While Charlotte's NASCAR Hall of Fame was making headlines for not attracting as many visitors as projected and losing money like a car with a busted oil pan, it was a different story a few blocks over at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art.
The Bechtler, which celebrates its one-year anniversary on Jan. 2, saw a steady stream of guests and exceeded its attendance expectations.
Located at the Levine Center for The Arts on South Tryon Street and surrounded by the Knight Theater, the Mint Museum Uptown and the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts + Culture (which celebrated its one-year anniversary in October), the Bechtler stands out as Charlotte's first exclusively modern art museum. It houses the private collection of Charlotte resident Andreas Bechtler and his family — including works by artists such as Picasso, Giacometti, Matisse, Mirò, Degas, Warhol and Leger, among others.
On the museum's opening day, 5,000 people came through its doors in five hours. From then through the end of November, 45,321 people have paid to visit the Bechtler. The expected number of visitors was 44,000.
In addition, without a huge membership drive effort, the museum has tripled its expected number of members, creeping up on 700 to date.
The Bechtler's good fortune, however, was a question mark until the doors opened. Would Charlotte support a modern art collection on a consistent basis? So far, the answer has been a resounding yes.
"We've been extremely grateful for and excited by the reception that we've received from the community," said John Boyer, president and CEO of the Bechtler. "We've exceeded all of our goals for visitation and participation in all of programs. This is very good news for a brand-new institution."
Charlotte Center City Partners is also impressed with the success of the Bechtler — so impressed, in fact, that in April, Andreas Bechtler will be presented with the 2011 Vision Award, which celebrates people who have made an impact in Uptown Charlotte.
"This is a big move for our city to have a private collection of this quality to be given to the people of Charlotte. It is such a grand gesture of charity and community building. It's not just the collection, but as they refer to it, the building is one of the greatest pieces in the collection itself," Michael Smith, president of Charlotte Center City Partners, said. "When you put those two pieces together, it becomes another incredibly defining asset of Charlotte as a destination."
"We've invested about a billion dollars on destination assets over the last 10 years, moving from being just another Southern city to our aspiration of becoming a memorable destination," he continued. "That is a museum that I think we're going to find is a destination for art enthusiasts from all over the world."
If 2010 proved to be a banner year for the Bechtler, it wasn't completely without stumbling blocks. Tragedy struck the museum in April when Michael Godfrey, the first curator of the Bechtler, suddenly died.
"Michael's expertise was frankly unmatchable," Boyer said. "He knew this collection in a uniquely comprehensive and deep way."
Godfrey had worked closely with the Bechtler collection for more than a decade and oversaw its arrival in the United States. When he died, Boyer said there was no way that he could be replaced and the museum didn't rush to bring in another curator — Boyer is currently holding that title.
"There are a lot of great curators out there, but nobody knew the collection as well as Michael. The effect from a staffing perspective is that we made the decision to self-curate the shows internally for the next year and a half to two years," he said. "The next stage will be to work with guest curators who will come in and do focused exhibitions with us. And at some point in the future, might we bring on a curator full-time on the staff? I don't know yet. But I do know there would've been no way that we could've brought someone on with the expectation that they would've replaced Michael."
Personally, Boyer said he still feels the loss of Godfrey and misses him every day. "Over the last year that he was with us, we worked very closely and like so many others in town, you miss him all the time. He was full of life and quite delightfully unique as an individual. He had an extraordinary array of circles of friends of different interests. I feel most for those who knew Michael a lot longer than many of us on the staff. It was clear that he meant a lot to a lot of people here in Charlotte."
As the Bechtler transitions into year two, Boyer said decisions made in year one, competitive price points and outreach into all aspects of the community mean that the museum has to work harder to find more corporate underwriting.
A bulk of the funding for the first year of the Bechtler came from Duke Energy, Wachovia/Wells Fargo and The Arts and Science Council, which provides an operating support grant of $260,100.
"On the economics of things, that's the bigger issue. While we've been extremely successful this year, we've beat all of our goals, which was a great blessing," Boyer said. "We know too that this was our first year and so we have to be cautious that in year two, novelty is replaced by elements that are more enduring."