The Queen’s Gambit: Behind Charlotte’s Arts Sector Shake-Up
For decades, the City of Charlotte helped fund the Arts & Science Council, an independent nonprofit. In 2021, the city changed tack: It appointed Priya Sircar as its first arts and culture officer and assembled a board to distribute funding and develop a long-range plan. Could the move help turn Charlotte into a cultural destination?
Priya Sircar visited Charlotte for the first time in 2018. At the time, she was director of arts for the Miami-based Knight Foundation, which provides grants to support journalism, arts, and culture in communities, like Charlotte, where John S. and James L. Knight once published newspapers.
Mandated to tailor city-specific funding strategies for the foundation’s arts program, she and her colleagues set up a booth at Free Range Brewing, where they invited artists and organizations to help them understand Charlotte’s cultural scene. She was astonished at the response. More than 75 people stopped by the booth: fine artists, nonprofit staff, creative professionals, board members, and philanthropists.
From these conversations, along with data analysis and meetings with local arts heavyweights, Sircar learned about the organizations and individuals that make up Charlotte’s arts sector. Then, like an astronomer, she traced their connections and oriented herself among the complex constellations. What emerged was a glowing sketch of an arts sector in crisis.
The brightest points on Sircar’s star chart were the uptown-based legacy institutions: the Mint, the Bechtler, the Gantt, the Blumenthal, McColl Center, the opera, the symphony, the ballet. Fainter and more scattered were smaller organizations, festivals, and galleries. She learned about the Arts & Science Council, an independent nonprofit responsible for distributing millions in public and private funds to artists and cultural organizations.
These institutions, large and small, juggle a variety of income sources, including earned revenue, like ticket sales; government funding; grants from entities like ASC and Knight Foundation; corporate contributions and sponsorships; individual donations; and endowments. In addition to distributing city and county contributions, ASC solicits donations from individuals and corporations to support its grantmaking and other activities. To complicate matters further, five of Charlotte’s marquee arts institutions, including the Mint Museum Uptown and the Gantt, operate out of city-owned buildings.
This crazy quilt of revenue sources is a hallmark of arts sectors across the country. The fundamental source of the problem here, Sircar learned, was that individual donations to ASC tanked in 2008 and never fully recovered. ASC’s funding—and by extension, funding for the entire sector—was drying up.
On the morning of April 13, 2021, the Arts & Science Council’s acting president, Krista Terrell, was scheduled to make the organization’s annual request to the Mecklenburg County commissioners for funding for the upcoming fiscal year.
Though she was named acting president just two months before, Terrell wasn’t new to ASC. She’d served the organization for 19 years in a marketing and communications capacity—experience that would soon come in handy. Ten minutes before her presentation, she read a WBTV article that explained the city’s plan for funding the arts and culture sector: Charlotte would no longer fund the arts primarily through her organization.
In January 2021, Mayor Vi Lyles appointed a committee to review the city’s approach to funding arts and culture. ASC’s ailing budget had become a perennial point of contention, with city, county, and ASC leadership at odds over how to make up for the vanishing private sector money. In 2009, ASC’s annual fund drive revenue dropped from $11 million to $7 million. “After the recession, the private sector just slowly started not giving money to ASC, and they were giving it directly to arts organizations,” says Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt, who led the committee. “So, ASC would continually say to the city and the county, ‘Hey, you need to step up.’ And the city and the county would look at each other and say, ‘Well, you need to do this first.’”
The city wasn’t opposed to boosting its funding to support the sector’s growth. (In 2018, it bumped its ASC contribution from $2.9 million to $3.2 million.) But before it made a more dramatic and meaningful investment, Eiselt says, the city wanted some guarantee that the funds would support focus areas it had identified, especially economic development. City Council members view the arts as a potential draw for visitors and an opportunity to bolster the pandemic-battered hospitality industry. “Our job,” Eiselt says, “is to help get heads in beds.”
She envisions Charlotte as a city of festivals. Or, if not that, maybe something like it. “Look at what music’s done for Nashville,” she says. “We don’t really have that kind of a brand.” The Panthers and Hornets bring in millions of visitors and dollars. The arts have the potential to do the same thing. How does the city’s arts spending per capita, she wonders, compare to its spending on sports? “Those are the conversations we have to be having and not treat the arts like they’re a side gig,” she says. “It’s got to be treated like a sophisticated industry.”
The city had other qualms with ASC. The nonprofit kept a quarter of its contributions, including the city’s, to fund capacity-building initiatives like audience development workshops and arts career training, intended to help artists and organizations grow. But, according to Eiselt, big players like Opera Carolina and Charlotte Ballet complained that they didn’t need help to build capacity. They would rather have the money. And, Eiselt says, “we felt strongly that there needed to be more of an equity lens on the arts.”
ASC did release a cultural equity report in February 2021, which, among other things, apologized for a history of discriminatory funding. But committee members felt that the report was too little, too late. They decided the city needed to change its approach.
Terrell was blindsided. She’d heard murmurs about the committee’s work and had reached out to members to provide data and context, but she contends that city leaders never came to a consensus with her or her predecessor, Jeep Bryant, about the proposed change. She learned the details in City Manager Marcus Jones’ press release, printed in full in the WBTV article: The city and its private-sector partners would allocate a total of $36 million to fund the arts and culture sector over three years, from July 1, 2021, until June 30, 2024. The Foundation for the Carolinas would disburse the funds, much the way it distributed CARES Act grants during the pandemic. An 18-member arts advisory board would determine grant awards for 2022 and establish funding priorities by crafting a comprehensive cultural road map. ASC would get to appoint one member. The city would also appoint an arts and culture officer, a new position, to lead the effort.
Two weeks later, Terrell was named president of the Arts & Science Council.
ASC Historical Funding Sources
Public and Private Sector (2006-2022)
In August 2021, after a national search, the city hired Sircar as its inaugural arts and culture officer. Her familiarity with the city was a plus, but she also had a résumé full of skills and experiences the sector needed. At the Knight Foundation, she was already developing a funding model tailored to Charlotte. Before that, as a consultant with Lord Cultural Resources, she helped organizations and communities craft cultural identities, something this town conspicuously lacks.
But before both of those roles, Sircar was a master’s student in arts administration at Columbia University in New York. In one of her first classes, surrounded by fellow fresh-faced idealists, she learned a lesson she still thinks about often.
The arts, her professor explained, will always lose the competition of sorrows. There are so many urgent causes, and the arts don’t carry the emotional valence of, say, animal abuse or childhood disease. Put another way, the arts are funded through philanthropy, not charity, which poses a unique challenge for arts administrators who want to secure sustainable funding. In the 1980s, there was a national advocacy effort to recast the arts as critical drivers of economic development. And it’s true, Sircar says, the arts do generate tourism and income.
“But something that’s happened for at least the last 20 years and possibly longer is a shift toward only thinking about economic development,” Sircar says. “So there was a backlash.” All this economic development talk, arts administrators reasoned, didn’t help their cause much. Lack of funding remained a constant challenge, and that holy grail—sustainability—still eluded them. That was certainly true in Charlotte: Per capita arts funding was cratering. The city’s growth over the last couple of decades made it impossible for arts organizations to keep up. “The arts and culture sector,” Eiselt says, “was starving for funds.”
So, if the promise of economic development alone doesn’t get money in the door, what does? Lately, Sircar says, arts administrators have shifted back toward a focus on art for art’s sake. They can’t put all their eggs in the economic-development basket or the art-for-art’s-sake basket. That’s a bit of a simplification, she adds. The sector needs to go further and holistically analyze its role. “In more recent years,” she says, “there has been an effort to make it a more nuanced conversation about what’s valuable about arts and culture in community.”
Sircar’s job is to lead that conversation in Charlotte. The discussion has progressed for a while, never more loudly than in 2019, when the ballot included a referendum on a quarter-cent sales tax to fund arts, parks, and education. The tax would have earmarked $22.5 million per year for local arts. But it didn’t pass. Terrell blames a rushed campaign and vague wording on the ballot, determined by the General Assembly. Her takeaway is that voters want to support the arts, but not through a sales tax.
Eiselt agrees that the community wants to support the arts, but she argues that voters didn’t know where their money would go: “They didn’t know what the plan was. Who would spend the money? Who would be in charge of the money? Well, they knew who was going to spend the money—it would be the county—but there was no plan on how it was going to be spent.” (Terrell says there was a plan but acknowledges that it may not have been clear to voters.)
In November 2019, two weeks after the referendum failed, ASC cut four staff positions, which accounted for 15% of the nonprofit’s annual salary budget. The move exemplifies the volatility and year-to-year uncertainty that haunt the sector—and that was before the pandemic.
The national arts nonprofit Americans for the Arts has collected data from almost 20,000 arts organizations to estimate the toll COVID has taken since March 13, 2020. Sixty-six percent expect “severe financial impact.” Nationwide, total losses across the sector top $1.7 billion. “We were the sector that was the first to go dark when COVID happened,” Terrell recalls. “I’ll never forget, Charlotte Ballet was supposed to open Sleeping Beauty on Friday the 13th, and they had to shut it down.”
Since then, Sircar says, sector leaders have reconsidered whether sustainability is the best goal. “Something about that word implies that there’s no fluctuation,” she says. The pandemic demonstrated—in dramatic fashion—the value of adaptability. The new buzzword is “resilience.”
“I know the goal of this three-year plan is to get to a dedicated revenue stream,” Terrell says. And though she questions the methods, she supports the goal. ASC is now, Terrell says, a resource and partner to Sircar and the advisory board as they work to distribute $4.4 million to artists and cultural organizations before the fiscal year ends on June 30.
While the city’s three-year initiative is intended to bring flexible, lasting strength to the sector, Sircar and the arts advisory board still have to figure out what that looks like. The public-private commitment to boost funding to $12 million per year helps stanch the damage, but no one knows what the new model will look like, let alone how sustainable it will be.
That’s where the comprehensive cultural plan comes in. Sircar credits ASC for developing cultural plans for the city. (In 2013, for example, the organization participated in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Cultural Life Task Force, which sought community input and analyzed the public-private partnership.) But the landscape has changed fast, and Sircar looks forward to a conversation that addresses Charlotte’s growth-spurt challenges, including how to support everyone from individual artists to small community organizations to uptown’s heavy hitters. “It’s not just about the plan that results,” she says. “It’s about the process itself.”
Sircar is keen to encourage more collaboration among artists, legacy institutions, and small organizations. For example, she cites the Mint Museum’s 2021 exhibit “It Takes a Village,” produced in partnership with BlkMrktClt, Brand the Moth, and Goodyear Arts. One point that emerges again and again in feedback from stakeholders is that it can be hard for artists to make a living here, which reinforces the need for a plan that not only gets heads in beds but also puts food on the table for the city’s artists.
Soon after Sircar moved to Historic West End with her husband and young daughter in 2021, she attended a BOOM Festival event. The full festival was on hiatus thanks to COVID, but the organizers put on a half-day event at the Sailboat Bay apartment complex in east Charlotte, a venue intended to engage an underserved area. Neighborhood kids helped the organizers set up in the morning. A performer invited Sircar’s daughter and other children onstage to dance and play music as part of the act. Those few hours reiterated what’s at stake.
The arts, after all, speak to something more fundamental than making a buck for the city. Eiselt describes how she took a train when she was young to visit the King Tut exhibit at Art Institute Chicago. More than the exhibit itself, she remembers standing in line with people from different backgrounds. Their shared excitement lingers in her memory; the joy and wonder remind her what cultural events are capable of.
Like the archaeologists who excavated Tut’s tomb, if you dig past the bureaucratic bickering, the quarter-cent sales tax, the boards and committees, you’ll unearth why it all matters: The arts provide an outlet to kids who don’t feel at home in other subjects. They teach us how to be human, then they teach us again in a thousand different ways. They are a fathomless source of solace, community, and belonging. “The arts,” Eiselt says, “change people’s lives.”
ALLISON BRADEN is a contributing editor.