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Charlotte - Greater and More Beautiful

by Susan Burgess

December 3,2004

Greetings from Indianapolis, where I am attending the National League of Cities annual conference and really paying attention to the details of this meeting. Next year around this time, 7000 City Council members and Mayors from all over the nation will convene in Charlotte. From my Indy hotel window, I see a beautiful, vibrant center city, with museums, a large retail mall, facilities for every conceivable professional sport, a large convention center, old important looking government buildings, many other restored buildings, parks, and interesting, inspiring public art. Monuments are everywhere, commemorating people and events meaningful to these Hoosiers. I’m told there are more monuments here than any American city, except for Washington, DC. I like them. I also see lots of people dashing around day and night in the cold misty wind, colorful scarves blowing behind them.

I try to imagine what my colleagues will see next year during their visit to the Queen City. Our center city is vibrant, too, with probably more residential, but much less retail; more shiny new buildings, but less preserved history than Indianapolis. We have museums like Discovery Place, which is, as much as I love it, beginning to be a little out-dated; our new awesome arena; churches; underused and undersized parks; and hopefully, clear Carolina blue skies. What is missing in our city is public art that is fun, memorable and that adds color, interest and maybe a little funkiness. This gap is something we will have an opportunity to fill if we stay firm to our commitment to the 1% set-aside for public art.

In 2003, the Charlotte City Council passed a policy that committed 1% of the budgets of publicly funded projects to the creation and installation of public art. The vote was unanimous and celebrated. The process adopted was one that attempts to keep politics and politicians out of the selection to avoid the “Gumby” debacle of the 1980s, when radio disc jockeys ridiculed the Joel Shapiro sculpture selected by the Arts and Science Council to be placed at the Charlotte Coliseum. The City Council at the time intervened and killed the Shapiro project, which was ultimately replaced by round holly bushes. Joel Shapiro has since become a renowned sculptor, whose Coliseum work would have quadrupled in value and would have most probably been moved to our new arena. The Public Arts Commission, made up of art-savvy volunteers and appointed by the Mayor and Council, is charged with the selection and contracting with artists to invest our 1% set-aside.

This arrangement has worked swimmingly until Mayor McCrory decided he didn’t like the Andrew Leicester work commissioned for the new arena by the Public Arts Commission. After instructing the Chair of the Commission not to sign any more contracts, he added the entire program to our agenda for review. Of course, the Mayor has no power to intervene in a Council approved process, but he does indeed have the power to add the issue to the agenda, so the whole public art issue is now again before us, unfortunately. I am hopeful that our citizens will encourage the City Council to “stay the course” in our commitment to public art. This commitment is essential for Charlotte to mature into a beautiful, progressive city.

Not only do we need new public art, we need a more comprehensive, long range arts and culture vision and plan to fund, build, manage and enjoy this aspect of our city life. The Cultural Arts Task Force will soon report their recommendations for our city to do just that. I encourage all of our citizens to join the Council in studying options and embracing a commitment to implement our plan.

This morning the president of the National League of Cities, Charlie Lyons, gave his swan song speech. He ended it with the words of the Athenian Code. I believe its words hold relevance in our city today. So repeat after me,

”We will never bring disgrace on this our City by an act of dishonesty or cowardice. We will fight for the ideals and Sacred Things of the City both alone and with many….We will strive increasingly to quicken the public’s sense of civic duty. Thus in all these ways we will transmit this City, not only not less, but greater and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.”

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