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O Art - Wherefore Art Thou

by David Tang

June 6,2007

Before coming to Charlotte in 1996, I vividly remember a former Charlotte artist saying to me: “Sure, Charlotteans support the arts; just don’t make ‘em go.” Eleven years later, in 2007, I must admit that, when asked about “the arts in Charlotte,” I still give the very same assessment.

What is “ART?” To discuss (and distinguish with capital letters) The Arts, Art, Artist, etc… let us define the Arts as “those forms of creative expression, traditionally acknowledged by western societies as art.” The largest recipients of Arts funding from the Arts & Science Council (this would EXCLUDE historical and scientific recipients) provide a vivid and somewhat traditional snapshot of these Arts: The Charlotte Symphony, Mint Museums, Arts Teach, N.C. Dance Theatre,Opera Carolina, Children’s Theatre.

CHARLOTTEANS SUPPORT THE ARTS: In my opinion, for a place of Charlotte’s size and “ilk,” these “Big Six” (along with most of the other ASC organizations) enjoy relatively good health, appropriately sized budgets, and produce work of reasonable artistic integrity. Some are consistently good, but not great, while others provide decidedly mixed results; but the bottom line is that when people ask, I do honestly say, “Sure, Charlotteans support the arts…

“...JUST DON’T MAKE ‘EM GO.” Problems arise when one asks Charlotte’s Artists whether THEY feel supported enough (with money, time and appreciation) to do their best work. In my experience, the overwhelming majority of them do not.

One of the major reasons why I believe that “people don’t want to go,” is that the Arts have become somewhat irrelevant to today’s society. It is EXTREMELY important to note that Charlotte is not uniquely unsympathetic to the Arts; the Arts struggle everywhere to survive (let alone generate new and enthusiastic support). The reasons for the global irrelevance of the Arts are too numerous and complex to explore here, but I truly believe that the Arts don’t seem to matter much – not here, not anywhere.

However, I maintain that Charlotte Artists’ woes are compounded because our city is profoundly disconnected as a whole. We Charlotteans come here from all over the world to chase our dreams, then frantically struggle in our “silos,” largely ignoring anyone or anything outside of our work environments, families, religious affiliations, neighborhoods, etc… Charlotte’s silos are so fragmented and disconnected that a 2001 Harvard study ranked Charlotte 39th out of 40 U.S. cities, in “Social Capital” (read inter-racial / inter-community trust). Given our limited size, and this profoundly 21st century detachment, I believe that the Arts struggle here harder than they might elsewhere.

WHEREFORE ART THOU? However, in every Charlotte silo, there are numerous individuals who make (at least by my definition) real art: “that which results from fully engaged creativity.” Many are not acknowledged as Artists, but to my mind, Charlotte’s truly creative individuals include Bruton Smith, Harvey Gantt, Hugh McColl, John P. Kee, James McMillan, C.D. Spangler, Cliff Cameron, Bill Lee and many other visionary leaders who enjoy no support from the ASC.  For better or worse, THEIR creations (e.g. Bank of America and NASCAR), despite making much greater positive impact on Charlotte than the Arts, are becoming increasingly detached from many Charlotteans as their global impact increases.

SO, WHAT NEXT? To my mind, Charlotte has a remarkable, yet rapidly closing window of opportunity to grow from a “world class city” into an entirely rare and special place – one that is inclusive, equitable and accessible to all; one that acknowledges and embraces the distinctive characteristics of our differences and maximizes our local talent, technology and regional resources. Such a place will foster fully engaged, creative collaboration between its leaders, then all of its citizens, and as such, will become nothing less than a true work of art.

To become this rare society, more Charlotteans must better engage the arts as incredibly powerful bridge-building tools, and if the Arts want to play a significant role in turning our region into a work of art, we Artists must engage our community far better than we have in the past. Together, we must reinvent what we do and how we do it if we are to reach, engage and better the lives of ALL Charlotteans.

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