2021 Candidate Questionnaire – Town of Matthews

Get ready for Election Day and meet the candidates running for office in Matthews. 

Each candidate running for election in 2021 in the Town of Matthews was provided a five-question survey to complete and share their position on arts and culture. Below are the verbatim responses we received, grouped by question.  


Renee Garner, running for Commissioner, Town of Matthews. Candidate Larry Whitley did not submit a photo.


1. Personal Perspective 

Can you tell us about a time arts, science, or history helped you connect with your community? 

RENEE GARNER: Before the pandemic hit, Matthews Playhouse invited the town council to participate in Mama Mia with a short cameo as the priest at the wedding. I’m not a spotlight kind of person, but I volunteered. Having the opportunity to see what happens backstage and getting to know the actors and the staff of the Playhouse created a deeper appreciation for the theater community. Beyond that, I saw firsthand the joy a play brings to the audience and began to understand how a play can bond the audience to one another through the experience of emotion. A few simple lines made me believe in the Playhouse even more and helped me to understand how essential the creative process is in community building.

LARRY WHITLEY: Yes arts, science has help me with keeping Matthews up to date with the times that we are living in race justice for all. Black Lives Matter 

2. Arts & Culture Priorities

ASC’s 2020 Community Priorities Survey, conducted in partnership with UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, gathered input from over 1,900 county residents reflecting a wide range of community voices (racial, ethnic, age, socioeconomic, geography, etc.). The top priority for both North (41%) and South (37%) Mecklenburg residents was support for nonprofit arts, science, and history organizations to ensure sustained, high-quality programs and community outreach. Other top responses include celebrating diverse cultures and neighborhoods and using arts, science, and history programming as a tool to address complex community issues. Further, the Imagine 2025 Cultural Vision Planincluded Town Hall visioning sessions that found that North and South Mecklenburg residents rated their desire for activities closer to home at a very high level, 88% and 86% respectively. 

Entering Fiscal Year 2022, the City of Charlotte overhauled its approach to cultural funding, divesting from ASC and partnering with Foundation For The Carolinas and Charlotte’s private sector to “restore the health of uptown Charlotte” and provide “cultural and educational opportunities for visitors to Charlotte as well as residents” (Charlotte Business Journal, May 3, 2021).  As a result, ASC ended its largest grant making program, Operating Support grants that supported large, mid-sized and small organizations (including Carolina Raptor Center, Davidson Community Players, Matthews Playhouse of the Performing Arts, and Mint Hill Arts).  While the city creates its cultural plan, a commitment has been made by the city to fund those groups for this fiscal year.  It is important to understand that ASC will continue to support those organizations, along with new and emerging groups and creative individuals, through other ASC grant programs and capacity building efforts. To learn more about Artist Support Grants, Cultural Vision Grants, Culture Blocks, Emerging Creators and Creative Renewal Fellowships, School Funding Opportunities (currently on hold due to public funding cuts), and Technical Assistance Grants, click here.

ASC’s aim is to serve all residents of Mecklenburg County, the city of Charlotte and the six suburban towns, by providing free, high quality cultural programming that is diverse, relevant, resident-informed, and available to all. We intentionally center community, start with partnership (create with, not for), and advocate for equitable distribution of government funds. In each of the six towns, ASC cultivates experiences and cultural programs that engage residents, increase access, and foster community. 

How will you work to creatively address community issues, celebrate our culturally diverse neighborhoods, and bring cultural activities closer to home? What are your arts and culture priorities for your town, and how do you intend to pursue those priorities if elected? (ex: advocate for increased investment, attend cultural events or Culture Blocks programs, volunteer to sit on a grant review panel, or connect with your town’s appointees to ASC’s Advisory Councils) 

RENEE GARNER: I was impressed with the public art program through the Town of Matthews’ Parks and Rec Department from Day 1. The department is constantly finding new murals and programs to make arts, science, and history accessible. I’m committed to enabling the department to continue growing their programs. Arts naturally build community through pride of place while offering a common language that brings entire communities together.   By sitting on the ASC Board of Directors and the South/East Advisory Council, I’ve been engaged in a hands-on way to advocate for the southern towns of Mecklenburg County.  During the past term I’ve advocated for more ASC funding from the southern towns and I will continue to push for this. We can use tourism funds (a bucket of funds we can only use for specific items and programs) which makes the investment even more enticing.

LARRY WHITLEY: I all ready do as Commissioner very involved and supported with arts, science in Matthews. 

3. Commitment to Cultural Equity 

Community Ties: Understanding What Attaches People to the Place Where They Live, an in-depth study published by the Knight Foundation and Urban Institute in May 2020, reports that a community’s residents’ access to arts and culture not only boosts feelings of satisfaction and lifestyle fit, but also correlates with greater investment of time and resources in that community. This investment metric includes participation in local activities, attending public meetings, owning a home or local business, donating, and volunteering. 

Easy access to arts and cultural activities is reported by people in low-income households less frequently (67%) than by those in high-income households (78%). Additionally, only 64% of African American residents and 66% of Hispanic residents report easy access to arts and culture, compared to 74% of white residents and other racial and ethnic groups. In the Charlotte-Mecklenburg metropolitan area, arts and cultural activities are perceived as the fourth most difficult quality feature to access in our community, after affordable housing, transit options, and job opportunities. 

ASC recognizes that systemic, inequitable access to opportunity has led to generations of unjust outcomes for those who have been historically marginalized in mainstream arts and cultural funding, discourse, leadership and resource allocation. We strongly encourage all who serve or seek to serve our community to read ASC’s inauguralCultural Equity Report, which reflects the steps – and missteps – we have taken on our journey to becoming a more equitable organization and holding ourselves accountable to the community.  

How will you join ASC in actively addressing inequities in access to arts and culture? How do you view ASC’s equity work in alignment with your town’s goals around cultural equity? 

RENEE GARNER: Matthews has an interesting opportunity to investigate equity through the lens of a suburban town largely populated during periods of white flight. We have an opportunity to untangle this complex history through creative means, such as murals, Culture Feasts, and Culture Blocks.   As a member of the ASC Board of Directors, I’ve been able to understand ASC’s approach to equity and bring similar processes into the grant-making processes in Matthews.  I see opportunity within Matthews for more diverse representation, bringing creative efforts to areas outside of our downtown footprint, and working with ASC to ensure inclusivity in and beyond our arts, science-, and history-based programming.

LARRY WHITLEY: I believe that ASC play a great role in my town in making sure Cultural Equity for all people.   

4. COVID-19 Impact, Recovery and Renewal 

ASC’s 2020 COVID-19 impact survey showed that more than 90 percent of local artists have been negatively impacted by COVID-19 and experienced a loss of income. Charlotte-Mecklenburg arts and culture organizations receiving Operating Support through ASC experienced revenue losses between March 2020 and June 2021 totaling $49.7 million. Not only has the financial impact of COVID-19 on the sector restricted capacity to serve residents, it has also deeply impacted the livelihood of Mecklenburg’s creative workforce and the economic future of local creatives and cultural sector employees. 

Mecklenburg County’s COVID-19 Recovery and Renewal Task Force’s proposed recommended actionsinclude increasing support for artists and the organizations that support them (expand Culture Blocks funding for artist employment; community arts centers in challenged areas; increase ASC funding for arts equity, inclusion, access; develop strategy for artist housing), prioritizing cultural awareness (expanded diverse worker recruitment, cultural competency training, patient service and cultural survey, culturally based health education modules), and empowering people with information through health-themed neighborhood art. Other recommendations include expanded mental health support and resources for substance abuse treatment and care, both of which are community needs heightened by the pandemic and which ASC supports through cultural programming. 

As a town official, how will you consider, utilize, and support the workers of the cultural sector at this critical intersection of health, economy, and community? Which of the Mecklenburg COVID-19 Recovery and Renewal Task Force’s proposed recommendations align with your goals as a civic leader? 

RENEE GARNER: My family experienced the impact of COVID on the cultural sector first hand when my husband was laid off from a commercial photography studio. Unfortunately, many companies consider creatives to be expendable without realizing the tremendous roles we play in the workforce. We cannot support our creative community and gig workers without affordable housing, not only rental but for sale. The creative sector needs stability as well as businesses and elected leaders who understand their value and advocate for them. They need an organization like ASC to fill in the gaps that are often left in the freelance field.   On the municipal level, we have a unique opportunity through zoning to reiterate the needs of the cultural community, whether it’s affordable living space, incorporation of arts into development, or micro retail space for building creative businesses. We have to be careful and not overstep state laws, but there are plenty of opportunities for advocacy through zoning.

LARRY WHITLEY: I believe that as a town official we must support ASC with funds each year to address these problems. 

5. Per Capita Funding 

In 2014 the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Cultural Life Task Force developed research-based recommendations for specific actions to establish long-term support for and healthy growth of our community’s cultural sector. One of these recommendations was that Cornelius, Davidson, Huntersville, Matthews, Mint Hill and Pineville increase their investment in Arts & Science Council to $1.30 per capita. Analysis of municipal funding allocations in Fiscal Year 2018-2022 shows that the six towns’ average per capita annual investment in the work of ASC ranges from $1.06 per resident to five cents per resident (Davidson – $1.06, Matthews – $0.85, Pineville- $0.84, Mint Hill – $0.36, Cornelius – $0.22, Huntersville – $0.05). ASC is committed to serving residents in each corner of the County in a balanced, equitable manner, but receives objectively imbalanced funding support from town to town. 

To what extent do you support public funding of arts, science and history programs through town funding to the Arts & Science Council?  Will you support a plan to increase municipal funding for ASC’s work to $1 per town resident; why or why not? 

RENEE GARNER: Yes. In Matthews we can show the return of investment far exceeds $1 per resident through tourism and the increased quality of living. Per Capita Funding is a no-brainer during budget time.

LARRY WHITLEY: Strong support public funding so that ASC can keep up with the times.   

The following candidates up for election in the Town of Matthews did not submit a response: 

John F. Higdon, running for Mayor, Town of Matthews 

Danielle (Dani) Burnham, running for Commissioner, Town of Matthews 

Gina Hoover, running for Commissioner, Town of Matthews 

Heather Spicer Laws, running for Commissioner, Town of Matthews 

Ken McCool, running for Commissioner, Town of Matthews 

Mark Tofano running for Commissioner, Town of Matthews 

John R. Urban, running for Commissioner, Town of Matthews