Why This Matters: ASC celebrates its 60th anniversary this year. For six decades, ASC has listened to Charlotte-Mecklenburg residents and leveraged public and private resources to respond to the cultural needs of the community.
By Robert Bush
This month, on October 8th to be exact, ASC will celebrate the 60th anniversary of its founding as the Charlotte Arts Fund. In that first year, we supported eight local arts and science organizations – all of which still are alive and bring great programming to the community.
We were founded in 1958 by leaders from the Chamber of Commerce based on a model invented up the road in Winston-Salem, where The Arts Council (that is still its name) was established as the first community arts council in the U.S. in 1948.
ASC’s founding happened before large number of communities across the country, outside of major urban centers, figured out that supporting the arts benefitted the quality of life of residents and served as an economic engine. That changed in 1965, with the founding of the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting – all part of the Great Society efforts of President Lyndon Johnson to give Americans the opportunity to participate in the arts and humanities, exercise their imaginations and develop their creative capacities.
Until 1974, the Charlotte Arts Fund (under several other names) continued to grow and support the local cultural community, primarily as a fundraiser. It was then that the Chamber of Commerce, the City of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County decided that Charlotte needed a new economic development tool to set us apart from our competitor cities.
But how do you differentiate yourself when you’re hours away from the ocean and the mountains and you don’t have (at the time) any major professional sports teams? You invest in arts and science, which is exactly what Charlotte-Mecklenburg did. The investment was guided by a cultural plan created through citizen input in 1975 and the results changed Charlotte – the plan not only reinvented the Arts Fund into the ASC we know today but more importantly brought us:
- Spirit Square
- Discovery Place
- Blumenthal Performing Arts
- The Afro-American Cultural Center (now the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture)
- An urban artist colony (now the McColl Center for Art + Innovation)
- An uptown branch of the Mint Museum.
In 1991, ASC once again reached out to the community to help define its cultural future. Again, residents were bold – calling for increased private and public funding, new efforts to raise endowment funds and a focus on the diversity of the boards and staff of organizations receiving funding. Perhaps the most controversial recommendation was a plan to privatize the Mint Museum – then the only cultural group that was a department of city government. The community embraced these recommendations and all were achieved by 1996.
And then, the national culture wars came to Charlotte in 1996 with the now-defunct Charlotte Repertory Theatre’s production of “Angels in America.” The nation, and world, took note, as did thousands of local residents. ASC temporarily lost county funding because it provided operating support to Charlotte Repertory; however, by 1998, ASC’s county funding was restored and, based on the new 1998 ASC community planning effort, city, county and private funding increased with a focus on adding history and heritage to ASC’s mission, as well as a focus on cultural tourism and expanding funding to community-based programming and support for individual artists.
ASC didn’t stop listening to and learning from residents and, by 2004, ASC had completed the Cultural Facilities Master Plan that gave us:
- Levine Center for the Arts, home of the Mint Uptown, Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, the Harvey B. Gantt Center of Afro-American Art + Culture and the Knight Theatre
- A complete renovation of Discovery Place and all new exhibitions.
The work on recommendations from that plan continues to this day. By 2006, ASC completed cultural plans for North Mecklenburg towns Cornelius, Davidson and Huntersville and South Meck towns Matthews, Mint Hill and Pineville – all providing the framework for our continue work across Mecklenburg County.
In 2014, ASC completed the most recent community planning effort – Imagine 2025: A Vision for Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s 21st Century Cultural Development, which helped inform the Cultural Life Task Force recommendations for changes ASC can implement to best serve Charlotte-Mecklenburg in the 21st century and how the funding platform for local arts, science and history needs to be reinvented. This work is driving ASC’s current efforts, including our focus on building community; supporting innovative and relevant programming for our changing (and growing) population; and ensuring every child has access to participate in the amazing cultural community we have built.
Yes, ASC is 60 years strong because of our ability to listen and respond. If there’s a key takeaway from our milestone birthday, it’s this: Our cultural community has been built and sustained through the partnership of our private and public sectors and based on the visions articulated by our residents.