pittsburgh, the colleagues that we had in common and some of my experiences, because he didn’t realize I was a graduate of Duquesne. 

Q: Did you have specific mentors back then who helped kickstart things for your? 

Ingram: I really owe so much to Duquesne University in many ways. The dean at the time, Michael Kumer, was a reference for my very first kind of professional role, which was part of the League of American Orchestras’ Orchestra Management Fellowship. When I was a student, I had been involved in doing these grassroots marketing campaigns to promote our university orchestra, and I really liked it. I didn’t even know this world existed – there weren’t really arts administration degrees at that time. I was a music education major. I was planning to teach high school orchestra. I really loved teaching, but I was always kind of that kid who was organizing things behind the scenes. 

Also, I was involved in the Red Masquers, which is the theater group at Duquesne. I was in a number of those productions. Oh, and I was a Gov-ee – Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Arts. I’m a graduate of the Governor’s School, as a theater major, actually. So I had always been that kid that was organizing things behind the scenes. And my dean at the time said, you know, this is actually a job. Have you thought about maybe doing an internship? He recommended that I look at some of the organizations Downtown. Some of my friends were at the symphony, so I wanted to do something different. I went to [Pittsburgh Opera], and then I was like, ‘Wow, this is really something I think I could see myself doing as a career.’ And that launched me into this fellowship program the year after I graduated. And the rest is history, as they say. I really truly own so much to Duquesne. If I had been at a different university in a small town that did not have the arts and culture that Pittsburgh had, I don’t know if I would’ve gone into this world.

Q: The Trust has so many components, including a very large real estate component that is a key to the vitality of Downtown. is that something that’s daunting? Is it something that you’re excited to be a part of? 

Ingram: Very excited. You know, when I came to the Marcus Center, I hadn’t worked for a venue that was so integrated into the community and certainly a leader in the downtown space. We are a county owned facility, so the relationships that I have been able to build with our county executive and the mayor and the county board, and really being a part of what we call the theater district here in Milwaukee, it’s a big deal. So the idea of really being at the center of the Cultural District in Pittsburgh is very exciting and offers a lot of opportunities. You know, building on the legacy that’s already been developed and really keeping that area vital and activated, and a place where people feel they want to be, is something that’s important to me. … I’m very excited about that, and particularly excited about coming back to this, great city.

The marquee of the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts is getting a makeover. (Sharon Eberson)

Q: Are there things happening right now that you are aware of as you come into the organization?

Ingram: There are the renovations of Theater Square and thee marquee at the Benedum Center – those are huge improvements for people to look forward to. And, you know, it will not be very long before we are looking at the 2023-24 season. This season, the Cultural Trust has already had some blockbusters come through, with Frozen, and Hadestown, which is coming up, which if you haven’t seen is an absolute must-see. It’s such a special show. You know, I’m very involved in the Broadway League; I serve on the board, and I’m a Tony voter. So I just really get pumped about the performances. That’s really what drives me. And the idea of people watching people see these shows for the first time that we’ve seen, it’s just a spectacular feeling. 

Q: Speaking of the Broadway League, you’ve been involved in a lot o racial justice initiatives. What about that do you think you’ll bring to the Trust? 

Ingram: I was really excited to see that the Trust has already made those commitments. It’s very front and center as an inherent part of the organization. And that’s something that was really appealing to me. Every place I’ve been, I have advanced racial equity, diversity, inclusion in the performing arts. As a biracial Black kid that kind of came up in classical music, there weren’t a lot of people that looked like me in this industry. It’s a part of  I am, and I want to make sure that more people that look like me are feeling welcome. So I’m really looking forward to advancing that work, although at the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, we’re not starting from scratch there; they’re really moving in the right direction. So that was an attraction about the position. 

Q: Besides Kevin, were there other people that you knew in Pittsburgh that you reached out to as this process was going on, to hear about what was from their perspective, what was happening here? 

Ingram: It was a very confidential process, so I really couldn’t. You know, it goes back to growing up in Scranton, they had a touring community concert series. There was a Masonic Temple where I would see … I actually saw Pittsburgh Ballet Theater do Swan Lake in Scranton. … It was an amazing series. I mean, I saw [American soprano] Kathleen Battle when I was like 10 years old, you know? And then it was such a thrill that I was able to work with her as an adult. And seeing Itzhak Perlman, you know, when you’re a kid … I really got into this through my mom’s love of of music and of the arts, and both my parents’ support. 

Q: What are your parents’ names?

Ingram: Sandra and Bill Whitlock. My mom’s maiden name is Manzo, and she was born and raised in Scranton. My dad is originally from Mississippi, and then he moved to Scranton for graduate school and never left. 

Q: Are you having a full-circle moment then, coming back to Pennsylvania?

Ingram: It’s really a thrill. I have such positive memories of Pittsburgh and now, coming into this world and just being close to my family. And it’s also fairly close to my husband’s family, too, in Ann Arbor. … It’s really about, this great organization. I mean, this is one of the strongest performing arts organizations in the country. I know you know that, but in the business outside of Pittsburgh, the Cultural Trust is really recognized as a Tier One institution. So, it is truly an honor and a thrill to be coming back,  to this organization. 

Q: So I saw from your biography something about triathlons … in hilly Pittsburgh? 

Ingram: There’s a big triathlon club in Pittsburgh. I’ve already looked it up, but, um, yes, it is not the nice flat Midwest, that is for sure. So, yes, I’ll definitely build my leg strength. [Laughs.] Triathlon has become kind of my fun time, my free time. I still dabble, trying to get back to the piano. I definitely do not try to play the viola any longer – that would be painful for everyone. [Laughs.] But I am looking forward to doing a race or two in the Pittsburgh area. We’ll have to see, depending on my schedule.

Q: Is there anything you feel like you have to do, coming back to Pittsburgh? Have a Primanti’s sandwich?

Ingram: I already did have had a Primanti Bros. sandwich when I was there for the interview. I slipped that in. What I’m really excited about is introducing it to my husband [Ben Ingram]. I’m looking forward to that. I mean, I am actually looking forward to attending all of the performances of the resident companies that I have not seen in quite some time. So that’ll be a new, while some of the personnel at the orchestra are still three, who were there when I was a student. I’m also looking forward to getting reacquainted with the museums myself, and just immersing myself in the arts and culture scene.

Q: Was the O’Reilly Theater open when you were still a student here?

Ingram: it’s a very different Downtown now. You know, when I was a student, Kaufman’s was still here. I used to have to pick up a bus Downtown at Kaufman’s to get to my student teaching at Taylor Allderdice High School. I was really excited to get that assignment when I was student teaching, so Squirrel Hill and Shadyside, I have a little familiarity with, and also Duquesne’s orchestra used to perform in Carnegie Musical Hall in Oakland. So certain things stick in my memory, but there’s also a lot that’s changed, particularly I think for the better, Downtown. 

Q: Is there, is there anything you’d like to say about what this transition will be like, what you hope it will be like? 

Ingram: Well, I think you could tell I really, really, really love this work. I love the performances. I love the mission of what we do, and I’m really excited to dig in, uh, with the team and the board of the Cultural Trust and the resident companies of all the venues. I’m just, I’m just very, very excited and grateful.

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