Columns » Boomer with Attitude

Whither the Arts?

Or is it "wither"?

By the time you read this, City Council may have finally decided, at its Monday meeting, whether to move forward with the $147 million "arts bundle" - a singularly graceless name for a package of worthy, should-have-been-exciting downtown arts projects. Whether the council killed the bundle or approved funds for planning fix-ups at Discovery Place and the Afro-American Cultural Center - the bundle's first baby steps - huge questions remain about city priorities and the arts. The most basic of those questions is why funding for high-dollar arts projects has become such a difficult sell in Charlotte. The bundle battle has been especially painful for arts supporters who remember, or at least have heard stories of, the days when eliciting government funds for big cultural projects was practically a slam dunk. What's different today?

Answers depend on whom you're asking. City Council members will tell you money is simply too tight, as shown by their decision to delay road improvements in a city where lousy roads are a top citizen complaint. Arts supporters like Keith Martin — former Charlotte Rep director and current director of Richmond Ballet — say that's a phony reason.

"That argument makes no sense," says Martin. "Funding was found for Spirit Square in the middle of a recession, money was tight during the campaign for the Blumenthal [Performing Arts Center], and on and on. It's a matter of getting the business community behind projects, whether the economy is booming or not."

Martin could have pointed to the recent frenzied campaign to cobble together a proposal for the NASCAR Hall of Fame as proof of his argument. The "tight economy" argument really falls apart when you consider that Council was being asked to pony up only $1 million now — and agree to seek ways to find the rest of the money later.

Others blame Mayor Pat McCrory. He delayed the arts package for a couple of years by asking for more study, and then even more study, and finally tried unsuccessfully to break up the bundle by asking the Arts and Science Council to prioritize the plan's individual elements. Maybe this is McCrory's idea of showing leadership. More likely, it's a way of appealing to the far right — as in his Jethro Bodine-ish critiques of public art for transit stations — in case he ever decides what he wants to do besides being the Eternal Mayor.

In the past, such yokelism was overwhelmed by pressure from the ASC's business allies, and Council dutifully rammed through the big projects as instructed by its masters. This time around, that formula fell apart and the ASC has to take some of the blame.

Things have changed since the ASC's glory days when former president Michael Marsicano used his schmoozing artistry to build strong political and business partnerships. The group was flush with success, but its victories held the seeds of future troubles. Problems began in the aftermath of a 1998 community culture war in which the County Commission, ruled by a puritanical coalition known as the Gang of Five, cut all county arts funding as retribution for Charlotte Rep's production of Angels In America, a Pulitzer-winning play revolving around AIDS in the 1980s.

As Phil Busher, longtime arts scene observer and former Mint Museum PR head, explained last week, "Success changed the ASC. An expanded staff brought an expansion in mission. After the Angels/Gang of Five battles, the ASC started delivering not so subtle threats of funding cuts to affiliates failing to toe a new, less controversial line. That created a degree of animosity within the arts community itself."

After Marsicano left the ASC, behind-the-scenes politicking dwindled. Soon the ASC, led by new president Harriet Sanford, linked itself to the downtown arena referendum during a fierce public debate over the venue. When voters clobbered the arena, the arts establishment wound up with a stained image that has yet to regain its luster.

Busher describes the debacle plainly: "That alliance was a disaster for the arts . . . The ASC has failed to understand the depth of the public's feelings about it." And, we might add, under the current leadership of Lee Keesler, it has failed to come to grips with the need to regain public support, which was made clear by how the group pursued the "bundle." There has been precious little public discussion of why these funds are needed. It's as if arts leaders thought the old ways — gaining consensus among the city's elites during private discussions — would still work, and now they're surprised they're having a hard time. On top of that, when the politicians balked at the ASC's all-or-nothing, take-it-or-leave-it proposal, the group found it had developed little public support to fall back on.

Many Charlotte art lovers used to believe, deep down, that once the city had put in place the big items on their wish list — a downtown arts center (Spirit Square), an expanded Mint Museum, an Afro-American Cultural Center, a Performing Arts Center — the growth in the number of locals taking in the arts would, over time, create a cultured, urbane climate in which money for even more arts edifices would naturally flow from an enlightened citizenry like honey from the comb. That obviously didn't happen. The ASC needs to stop acting as if it did. And it needs to do a much better job of building public support if it expects to ever see another major arts project get the green light.

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