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Leadership and the Arts

by Hugh L. McColl, Jr.

Leadership and the Arts

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Picture by Chris Cureton

November 3, 2011

When I moved to Charlotte in 1959, Charlotte was a small city of less than 200,000 people. We had some medium-sized businesses, a few parks, good churches and nice neighborhoods. The town was pretty quiet after working hours.

We had the Charlotte Symphony, which was founded in 1932, and which performed at Ovens Auditorium when Jane and I arrived in town. But I would not say that the city by and large had what you would call a thriving arts community or culture. To the contrary – for the most part, our little city was a nice place, but a pretty dull place.

Even ten years later, when we tore down the old Kress building on the southeast corner of Trade and Tryon to build the new Plaza building, I would come uptown with my kids after dinner and sit on the curb – feet in the street – to watch the demolition. That was our entertainment.

Today, all the people of the Charlotte region – more than a million of us, some who have been here for a long time, and many who have arrived over the years – can take credit for having built a great American city. Over the past 50 years, we have worked diligently, planned thoughtfully, invested generously and cheered loudly as we watched Charlotte take its place among the nation’s most vibrant, exciting, optimistic places to live. We all have contributed, and benefitted.

That’s the upside of what we have today – the opportunity to feel good about what we’ve done, to be thankful for those who came before, and to enjoy living, working, playing, praying and raising our families in a great city. Good for us.

But there also is a downside to how far we’ve come. That is the temptation to believe that all the hard work has been done. That there is little left of great meaning or consequence to do. That we have arrived, and therefore no longer need strong, motivated, inspirational leadership from all sectors of our community to lead us in big pursuits, or in the taking on of great challenges.

This downside risk is, of course, exacerbated by the economic downturn, which by definition puts stress on resources, both human and financial. It also is made worse by the changed relationship Charlotte has with its two rich uncles (Bank of America and Wells Fargo), neither of which is quite as rich as it used to be, and both of which now have global organizations to tend, far away from here. So there are plenty of reasons to worry about where capital – leadership capital and financial capital – will come from in the future.

The good news is that in most cases involving critical needs over the past several years, our community has stepped up without hesitation. We have funded Crisis Assistance Ministries, built a new homeless shelter, continued to improve our public schools and kept most of our major non-profit organizations afloat. Achieving these goals, given the impact on our economy from the financial crisis, has been a great challenge. We should feel good about our success.

And yet, there is one sector of our community that is suffering greatly, and to which we have not rallied support. It is a part of our community that we have built over the past 80 years through great vision, sacrifice, investment and belief in its power to transform lives. I am speaking of our arts community. Today, for many reasons, our arts community is hurting, and at least one major institution, The Charlotte Symphony, is in danger of insolvency. The symphony’s new leadership team is creating momentum with programming changes and a major funding initiative – but if significant help does not come soon, the symphony will disappear, taking much of our city’s arts community with it.

Protecting our cultural investment

Billy Wireman, the late president of Queens University, used to say, “We live in houses we did not build, and reap from fields we did not sow,” paraphrasing Joshua. This is true for all of us, in one sense or another, in every generation.

The question at hand is, will this generation of Charlotte’s leaders – those now in their 30s, 40s and 50s – tend to and care for and invest in the cultural resources others built up? Or will these institutions and cultural treasures wither, or disappear completely? The symphony, for example, is currently operating at an annual, structural deficit of about $2 million. The Arts & Science Council’s annual fundraising is about half of what it was at its peak. Dozens of smaller organizations are in similarly dire financial circumstances.

Once gone, they will not easily come back. These are not luxuries that we can neglect in hard times, and reclaim when the economy recovers. Artists need stability, more so than most others, because the arts economy is inherently unpredictable. Let it go once, and we will wait generations before the national arts community will trust us with their careers and livelihoods again. It is not an overstatement to say that decades of work and investment are at stake.

And it’s not just the big institutions that are at risk. The presence of our large arts organizations feeds our entire arts community, down to the grassroots organizations that take root in our neighborhoods, to the arts programs staffed by volunteers in our schools, to summer arts camps for our children and more. It all starts with having professional artists living in our community, and extends to the thousands of part-time and amateur artists who have decided to live here in part because they are attracted to the arts community we’ve built.

It is important to remember that this is not simply about the arts, or about whether any one individual personally enjoys classical music, or dance, or opera. Support for the arts is as much an economic question as a cultural one. It is a question for everyone who lives here, does business here and wants a vibrant, thriving, forward-looking economy in which to build a business or earn a living. Support for the arts – or a lack of it – sends a strong signal to people, businesses and investors about the strength of our vision for our city, and whether they want to join us.

A new model for civic leadership

We’ve had plenty of discussion in recent years about who is going to replace the “city fathers” of the previous generation, all of whom are dead or dying. I’m in the second category, but going about it slowly.

My view is that we should not look for a new group of half a dozen or so CEOs to drive development and fundraising decisions for the entire city. That model worked in the ’70s and ’80s, but it won’t work now – and it shouldn’t. Charlotte is too large and diverse for a small group of business leaders to wield that much power.

Nor can we depend on our large corporations to ride to the rescue. Our large companies are part of the community, and will do their part. But the dynamic we enjoyed in the past, when two global banks headquartered here competed aggressively on a daily basis for the affections of the city – my gift is bigger than your gift – no longer exists. Our large corporations no longer dominate our economic, political, social and cultural landscape the way they did 20 or 30 years ago. Just as our population has grown larger and more diverse, so has our business community.

Today, Charlotte is different, and we need a different model of citywide civic leadership. We need a new generation of leaders to step up and create a new leadership model to solve big challenges. I don’t know what that model looks like – it may involve a couple dozen prime movers, or hundreds or thousands of leaders from across all our industries and civic sectors – or both. It could be built on personal interactions and relationships, or facilitated by social media.

The bottom line is, we need a new generation of leaders – successful Charlotteans at the peak of their energy and ambition – to come forward, take the reins and figure it out. If you are reading this article, I am very likely referring to you.

The future starts now

We all know this is not the easiest time to launch a campaign to raise funds for the arts. Generous people across Charlotte have been giving more out of less for four years now to support churches, hospitals, non-profits and public institutions of all kinds. No doubt many of our citizens are suffering from “giving fatigue.” That’s understandable, especially if one takes the view that we are mired in an endless economic malaise.

But if you believe, as I do, that we are digging our way out of our economic troubles, and that, ultimately, American ingenuity, determination and optimism will once again generate rising prosperity here in Charlotte and around the country, then you understand the wisdom of investing in and preserving the city’s cultural resources now. In fact, continuing to invest in vital cultural institutions is one of the most important ways to help drive the economic recovery.

My parents faced difficult economic challenges raising their family in the 1930s. But they believed in a better future, and kept on investing in the things they knew were important for their community and their children. One of those things was the arts.

The arts are critical to the economic vitality of our cities. They are aesthetically appealing and thought provoking. They teach us to understand one another, and they temper our tendency to treat one another with stark brutality. They are a catalyst for learning and appreciating what is beautiful about the human spirit. And they inspire within us compassion and thoughtfulness.

To build a community in which we all hope to live with one another in peace and prosperity, there should be a vast body of art within the reach of everybody. The arts should offer the benefits of artists’ inspiration to everybody. And we should expect support for the arts to come from everybody – individuals, businesses and the public at large.

Now is the time for today’s generation of successful Charlotteans to step up and ask what role they – I mean, you – want to play in the leadership of our city generally, and in the work of saving the arts community specifically. Put another way, what are you prepared to do to help write the next chapter in the story of our great city?

Call your friends and business partners. Organize a campaign. Communicate urgently. Don’t wait for the city fathers – they are going, or gone. The city is calling out for new leadership. What I ask is this: Answer the call. You’ll be glad you did – and future generations of Charlotteans will be grateful.

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