Split Tickets: Charlotte's Cultural Sector

Many large local arts organizations and shows are setting records. Big money is pouring into a major fundraising campaign led by Hugh McColl. But the news isn’t good everywhere.
TOM JOHNSON
Knight Theater has been home to several big moments in Charlotte arts history, including serving as a backdrop to scenes in Hunger Games.

If you stare into one of Sharon Dowell’s paintings—and if you can ignore the hum of the giant fan in her NoDa studio—you’ll get lost. She paints Charlotte, a few bright hues and countless blends of layers and lines, all converging into a single, cohesive portrait of, say, an uptown building or a 20-something couple on a walk. It’s chaotic, and it’s precise. It’s abstract yet somehow realistic. Every component is necessary.

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Dowell’s shared space on Benard Avenue is one of two studios she inhabits in Charlotte. This one is in the city’s arts district. The other is uptown’s artspace 525, a former retail space on North Tryon Street that faces Ninth Street. Artspace 525 doesn’t try to compete with the other arts destinations on Charlotte’s main strip. It’s not iconic like the Mint or the Bechtler or the Gantt, and it’s not a tourist draw like the Charlotte Ballet or Discovery Place or McColl Center. What artspace 525 is, though, is a gallery that adds diversity to the city’s art scene—an idea Dowell embraces.

“I wish our uptown had a little more mom-and-pop, a little more grassroots,” Dowell says, sitting on a vintage couch in her NoDa studio. 

Dowell got her start in nonprofit and locally focused galleries. A Houston native, she came to the city to attend the UNC Charlotte and, aside from a single year in New York, built her career while Charlotte’s cultural sector grew. These galleries were more common in the early 2000s, especially in neighborhoods like NoDa. “Those venues have closed now,” Dowell says. “A lot of the local artists who showed there now no longer have a local gallery representing them.” On the other hand, Dowell says, some businesses and alternative venues, such as breweries, are opening their doors to display local art. 

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Sharon Dowell has traveled the world looking for inspiration, but she does most of her painting in her NoDa Studio.

Artspace 525 was hatched in part by Charlotte Center City Partners. It’s a gallery, studio, workshop area, and teaching space. It’s where Dowell helps West Mecklenburg High School students create art out of skateboard decks and then puts them on sale. It’s where Amy Bagwell creates the new Wall Poems of Charlotte, bringing verses from North Carolina writers to the public. In 2014, poetry and other local art need these new outlets to reach the community.

Artspace 525 is just one place that underscores the shifts in the Charlotte arts scene. A cultural task force recently studied the Arts & Science Council, which for years has been the driver of funding for the arts community, and discovered that the ASC has seen a 22 percent drop in private donations since 2007. The study also showed that the overall arts sector lost 21 percent of its corporate donor base. 

But there’s another side of the story, and it wasn’t revealed until later in the summer. Hugh McColl has been leading a silent campaign to raise money for the arts. Originally a gift intended for just the Charlotte Symphony, McColl’s Thrive campaign has secured millions for Charlotte’s high-profile arts institutions. Then, in August, Business Insider named Charlotte one of the “20 Best US Cities For Culture,” saying the city has “one cultural attraction for every 2,408 people.” 

The contrast in the reports creates a complex appraisal of the arts scene’s health, and it’s made some question the viability of the ASC. But to smaller arts organizations like those Dowell works with, the ASC is vital to keeping the lights on. Either way, the opposing storylines indicate a city arts portfolio of haves and have-nots, leaving many in the community wondering: How did we get here? And who will lead us forward?

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ONE ANECDOTE STICKS OUT in fundraiser Scott Provancher’s mind.

Provancher was listening to one of his peers recount childhood trips to a Montana ranch with his uncle. On the ranch, the older men created problems for the youths to solve. In one exercise, they freed the horses at 4 a.m. and told the boys to bring them home. On the first night, no instructions were given, and the boys didn’t retrieve many horses. On the second night, the older men attached bells to the mares, which typically function as a magnet for the male horses. When the teens focused on listening for the bell mares, the task was no longer impossible. If a bell mare was missing, you’d find 10 more horses when you brought her home. 

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After leaving his job as ASC president, Scott Provancher remained a major player in the Charlotte arts scene, joining former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl in a $45 million fundraising campaign. 

“Hugh McColl is the ultimate bell mare,” Provancher says, adding a disclaimer with a laugh, “though I don’t know if Hugh would like to be called a ‘bell mare.’”

It’s been two months since it became public knowledge that McColl and Provancher, the former director of the ASC, are the duo behind Thrive. For two years, while some local theater companies closed and the ASC watched its funding drop, the campaign raised $34 million for the cultural sector. McColl’s original goal was to aid the symphony, but his fundraising abilities quickly brought more opportunity and involved others in the cause. 

Provancher, owner of the Provancher & Associates consulting firm for fundraisers, plays an interesting role in the city’s arts scene. He came to Charlotte from Cincinnati in 2009 to take over the ASC. At the time, the organization was only beginning to feel the effects of the recession that began in late 2008. Everyone felt it. The Charlotte region’s United Way organization suffered through a year of turmoil that was marked by an ousted president, and it nearly collapsed. The ASC, the organization created in 1958 as a clearinghouse for the cultural sector, saw a 40 percent drop in workplace giving. Provancher was 32 years old and stepping into a challenge more daunting than what many people face over an entire career.

“Everything became real at once,” Provancher remembers of his first days on the job as ASC president. “I was trying to assess what was happening at the ASC, and at the same time, I had to assess what effect it was all having on the cultural sector itself. That was the first year.”

Provancher served for four years before leaving the ASC in the summer of 2013. At the time, he said he needed to step aside “to pursue my entrepreneurial interests and passion for bringing new thinking and innovation to the fundraising arena.” Months before the announcement, Thrive had already started taking shape, and Provancher and others decided to operate the campaign independent of ASC management, although the organizations remain tethered.

“We didn’t think the best thing for the ASC was to manage a $45 million campaign in the midst of putting together the Cultural Life Task Force,” Provancher says. “So Thrive was created as a complementary effort.”

Provancher’s time at the ASC was short, but it wasn’t for nothing. The organization’s annual campaign grew gradually, and his brainchild, power2give.org, has raised more than $500,000. The site allows the public to give directly to projects that are registered with the site. “People and their view of philanthropy and giving had changed,” he says. “The big gift was realizing that the workplace giving campaign was no longer the growth engine for the organization. We had to look at other options.” 

He continues to live in Charlotte, but Provancher also works on projects in Cincinnati—an area with a more storied arts scene than Charlotte. He calls it a “dual citizenship,” and says there are different challenges in each city. The main advantage in the less-developed sector in Charlotte? The opportunity to “build something new,” he says.

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LESS THAN A MONTH before Provancher’s departure, the Cultural Life Task Force had its first meeting. Over the next year, it studied the arts scene, with a particular focus on the ASC, and produced a 53-page document, plus appendices, that included some surprising numbers. One of Sharon Dowell’s works is on the report’s cover. 

The Charlotte arts scene, the report says, draws nearly 4 million visitors per year, with $202 million in economic impact. The arts provide 6,200 jobs and $18.1 million in revenue for state and local government. Some arts outlets are doing well. The city’s music scene continues to grow, and tickets at venues such as the Fillmore and Time Warner Cable Arena frequently sell out. More festivals are popping up, and touring Broadway shows continue to prove that Charlotte still has an interest in theater. 

But the ASC works with nearly 200 organizations that have various needs, says Katherine Mooring, the organization’s vice president of cultural and community investment. “I think there’s a perception that our operating grants only support major organizations,” Mooring says. “We try to meet organizations where they are, keep the process as simple as possible.”

Mooring remembers what uptown was like when she joined the ASC in 2002. The McColl Center was a toddler. The Levine Center for the Arts buildings on South Tryon didn’t exist. “They were parking lots,” Mooring says. Construction of that $127 million campus would carry on through the recession. Mint Museum Uptown was the last to be finished, opening on October 1, 2010.

But then there are the other statistics. The ASC lost 65 percent of its corporate and foundation donors from 2007 to 2012, according to the report. The arts sector itself lost 21 percent. The ASC’s 23 cultural partners include Charlotte Symphony, Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, the Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, and Discovery Place. Thirteen of those partners have budget deficits.

The task force’s report comes at an interesting time. This month, voters will decide on a much-disputed referendum requesting a quarter-cent increase to the 7.25 percent sales tax. The ASC would receive 7.5 percent of the revenue from that increase, 
netting a potential $3 million for the group. (Eighty-seven-and-a-half percent of the new tax money would go toward raises for staff at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and Central Piedmont Community College.) In its report, the task force suggested that funding for cultural programming should increase by $1.30 per resident. It’s not a popular idea with certain public officials, especially conservatives on the board of commissioners who fought to keep the referendum off the ballot. And after the General Assembly passed a budget that included raises for teachers and the news came that Thrive has raised millions for the arts, more and more people are doubting the need for the sales tax hike. 

Others have doubts about the ASC’s role, too. John H. Clark, former station manager for WDAV Classical Public Radio in Davidson, wrote an op-ed piece for the The Charlotte Observer in July. “The unfortunate thrust of the Task Force recommendations is to keep the Arts & Science Council at the center of power and influence in our cultural sector,” Clark wrote.

“The people at the ASC, its board and staff, mean well and truly care about the culture of our region. It is no 
surprise, however, those individuals in and close to the ASC are not going to recommend a significantly diminished role for the organization. But they should have.”

Provancher has no official role with the ASC anymore, but he says it is still relevant. As Thrive targets a few high-profile arts organizations in town, smaller groups are left wondering if they’ll receive anything. If the ASC ceased to exist, he says, there would be more losers than winners. Two hundred cultural organizations would be vying for support. “During my time, and also during [current president Robert Bush’s] tenure, the ASC continues to be a very introspective organization about what it’s doing and should be,” Provancher says. “Its role is changing, but it’s a necessary organization.”

Bush, who joined the ASC in 2000 and took over as Provancher’s replacement as president this past spring, says the organization is moving forward with a mix of optimism and caution. “We’re as excited and afraid as everyone else,” Bush says. 
Part of the ASC and Thrive’s mission is to help arts groups develop independent fundraising tools and infrastructure. ASC workshops offered this fall have titles like “Finding New Donors & Effective Project Marketing” and “Making Your Art Work for You.” Even with a $45 million Thrive campaign, there’s clearly more work to do. “There will continue to be a period of uncertainty. But all of the right conversations are happening,” Provancher says. 

For him, the hunt for bell mares continues.

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IT'S THE LAST WEEK of June, and Charlotte Squawks X: Ten Carolina Commandments is in the middle of a sell-out performance at Booth Playhouse. Squawks is an annual theatrical satire from lawyer Brian Kahn and Mike Collins, host of WFAE’s public affairs talk show “Charlotte Talks.” Thirteen of the 15 Squawks shows this year sold out.

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No more shows: Carolina Actors Studio Theatre closed this summer after 24 years.

The Booth Playhouse is one of six theaters managed by Blumenthal Performing Arts. Its resident companies include the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, Community School of the Arts, Opera Carolina, and the Charlotte Ballet. Blumenthal brought Broadway to Charlotte, and it continues to pack houses with shows like Book of Mormon and Once.

On the same night at the same time and in the same city, as the curtains close for the Squawks performance, the Carolina Actors Studio Theatre in NoDa closes its doors for good. For 24 years, CAST offered a smaller venue with large-scale sets and productions, choosing stories with social and political themes. But financial troubles and low attendance numbers led to its demise. 

The ASC tried to help but couldn’t. Bush cited the theater company’s closing as an example of how smaller institutions in the city are struggling. “This experience reinforces the importance of developing healthy, financially sustainable models for our cultural institutions,” Bush said in a statement. “The future of Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s cultural sector depends on it.”

In the same year that CAST shut down, though, the Blumenthal already has a record number of season-ticket sales for its 2014-15 schedule. But the Blumenthal also had to adjust to the recession. President Tom Gabbard says he understands the troubles facing some of the other groups in town, and no matter how many sellouts he sees for things like Book of Mormon, the city needs organizations of all sizes. “It’s all part of a happy ecology,” Gabbard says. “Just as in the natural world, all of the parts need each other.”

Gabbard has been guiding the Blumenthal for 11 years, and despite the struggles at the Arts & Science Council and the loss of key components of the arts scene, he believes the future is bright—if for no other reason than the city’s ballooning population. “I think we’re bullish about the future,” Gabbard says. “Our city is growing. That’s something a lot of cities can’t say.” 

On closing night at CAST, there’s a party after the final performance of Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries—the last of the company’s 64 productions. Actors, directors, and patrons mingle and reunite to mark two decades of performances. Casts from past productions pose for pictures. The money raised from the party is intended to help wrap up operations and create a tribute to CAST. The scene is part celebration and part memorial.

Not far from here, at Booth Playhouse, the night ends differently. The Squawks audience pours into the street smiling and satisfied. The aisles are cleaned, the actors head home, and stagehands reset the stage for another show tomorrow.

Andy Smith covers arts and culture for this magazine, maintaining the Revue blog and curating the monthly agenda. He also serves as the magazine’s web editor and freelances for Creative Loafing, Back Issue, and more.

Categories: Feature, Longform, The Buzz