By Bernie Petit
The Cultural Vision Plan laid out Charlotte-Mecklenburg residents’ expectation that the cultural community connect people and strengthen community by providing access to relevant, educational and diverse arts and cultural experiences to all residents.
The question left unanswered was ‘how can we pay for this vision when our cultural community has not recovered from the 2008 recession’.
The Cultural Life Task Force, a joint effort between our local private and public sector funders, provided the roadmap for sustaining the cultural sector so that it can move towards fulfilling that community goal.
Now, the Arts & Science Council (ASC) is tasked with implementing the recommendations and visions offered by the two plans. Doing so, said ASC President Robert Bush, will mean revitalizing the public/private partnership that has been central to building and growing our cultural community.
It is why ASC, the community’s chief advocate for arts, science, history and heritage, has requested funding increases from the City of Charlotte, Mecklenburg County and the towns of Cornelius, Davidson, Huntersville, Matthews, Mint Hill and Pineville. The requests focus on increasing the per capita to serve the growing population.
“The requests that we have made—even the dollar amounts—were specifically recommended by the task force,” Bush said. “We have also been very specific in what these dollars would fund. This isn’t just a ‘give us more money and we’ll decide’ kind of thing.”
Because changes the N.C. Legislature made to the business privilege tax mean reductions in funding for local governments, ASC has provided the towns and the city a stepped-in approach to achieve the task force’s recommended level of funding over a three- to five-year period.
For fiscal year 2016, the requested increases amount to a combined $39,200 more in unrestricted funds from the towns (from $72,500 in FY 2015 to $111,700), $350,000 more from the city (from $2.9 million to $3.2 million) and $2 million from the county, which last gave ASC unrestricted funding in 2011 (it provided $350,000 in restricted funds in FY 2015).
Half of the requested increased funds from Mecklenburg County would support education initiatives that restore and stabilize field trips, allow elementary schools to use the arts to improve reading, expand or reestablish middle school music programs and establish out-of-school time arts, science and history programs across the county.
The remainder would go to support neighborhood arts programming, providing cultural exhibitions and performances in parks and libraries and transforming the services the cultural sector provides to the community.
“These are all things that align with the county’s priorities in building this community for the future,” Bush said. “We have taken similar steps with the city and the towns so that the cultural services provided are the ones their communities want.”
The task force called for the additional public sector support to be matched by the private sector. That is happening, with the Thrive Campaign—comprised of a small group of corporate and individual donors and foundations—having already raised $42.5 million of its $45 million goal to help major cultural institutions transform their business models and produce their work more cost-effectively.
The campaign, which is completely separate from ASC, is led by Hugh McColl.
“Thrive money is about building the capacity of our major institutions so they can reach their highest potential to serve the community in new ways and we are excited that the Thrive group has done this,” Bush said. “But those dollars are not flowing through ASC. They are a totally separate fund, and we need to keep raising the dollars we have been raising so that ASC can invest in the cultural sector.”
Thrive donors have been clear in saying they expect the public sector to match their efforts to reinvigorate the public/private partnership that led to the establishment of Spirit Square, The Afro-American Cultural Center (now the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture), Discovery Place and Blumenthal Performing Arts in the 1970s and 80s.
“We’ve built this big infrastructure,” Bush said. “The problem we have now is that the system that we built this on put ASC between the donor and the groups and we’ve got to change that. The groups have to build deep relationships with people that love what they do, and we’ve got to provide a stable highway to get to that new system.”
It’s a challenging time for local governments, but “every year we wait to make this shift, the deeper the hole gets and we get closer to the point where we may lose some of our beloved institutions,” Bush said.
The loss of any more of our longtime cultural organizations would be detrimental to the community, Bush said. But he said it shouldn’t come to that.
“The arts, science and history programs we have in this community are a view to a different world for many people and they are the path to give people a future and a place of hope,” he said. “It’s not just about entertainment. It’s about inspiring people to think differently about their lives.
“It’s about inspiring young people to be serious about their education. It’s about ensuring that this is a joyful place to live, work, raise a family and play. It’s about the cultural sector being a critical economic and tourism driver, and I firmly believe that this community has the ability to make all of this happen and everything else and that it’s time that we all stand up and together for the cultural sector that impacts the quality of life of residents and visitors.”