Artistic Ambition

City leaders claim to want a vibrant cultural scene. Here’s how to do it

On November 30, 1939, cultural reporter Paul Lucas opened an article in the Charlotte Observer with this declaration: “No single institution more eloquently proves that Charlotte has emerged from a materialistic, pushing industrial town to a genuinely civilized community as the Charlotte Symphony organization.”

For most of its 200-year history, the city’s cultural and entertainment scene had thrived on borrowed goods. Opera houses and music halls had cropped up on street corners and thoroughfares, but their stages were peopled by traveling troupes. But in the decade leading up to Lucas’s ebullient claim, Charlotte had begun to cultivate its own culture. In 1928, local amateur thespians mounted a production of Outward Bound, jumpstarting the community theater group now called Theatre Charlotte. Three years later, fifty-seven Charlotte musicians performed the Charlotte Symphony’s first concert on the stage of the Carolina Theatre. And in the fall of 1936, the Mint Museum of Art, though just a building without an art collection, became the state’s first art museum.

Oh, if Lucas could see us now!

Not one orchestra, but three. Dance, drama, opera, chamber music. Museums of history and science alongside those of art. State-of-the-art theaters. Hip galleries. Charlotte’s population is six times larger now than it was in Lucas’s day; the cultural community’s growth has been even greater.

And construction cranes loom on the horizon. The recent passage of the cultural facilities plan promises a new theater and three new museum sites, built with money from an increased car-rental tax. As the June 2009 opening date approaches, the Arts & Science Council and local business leaders are scurrying to raise private money to maintain those new buildings. More than $50 million has already been pledged toward the $83 million goal.

Nearly seventy years ago, Lucas’s optimistic assertion that “Charlotte has emerged from a materialistic, pushing industrial town to a genuinely civilized community” was perhaps premature. But now we have the opportunity to make it true. Charlotte is booming: Tens of thousands of people move here each year. Charlotte is wealthy: Nine Fortune 500 companies are headquartered in this area. We’re on the cusp.

How do we make it happen? Fortunately, Charlotte is not the first city to leap from “pushing industrial town” to “genuinely civilized community.” We can learn much from cities that are a generation ahead of us, and even from our peers. If Charlotte really wants to become a city of celebrated culture, here’s what we need to do.

Build Large Institutions of National Repute
Think of the nation’s most prestigious cultural institutions: New York City Ballet, Metropolitan Opera, Boston Symphony Orchestra, The Art Institute of Chicago, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. What do these organizations have that ours don’t? Money.

Charlotte has one of the most respected United Arts Funds in the country. The Arts & Science Council, founded in 1958, is ranked second in the nation in fund-raising and last year gave out $12.5 million to area groups, more than half of that to the city’s top cultural institutions. But it isn’t nearly enough. For Charlotte’s cultural community to excel, there must be a substantial increase in philanthropic giving to our largest organizations.

And not just for buildings. The “Campaign for Cultural Facilities” is promising, but nearly all of that private sector money will go into a fund to cover maintenance expenses for buildings—expenses previously paid for by city dollars. With the exception of the Charlotte Symphony, which is to receive $7 million toward its meager endowment, the organizations themselves will see little increase to their overall bottom line.

Boston, Chicago, New York, Washington, San Francisco—the nation’s cultural capitals are, of course, older and much larger cities. But even communities closer to our size could show us a thing or two. As far back as 1953, an article by Charlotte News Editor C. A. McKnight compared Charlotte’s support for the arts to that of Wichita, Kansas and found the Queen City lacking. Although the Wichita Symphony was just eight years old, McKnight wrote, it could boast sixteen benefactors in the 1953-54 season who had contributed at least $500 to the orchestra. The Charlotte Symphony, by then twenty years old, had none.

With a city population of more than 600,000 and a six-county metro-region population of almost 1.6 million, Charlotte is still a long way from big-city status, but it is catching up with places like Portland, Oregon, and Minneapolis/ St. Paul, Minnesota. Our median per-capita income, at $28,875 per year, is healthy. Our cultural institutions, however, still lag behind in a variety of areas. Though it opened just twenty years before the Mint Museum of Art, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, one of several art museums in that area, has a collection more than three times the size of the Mint’s, a budget almost five times greater, and an endowment more than sixteen times larger. (See sidebar on page 109 for more comparisons.)

Some of the discrepancies can be explained by history. Charlotte was dominated in its early days by thrifty Scots-Irish whose Calvinist upbringing left them naturally suspicious of the arts. The Minneapolis area, by contrast, was founded by northern and central Europeans who brought their native passion for the arts with them to America. In addition, Charlotte has only lately become cosmopolitan and rich, and cultural philanthropy has changed in recent years.

According to the advocacy group, Americans for the Arts, arts philanthropy is in a steady decline. In 1991, 8.4 percent of all philanthropic giving in the United States was to the arts. By 2005, that figure had dropped to 5.2 percent, resulting in $8.4 billion fewer dollars.

“We’ve seen aggregate decreases in corporate giving,” says Randy Cohen, vice-president of research and information for Americans for the Arts. “Corporations are becoming more mono-issue focused, and there’s more interest in measurability of results. The arts is not a sector that is easily given to quantifiable causality.” It’s also not a sector that provides corporations with the kind of snazzy marketing opportunities they’re looking for these days.

Individual philanthropy is also changing, says Cohen. As our society becomes more migratory, philanthropists tend to give nationally rather than locally. “It’s a scenario faced by a lot of new cities—Sunbelt cities versus old-money cities. People move around so much, by the time they get to the point where they’re ready to give on a large scale, they’ve lived in three or four cities, so they give on the national level.”

The local focus, for example, has made a huge impact on the arts in Minneapolis/St. Paul. One of the country’s largest foundations, The McKnight Foundation, was started over a half-century ago by William L. McKnight, former chairman of St. Paul’s 3M Company, and his wife. Headquartered in Minneapolis, it gives nearly $100 million annually to organizations in Minnesota, 10 percent of that to support the arts. In 2006, for example, The McKnight Foundation gave $9.3 million to individual artists and arts groups. And the same year that McKnight started his foundation, another 3M executive, Archibald Granville Bush, created a foundation to serve Minnesota and the Dakotas. The Bush Foundation gives $3 million each year to the arts in Minnesota.

“The mission is to improve the quality of life in Minnesota,” says Neal Cuthbert, the McKnight Foundation’s arts program director. “One of the things that makes the community more vibrant is the arts. There has been a real firm commitment to the arts, and they feel the return on their investment.”

But, in spite of what Cohen calls a “huge paradigm shift” in arts philanthropy, some mid-size cities, even those less wealthy than ours, are bucking the trend and rousing arts patronage. Portland Center Stage, the largest of that area’s nineteen theater companies, moved out of the city’s performing arts center and into its own home this fall. Of the $36.1 million the theater needed for the new building and expanded programming, it has raised $28.5 million. (When Charlotte Repertory Theatre announced a $400,000 deficit in early 2005, it was unable to find contributors to keep the doors open, closing that February.) Likewise, the Portland Art Museum just completed renovations and, raising more money than necessary for construction, added to its endowment, bringing the total to $46.3 million—substantially more robust than the Mint’s $10.6 million.

Even more impressive is the recent endowment campaign at the Nashville Symphony. In August 2001, the orchestra launched “A Time for Greatness,” an effort to add $120 million to its $23 million endowment. Nashville is smaller than Charlotte and less wealthy, but as of November, the Nashville Symphony had raised $123 million, with thirty-five individual gifts of $1 million or more. It has built a new concert hall and nearly doubled its budget, from $12.5 million last season to $22 million this season. The Charlotte Symphony, by contrast, has an annual budget of $7.8 million and an endowment of just $4 million.

“We created an almost outrageous vision of what the orchestra could become—build a new hall, expand programming, really try to become one of the leading orchestras in the country,” says President Alan Valentine. “People said, ‘We might become famous for our orchestra?’ That was really appealing to people. Even if you’re not a classical music fan, you see the value for the city.”

Encourage the Growth of Small Groups
For several years, Melanie Sullivan-Coyle, whose family has owned a dance studio in Charlotte for five decades, dreamed of starting a jazz dance company. Finally, in 2001, she assembled a board and applied non-profit, 501-c3 status. Six months later, Queen City Jazz Company was born.

Because the Arts & Science Council had put a moratorium on new dance-related affiliates, meaning that no grants for general operating costs would be available, Sullivan-Coyle and her board decided to look for other funding opportunities.

“I really thought it was going to be easy,” says Sullivan-Coyle. “One board member was a salesman who had a long list of contacts that he called to ask for money. But doors started slamming right away. Companies said, ‘We already give to the Arts & Science Council. That’s all we give and all we’re allowed to give.’ That was our first reality check. We thought that the companies could still do something.”

The second reality check was the discovery of the actual cost of producing a dance performance. “You cannot do a concert—and I mean bare bones, no lighting designer, no fancy costumes, no stage manager, no frills—for less than $10,000 a show,” Sullivan-Coyle says. “That was a shock to me.”   

Still, she plowed ahead, putting on a wine-tasting, a golf tournament, and a “Frank Sinatra Night” as fundraisers and relying on contributions from her board members and her own bank account. Queen City Jazz Company produced several successful shows, including a collaboration with a Latin band and the presentation of an original piece by Broadway choreographer Corinne McFadden. But now the resources are tapped out. Sullivan-Coyle hopes to do a show in the spring, but the future of her company is bleak.

“We never claimed to be in the league with North Carolina Dance Theatre, but we wanted to create something of quality. It would be nice to think that you could have the opportunity to get there. This is America. But there is an overall real lack of interest in anything new and different, and that is so disheartening.”

The story of Queen City Jazz Company is not unique. Earlier this season, Moving Poets Theater of Dance and Off-Tryon Theatre Company both announced that they were folding. Numerous other small arts groups—Epic Arts Theatre Company, The Farm Theatre, Chickspeare—have opened with gung-ho enthusiasm only to become frustrated after a few seasons by a lack of financial support.

Economists from Jeffrey Sachs to Richard Florida agree that innovation drives the economy. It also drives the arts. But in business-fertile Charlotte, there is little risk capital for burgeoning artists.

“Charlotte has a problem with what to do with groups that have been around for a couple of years,” says Alan Black, artistic director of Chamber Music at St. Peter’s, which gives free concerts by professional musicians. “The ASC has a grassroots program and project grants, and that seed money is great.”

But finding a steady source of funding is a challenge for organizations outside of the ASC’s twenty-four affiliates who receive basic operating grants. “It’s gotten increasingly more difficult,” Black says. “We’re not big enough for a major corporation to get exposure through us. So you have to rely on people who believe in what you do. And you have to be lean and mean, because there’s no room for error.”  In December 2005, the chamber music series received a gift of $100,000 from Charlotte residents Kathy and Frank Bragg to begin its own endowment.  

Some other cities are addressing this problem directly. Created in 1992 by the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and the Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta, the Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund (MAAF) focuses solely on small and mid-size professional arts groups. “Small and medium-sized organizations are core to the rhythm and vibrancy of Atlanta,” states the fund’s mission. “They offer safe places for experimentation. And they also frequently struggle to keep the doors open and the lights on.”

The Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund awards some $500,000 a year in grants. In 2006, Synchronicity Performance Group was one of ten organizations to receive money. A theater company that concentrates on new works by female playwrights, Synchronicity began presenting full seasons in 2000. It received its first MAAF grant in 2004: $15,000 to set up a cash reserve.

“The thing that is really wonderful about the Arts Fund is they fund things that very few groups are interested in funding, but are vital,” says Co-Artistic Director Rachel May. Last year, the company received a $48,000 grant to allow the company’s three directors to spend more time on administration and marketing. “It will help us get paid a little more of a living wage so we can cut down on doing outside jobs,” May says.

When former North Carolina Dance Theatre dancer Uri Sands started his new dance company three years ago in Minneapolis/St. Paul, he found a strikingly different environment from the one Sullivan-Coyle encountered here.

“The Twin Cities are extremely conscientious about supporting emerging artists,” says Sands. “This company’s gotten off to a good start because they actually give the artists a chance. And it doesn’t matter if you succeed or not, it’s just important that you have the opportunity.”

Sands’s company, TU Dance, started with a few summer performances and is now offering ten contracted dancers twenty-five weeks of work. Sands credits much of the success to the Jerome Foundation, a foundation created by former Minnesota artist Jerome Hill that specifically supports new artists and new work. Each year, the Jerome Foundation awards $1.8 million to professional Minnesota artists. TU Dance has received money from the foundation for the past three years; this year’s grant was almost $12,000.

And the leg up doesn’t have to be money. Sands received lots of in-kind support: Local businesses donated services like graphics design for post cards and posters, while other places donated space for performances. That same kind of encouragement, says Buffie Rogers, makes Portland a welcoming city to new artists, as well.

Rogers, an actor, and her fiancé, a musician, moved to Portland from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit. Last spring she started The Bluestockings, a theater company made up of eleven women. “The Portland theater scene—it’s kind of raw,” says Rogers. “Very innovative and very interesting. And to start a company, there’s not as many doors in front of you.” An established theater company offered to be fiscal partners with The Bluestockings, putting up the money to rent space for their first production.

Affordable performance space is a rare commodity in Charlotte. Unable to continue to rent SouthEnd Performing Arts Center, BareBones Theatre group, for example, is relying on the donation of space by the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center this year. And because it could not afford traditional theater space, Collaborative Arts Theatre Company has produced shows in a bar, a park, and an apartment. But Rogers says finding cheap space for shows is easy in Portland. “There’s a ton of little theaters and back rooms that you can rent out for dirt cheap. They seem really welcoming.” And another thing that Portland offers “that’s really awesome,” she adds, is affordable office space. A private company has turned a giant building into small offices that can be rented for $200 a month, which includes phone service. “A lot of writers, artists, and musicians have space there.”

Strengthen Public Funding for Cultural Activity
According to Americans for the Arts, public money for the arts is on the rise. “In the past year, government funding of the arts has been increasing on all three levels—local, state, and federal,” says Randy Cohen. Local governments, in particular, he says, are finding innovative ways to fund the arts. “Local officials can easily see how arts improve quality of life.” He mentions Charlotte’s dedicated car-rental tax for the new cultural facilities as an example, along with the use of hotel taxes in San Francisco and Miami, property taxes in St. Louis, and Chicago’s tax on for-profit entertainment to support non-profit cultural activity.

Denver, Colorado has made an especially strong commitment to funding culture. In 1988, voters in the Denver metropolitan area approved by referendum a sales tax increase of one tenth of one percent to provide consistent funding for culture. The tax, which was recently re-approved, generated $38 million for some 300 science and culture organizations in the seven-county region last year. In addition, it has provided for the creation of numerous works of public art and established a free concert series in Denver. The city of Tempe, Arizona recently adopted a similar plan, and Atlanta is also considering one.

Denver, with a city population of 545,198 and a metro population of 2.5 million, spends about $15 per capita in public money to fund cultural activities each year. That’s more than twice the $7 that Charlotte spends, according to a U.S. Urban Arts Federation Report from 2004, and it sends a powerful message: Cultural activity is as crucial to a city’s quality of life as sidewalks, public parks, or strong schools.

Denver’s public money goes towards organizations’ general operating budgets. And in St. Louis, dedicated revenue from a property tax allows for free admission to three museums and the zoo, and half-price admission to the botanical gardens. In Charlotte, local politicians have consistently preferred to fund buildings and their maintenance over cultural programming. “That’s a thing we watch and worry about,” says Cohen. “What folks really need to remember is you’ve got to support those institutions that populate those buildings.”

In 1963, shortly after he became the Charlotte Symphony’s first full-time music director, Richard Cormier spoke to the Charlotte Rotary Club about the creation of a robust community: “If we are to maintain a vigorous, vital cultural life in our cities, we must think not only of buildings, but of people, artists, actors, musicians, writers, performers, teachers, students, philosophers, and administrators in every area of the cultural spectrum. . . . The big problem, as I scarcely need tell you, is money. Money not merely for theaters, concert halls, and museum buildings, but money to develop the public in its role as patrons and appreciators of the products of an artistic civilization . . . We must come to accept the arts as a new community responsibility.”

That need is as great now as it was forty years ago.

See More, Do More
Cultural organizations are not just looking for handouts, but even under the best economic circumstances, the arts and humanities can rarely support themselves. Nationally, most nonprofit cultural organizations operate on an income that is about half earned and half contributed. And even earning half of that income is difficult when citizens do not attend and participate. If Woody Allen’s quip that “90 percent of life is just showing up” is true, then Charlotteans have a lot more living to do.

Last March, the Arts & Science Council hired ArtsMarket, an independent polling group from Montana, to conduct a regional participation survey. ArtsMarket surveyed 2,000 households in Mecklenburg, Union, Cabarrus, Gaston, and York (S.C.) counties about their attendance habits for twenty-six different kinds of activities, including movies, clubs, sports events, museums, and performing arts events. For any business or organization that depends on crowds of warm bodies, the results were discouraging. The average Charlotte-area resident goes to 5.49 events per year, a figure that includes church and school-related activities. That figure drops to 3.8 when church, movies, and clubs are removed. “This is a startlingly low annual level of attendance,” the report concluded. “Charlotte-area residents are not doers.” ArtsMarket President Louise Stevens says that the many cities her company has studied—Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Atlanta, Houston, San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland—all have higher attendance rates than Charlotte.

Not only does low participation make it harder for cultural institutions to survive, but studies indicate that a citizenry involved in cultural activities is more engaged in community life overall. A study done in 2002 by the Performing Arts Research Coalition of ten metropolitan areas in the United States found that “frequent performing arts attenders are also the most frequent attenders of other leisure activities, including sporting events, movies, festivals, museums, and popular concerts.” Furthermore, they tend to vote more regularly and volunteer in their community more often than non-attenders.

As Richard Cormier said to the Charlotte Rotary Club decades ago, we must “develop the public in its role as patrons and appreciators of the products of an artistic civilization.” In some cases, public funding has boosted participation. Although figures for St. Louis, where public funding has provided for free admission to museums for more than thirty years, were unavailable, in December the British government released findings from a study of the impact of free admission on attendance in England. In the last five years, since government funding allowed museums in Britain to open free of charge, attendance has increased 83 percent.

In other cities, arts organizations have joined forces to “develop the public.” Last spring, for example, twelve performing arts groups in Portland, including dance troupes, chamber music ensembles, the Portland Opera, and the Oregon Symphony, collaborated to produce a month-long, city-wide celebration of Mozart’s 250th birthday.

“Arts organizations are realizing they can get farther if they combine forces,” says Jeff Hawthorne, director of community affairs at the (Portland) Regional Arts and Culture Commission. “In the late nineties, it really felt like the arts organizations were competing with each other. But an influx of new artistic leaders used each other as resources in trying to program for the community and forged collaborations.”

In Atlanta, collaboration has occurred on a grand scale. Founded in 1984, the Atlanta Coalition of the Performing Arts is a service organization that represents 160 theater companies, dance troupes, music ensembles, and art film/video companies and 380 professional artists in the greater Atlanta area. Its purpose is to promote collaboration, advocate for its members, and encourage audience participation in the arts. A kind of grass-roots co-op, the Atlanta Coalition publishes a performing arts magazine, maintains an online calendar of events, and runs AtlanTIX, a hugely popular half-price ticket booth in two locations in Atlanta and online.
Atlanta theater insiders praise, in particular, AtlanTIX. They say it hasn’t yet generated the brand recognition of New York’s TKTS, but the potential is there. The booths’ locations are convenient for tourists, and the e-mail list, which offers last-minute tickets, is popular among residents. Most important, AtlanTIX helps fill seats. According to Director Kim Patrick Bitz, AtlanTIX has become the largest single source of earned income for the area’s performing arts community. “We’ve got to take care of ourselves,” he says. “There’s strength in numbers.”

Unlike Atlanta, Charlotte has no broad performing arts cooperative. It also has no organization devoted to arts advocacy, like the Metro-Atlanta Arts and Culture Coalition, whose stated purpose is “getting more people to participate in metro Atlanta’s diverse arts and culture offerings.” But several recent initiatives show promise. The Arts & Science Council, which for years has focused on fundraising for cultural groups, this season devoted $250,000 to its budget to build awareness of and interest in attendance and participation. Recent ASC marketing strategies include marketing workshops for affiliate organizations, a series of billboards promoting the arts, and a weekly ad in the Charlotte Observer that lists upcoming events. And the ASC plans to launch a Web portal that provides one-stop shopping for cultural information and purchases.

With a $125,000 grant from American Express, the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center recently created Club Blume, an outreach initiative targeting young professionals. At the first Club Blume event, connected to the November performance of Tango Fire, the Blumenthal had approximately 100 participants, about twice the number they had expected.

And there were signs this fall that perhaps Charlotteans are willing to become doers. The opening weekend of the Charlotte Symphony’s season, a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, boasted capacity crowds, as did Actor’s Theatre’s one-man show, I Am My Own Wife and BareBones Theatre Group’s production of Five Women Wearing the Same Dress. A Sunday matinee performance of North Carolina Dance Theatre’s Cinderella filled Belk Theater with bright-eyed children. Theatre Charlotte’s fall production of A Chorus Line broke its box office records for musicals.    

Centuries ago, Florence, Italy was a materialistic, pushing industrial town. But industries have a way of dying out or moving away—ask Cleveland or Buffalo or Pittsburgh. In Florence, the industry is long gone; the art remains.

Meg Freeman Whalen covers arts and culture for this magazine. For the December issue, she wrote about the impact Tom Gabbard has had on the Blumenthal Performing Arts center since his installation as president.

Prescription for Cultural Vitality

With 80,000 new residents a year moving to the area, a healthy economy, and headquarters for nine Fortune 500 companies, Charlotte has the chance to create a truly extraordinary cultural scene. But it’s going to take some work. Here’s what to do, along with a look at what some other cities are doing.
Strengthen our large institutions
The lifeblood of any large cultural organization is its endowment. While Charlotte has some mature institutions, their endowments are shockingly low compared to those in other cities—even cities similar to ours. And since the collapse of Charlotte Repertory Theatre, we have no top-tier theater company.
NASHVILLE: Since 2001, the Nashville Symphony Orchestra has raised $123 million for its endowment.

Nourish budding cultural groups
Small, innovative groups make for a lively and fertile cultural environment. Other cities are consciously looking for ways to give these artists a fighting chance. Charlotte, which prides itself on the openness of its business community, needs more risk capital for grassroots culture.
ATLANTA: The Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund focuses solely on small and mid-size professional arts groups, awarding $500,000 a year in grants.

Expand public support for cultural activity
Many places consider a vibrant cultural scene as necessary to a city’s quality of life as its parks or schools. Charlotte’s local governments need to place as much value on cultural activity as they do on cultural facilities.
ST. LOUIS: Dedicated revenue from a property tax allows for free admission to three museums and the zoo, and half-price admission to the botanical gardens.

Get out and experience more
According to a recent survey, Charlotte-area citizens rarely attend cultural or live entertainment events. Boosting attendance and participation needs to become a greater part of the ASC’s mission, and local arts groups need to band together to reach a wider audience.
PORTLAND: Last spring, twelve performing arts groups collaborated to produce a month-long, city-wide celebration of Mozart’s 250th birthday.


Dance Fever? 

It's easy to see why former NCDT dancer Uri Sands and his wife Toni Pierce chose to start their company, TU Dance, in Minneapolis instead of Charlotte. Not only are there more funding opportunities for emerging artists there, but attendance rates are
much higher. Here's a sampling of attendance statistics from independent studies done in each city in the past few years.
Percentage of people who say they attend dance at least once a year:
 Charlotte    1.5 percent
Atlanta        52 percent
Minneapolis    29 percent
Portland    26 percent


Charlotte's Cultural Endowments

Arts & Science Council
$28 million (in 15 separate endowments)

Children's Theatre of Charlotte
$11.8 million

The Mint Museums
$10.6 million

McColl Center for Visual Art
$6.6 million

Blumenthal Performing Arts Center
$6.4 million

Charlotte Symphony Orchestra
$4 million

Levine Museum of the New South
$2.3 million

Discovery Place
$1.6 million

N.C. Dance Theatre
$1 million