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Improbable Pair

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December 9,2010

Sitting at the counter in my kitchen I have a perfect view of my favorite artwork. Charley Harper's Improbable Pair depicts a calico cat sitting atop a droopy-eared beagle, both enjoying each other’s companionship. The reason I love this piece is not only the brilliant and unmistakable artistry of Charley Harper, but the ideal that two seemingly opposing beings can find meaning in each other’s company, resulting in an outcome that is greater than the two independent parts.

As a society we are captivated by the idea of the lone entrepreneur or solitary leader. But truth be told, some of the greatest social triumphs and business innovations of our time were developed by harnessing the power of unlikely partners. Would the defeat of the Third Reich in World War II have been possible without the alliance of Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill? How might the consumer goods business be different if a candlemaker and a soapmaker hadn’t been introduced through the sisters they married, leading to the formation of Proctor & Gamble? One doesn’t need to look far to find local examples as well.

When the bold campaign to erect a new cultural campus on South Tryon was first launched in 2006 by the Arts & Science Council (ASC), the formula for success seemed failsafe. A public private partnership would be formed leveraging public dollars to pay for the construction of the new facilities and Charlotte’s “rich uncles,” as Hugh McColl is fond of saying, would lead a private fundraising campaign to endow the ongoing operations of the new buildings. Two years later and amidst a faltering economy, one of the most ambitious fundraising campaigns this community had ever undertaken stood $20 million short of its $83 million goal with no obvious solution at hand.

However, the leadership of this campaign looked beyond the obvious. Leon and Sandra Levine, unwavering champions and superhero funders of healthcare, human services, and education, were generous philanthropists but not surefire lead donors to a cultural center. Wachovia/Wells Fargo, driven by the desire to successfully complete a project in which they had invested great time and resources, presented an unlikely and generous offer: they would give up the naming rights of the cultural campus if a donor stepped forward to close the fundraising gap. Motivated by the transformative nature of this project, the Levines gave the largest individual gift ever given to a cultural project in Charlotte, successfully completing the Levine Center for the Arts.

Given this success, I have recently spent a fair amount of time pondering the significance of improbable pairs. What chance meeting or rare connection could produce the next big innovation or eureka moment that will propel our community forward? Like the Levine Center for the Arts, can the pressure of the economy actually help our community produce innovations that simply would not happen in normal times? Are we spending enough time and energy investing in transformative collaborations?

Looking to the New Year, my number one priority for the ASC is to actively seek out answers to these important questions. Answers that we know can only be found by listening carefully to our community needs and challenging ourselves to think of new pathways to success – no matter how unorthodox they may seem.  To that end, ASC is undertaking an in-depth community conversation that will probe important questions about how the cultural community can better align to our region’s goals and priorities. Building on ASC’s rich history of successful cultural planning, we seek to create a framework that can foster creative solutions to our region’s economic, educational, and environmental challenges.

Charlotte is at a significant crossroads. Decisions made now will define not just our future economic prosperity but the spirit and soul of our city. Arts, science, and history have been at the heart of how civilized societies process and reflect on their actions and develop solutions to their most pressing needs. Let’s challenge ourselves to use the cultural resources and brainpower in our region to help us ask the right questions, think differently about our path forward, and seek out the next improbable pair that will lead us to more inspiring community breakthroughs.

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