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Q and A with Tom Gabbard

by Mark Peres

August 4,2005

What is the role and charge of the North Carolina Blumenthal Performing Arts Center?

The Center focuses on three primary tasks. First, we are managers of the community’s key performing arts facilities. Second, we are presenters who bring to Charlotte the best in the performing arts by filling niches in programming that are not already covered by local groups like the Symphony, Opera and Dance Theatre. Third, we’re educators who work with schools and adults to use the arts to improve learning and provide cultural enrichment.

Charlotte is a dynamic city with changing demographics. What challenge and opportunity does that present to you?

We’re blessed by a growing population and audience to serve. However, it’s a challenge to keep up with what the community needs from us. The region is becoming ethnically more diverse. There’s also been a large influx of young professionals. We must continuously look for ways to assure that our programs and services are relevant. With so many newcomers, we also have an important role in helping to create a sense of community. It’s not easy to “get connected” in a new city. Sharing a performance with neighbors and business associates can be immensely helpful to feeling part of this community.

What is the relationship between the NCBPAC and the Arts & Science Council? How would you assess the relationship?

The Center’s relationship with the ASC has not always been good. Some have argued that we should break off from the ASC since they feel we’d be more successful with our fund raising if we were independent. Thanks to the leadership of Lee Keesler, the new CEO of the ASC, we now work very well together. We get a relatively small amount of money from the ASC, barely 1% of our budget. There’s a misconception that the ASC’s funding supplies all the needs of arts groups rather just one small piece. Maybe our fund raising would be better on our own, however, it’s important to consider the big picture and the good the ASC does for the entire cultural scene of which we are a part.

Some believe that more basic city services should have priority for tax dollars over the proposed new arts and cultural facilities. What are your thoughts?

We need reasonable support of both to create a thriving city that people want to live and work in. The City has a good track record of partnership with the community to support arts and culture, and I hope that continues. However, our sense of civic pride shouldn’t lead us to think our efforts have been exceptional. I’d say they are about average for a growing city of this size. Charlotte’s thriving Center City is due to many things, but building and operating the Blumenthal clearly was one part of turning it around. When you consider Wachovia’s plan to either build a tower of $90 million without arts facilities, or a mixed use development of $300 million by adding the arts facilities, you can see how the arts encourage both a strong business climate and beneficial quality of life.

How would you describe the city’s approach to art? How would you like to see it evolve?

The arts are a little more “buttoned-up” in Charlotte, but I also see a strong interest in loosening up. As compared with other cities I’ve worked in, support for the arts is more about civic good than passion for the art itself. I don’t hear from people as often, pro or con, about the artistic elements of what we put on our stages. Audiences here are a little more “brand conscious.” People like to see things that have been successful elsewhere or have won awards. I’d love to see more support for new work and things that are created locally. However, for that to happen, we need to instill more pride in new and locally created-work, and have tolerance that it may not be perfect yet. I think we can make progress if we keep enriching the public’s understanding with more background information about what they’re seeing. Lastly, I’m thrilled to see a resurgence of interest in funkier, older facilities like Spirit Square that for awhile were out of favor as new buildings popped up. Diversity of spaces is healthy for us.

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