Arts » Feature

A Chill on the Arts

City's cultural climate control is lame and destructive


A dark cloud rolled over our skyline this month when three galleries -- Noel, Blue Pony and WDO -- shut their doors for the last time. Noel is heading to New York City. Mary Lou Sussman from Blue Pony is taking a breather from the cruel vicissitudes of the art-buying public. Rob Williams of WDO will nurse his bleeding fingernails awhile before moving his desk over to Charlotte's veteran art venue, Hodges Taylor Gallery. Williams decided to close shop, in part, because of the increasingly inverse relationship between his own maturing tastes and a shrinking middle class. His market has thinned, or, as he put it "The middle class died and went to Target."

Charlotte is no longer Mayberry. Barney Fife is dead. Otis is permanently pickled and Andy's left for the coast. Country roads and foot paths to the fishing hole have morphed into I-485 and asphalt bike paths to the burbs. The Civil War vaporized during its first reenactment and Old Reb is a hidden tattoo. "Aw shucks" and "I reckon" stagnate in a tobacco juice puddle behind a vacant textile mill in North Charlotte. In uptown Charlotte, historic brick and mortar storefronts have crumbled under towering icons of steel and glass. Textiles is a new city in China. Money is the new fabric of our lives.

So where is the soul of this city? It's been referred to a City Council committee for further study.

At the mayor's behest, City Council is reconsidering the 1 percent set aside currently in place to purchase art on publicly funded projects. Hizzonner Mayor McCrory was not amused when he saw the display of artworks exhibited at Spirit Square that had been proposed for installation along the south corridor light rail project. Although Council had formerly approved the 1 percent set aside, and a committee was assembled to choose artists for the publicly funded art, the mayor and some Council members now question the project selections, and their cost. Hizzonner may wear many hats, but he doesn't look good in a beret.

Meanwhile, in New York "World Class" City this February, artists Christo and Jeanne Claude (no surnames required) are constructing a path of gates through Central Park. Around 7500 gates resembling miniature goalposts will wind around 23 miles of footpaths through the park. Blowsy saffron fabric will hang overhead from each gate, ruffled on random wind currents rolling over the greenway between the skyscrapers. A huge public art project. And guess what? The project has the blessing of New York's Republican Mayor Bloomberg, a mayor foolish as a fox.

Public artwork serves as a community's collective persona, as signposts of identity witnessed by the wider world. In New York, Christo will construct a new facet of New York's evolving persona with a multitude of gateways trimmed with airy saffron fabric. Mayor Bloomberg approves. New Yorkers will bellow, sneer, grouse and cheer. The world will witness. Meanwhile, Charlotte's persona is blowing in the wind -- and we appear determined to suck the wind into a vacuum tube and study it.

On January 10, 2005, Charlotte City Council will vote on changing the wording of the current ordinance from "1 percent for public art for public building" to "up to 1 percent." I suppose that gives Council members a chance to tank projects they deem inappropriate, incomprehensible, ill-conceived, or God forbid, controversial.

Charlotte made this kind of mistake before, with the Joel Shapiro sculpture slated for construction in front of the Coliseum. Fifteen years ago, after much ado in City Council, and egged on by local radio shows, the piece dubbed "Gumby" was scrapped. Maya Lin, riding the wave of her Vietnam Memorial design fame, was asked to fill in. She did, with giant spherical bushes in the parking lot. Steroidal topiary. Shapiro has risen in the international art world and the value of his work has followed suit. Charlotte caved on the gamble and still lost the bet.

Charlotte is not without public art. We have Ben Long's frescos at Transamerica Square and the BofA Corporate Center, the Romare Bearden collage at the Main Public Library, the Dovetail Garden and Birdhouses near the McColl Center of Visual Art, and numerous smaller paintings and sculpture at the Convention Center. BofA, Wachovia and The Arts and Science Council have all been instrumental in bringing art to the streets of Charlotte. But many other cities of our size have done better. We can too.

In 2000, Charlotte artist Marek Ranis, with $1500 of help from a regional artists grant, erected "Grand Teton," a 100-by-20-feet temporary sculpture constructed from scorched timbers culled from a fire at Latta Plantation. This piece, a black latticed assembly rising from a patch of grass, surrounded by stone and glass, and perched above the paved bowels of the parking garage of Transamerica Square, was breathtaking. Charlotte needs more breath taking, and more often.

Write or email your Councilperson. Let him or her know your city is more than asphalt, steel, concrete, glass and money. Proactive voices are heard, emails are read. Believe it. (See sidebar for Council contact info.)

This year-end dark cloud is not a permanent climatic phenomenon. New galleries will open in the new year. The Mint Museum will move uptown this decade. The Arts and Science Council will successfully loosen the tight fists down at the Government Center. The mayor may even lose the beret.

Until then, consider buying one piece of art next year. Artists are starving (for attention). If not allowed to do what they want to do, they will surely die (spiritually). It's a leap of faith. Now remind me again -- why should I buy art?

1. The artist will die if you don't. (Or worse, they'll become weird, even weirder than they already are, and they'll do it publicly!)

2. You love looking at the piece.

3. The artist might get famous and you might get rich.

4. To save an artist from his lesser self, the self that must deliver pizza.

5. To commit to the cultural community and preserve the lunatic fringe.

6. You feel the need to be connected to a hip underclass.

7. You've got more money than sense.

8. The work puts you in that zone.

9. The work fits. . .a. Your mood; b. Your bedroom decor; c. Your character type; d. The wall.

The patient moans to his psychiatrist "You know I live with my brother. He's insane. He thinks he's a chicken. He struts around the house with his elbows sticking out, poking his head in and out like a spastic piston. He's driving me crazy."

"Why can't you just move out?" the doctor frowned.

The patient stares at his doctor, dumbfounded, rolls his eyes, slumps back in his chair and looks morosely at the door. "I need the eggs."

Charlotte needs more eggs.

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