The Mint Museum of Art opened in October 1936. Over the next six months, more than 26,000 people visited North Carolina’s first art museum to see works by Rembrandt, Corot, Inness, Gainsborough, Reynolds, El Greco, and more, all on loan from the National Gallery of Art. (Alone among American art museums, The Mint opened without its own collection or a bequest to build one.) In her Charlotte Observer arts column about the opening, Marion Wright wrote, “It is hoped that the general public, through frequent visits to the galleries—will ‘get to be on speaking terms’ as it were, with the artists represented.”
Closing in on a century later, Charlotte still keeps high culture at arm’s length. The symphony, ballet, and art museums have loyal supporters but struggle to make a consistent impression among the public. (When was the last time you went to a Mint Museum exhibition that had everyone abuzz? The last real blockbuster here was Ramesses The Great: The Pharaoh and His Time—in 1988.) Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, the only professional adult theatre company in a metropolitan area of more than 2.7 million people, closed last year for lack of ticket sales and venue space. The city has a single theater dedicated to foreign and art film. Opera Carolina is a footnote, and, aside from a few local authors, we have no literary culture to speak of.
Nevertheless, Charlotte has a small but dedicated community that’s determined to infuse the city with art despite financial and cultural hurdles. Government officials conduct studies, launch task forces, and conjure visions of Charlotte as an arts destination, a city of festivals. The standard story is that ours is an adolescent town; as it grows and diversifies, so will the arts scene. Between 1970 and 1994, the metro population doubled. In the next 30 years, it more than quadrupled. Charlotte is the eighth-fastest growing city in the country, but the arts scene is about the same as it ever was. The quality of our institutions, like the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, has improved in those decades, but the diversity and range of organizations across the arts spectrum have remained stagnant.
Nationwide, the sector faces a slew of obstacles: Arts criticism, especially of local live arts like dance, has withered along with legacy print media. Administrators have to fight for funding—from individuals, governments, grants, and corporations—partly because the arts occupy a weird spot between charity and philanthropy. The internet has diversified tastes and fractured the sense of shared culture that gives rise to phenomena like Ramesses.
But in Charlotte, other factors coalesce to quash meaningful progress toward national relevance. We have no dedicated art schools, and local colleges and universities haven’t shaped the culture in the same way they do in, say, the Triangle. Instead, the banks bent the city’s tastes toward the straitlaced, mainstream, and risk averse.
Until a few decades ago, Charlotte was little more than a town, and its Southern provincialism lingers in an insidious aversion to the avant-garde. The fine arts are an indispensable amenity in a city desperate to brand itself as world-class. But they remain a handmaiden to business and development and have struggled to emerge as a civic priority in their own right.
“Charlotte, however urban it is and however blue it is politically, is still very much a southern city,” says Lawrence Toppman, who retired in 2020 after four decades as an arts critic for the Observer. “Culture was always given short shrift.” The agrarian economy left little time or money to invest in art for art’s sake. If families didn’t instill an appreciation for the fine arts, it was up to schools, and the South has a long history of scorning formal education, thank you very much.
But that hasn’t stopped other small Southern cities. Nashville became a hub for music publishing and performance in the late 1800s; the cultural mélange in the port city of New Orleans made it a culinary and arts destination; and since 1978, the Savannah College of Art and Design has attracted thousands of aspiring artists and professors to the Georgia coast.
Charlotte has always had fewer comers and goers, a trend that’s only recently begun to change. Universities spur cultural development through education, of course, but also via community integration and intercultural exchange. Charlotte’s institutions still struggle with the last two: Higher education was sidelined as banks set the city’s course. UNC Charlotte is the second-biggest state school by enrollment, but only 6% of its students come from out of state. Without a consistent influx and mix of traditions, Charlotte’s colleges and cultural institutions have had to enrich students’ exposure to and engagement with the arts.
“When you frame art as a learning experience, you’re more likely to attract different people who maybe aren’t as confident in their experience or connection to art,” says Adam Justice, director of galleries for the College of Arts + Architecture at UNC Charlotte. “Museums can be really intimidating.” Many, he says, believe museums aren’t for them because they don’t know anything about art—even though “that’s the whole reason museums are there.”
Justice works with students who, like many in the community, don’t have much experience with art. “We’re all the time introducing people to the arts because our main clientele, if you will, is our students,” he says. Justice is encouraged by the growing number of small organizations, like Goodyear Arts and BLK MRKT CLT, that champion nascent talent, and he routinely steers his protégés to get involved with them. His students have the opportunity to curate an exhibition at Goodyear Arts each year.
Amy Herman, a co-founder of Goodyear Arts and its director until last September, characterizes Charlotte’s arts scene as run by the community. It’s a setup that serves local artists well, she says, but “we don’t see the frenetic energy around the arts in Charlotte as there is in most any other city of our size. A lot of times it feels like there’s not a lot of risk you can take.”
Part of that is Charlotte’s heritage as a placid bastion of prosperity, reluctant to face the dark side of the American Dream and content to enjoy blockbuster films and jolly musicals. The arts, especially those that challenge and disrupt, occupy limited real estate here. When audience attention is scarce and fleeting, the incentive is to program the greatest hits.
That means Charlotte’s curators—in film, music, and visual art—do more hand-holding than their peers in New York City or even Atlanta. Institutions everywhere have to cater to two crowds: those with taste and keen appreciation, and those without. Long-term success depends on turning the latter into the former, so they dole out gateway drugs. The Independent Picture House shows Oscar bait like Tár in the hopes that you’ll come back to see foreign or low-budget indie films, like Something in the Dirt. The symphony soundtracks Star Wars so you’ll return for Sibelius. Blumenthal puts on Immersive Van Gogh, and The Mint crosses its fingers that someday you may want to see an actual Van Gogh.
The former audience, with strong tastes and appreciation, has always existed here, too, and it’s a group that’s grown with the city. These connoisseurs—homegrown and transplanted—are hungry for cutting-edge exhibitions. Herman believes the community would support riskier programming. Many institutions, she says, seem to operate on the assumption that Charlotte wouldn’t show up for it—a fear she thinks is unfounded. Goodyear Arts’ annual Avant Goodyear series, which showcases film, dance, poetry, and more, routinely draws crowds. These audiences are full of people frustrated at what they perceive to be a failure on the major museums’ part to show—and market—important and relevant work.
The demand isn’t limited to professors and art school grads: The success of Immersive Van Gogh, whose run in Charlotte was extended three times, suggests a widespread desire for rich aesthetic experiences, whether the result of an interest in Dutch post-impressionism or viral marketing.
In February, Mint Museum Uptown will test whether that desire translates to traditional venues when it opens Picasso Landscapes: Out of Bounds, one of this year’s marquee shows. The first traveling exhibition in the country to explore this subject, the event should draw visitors across the spectrum, from art-curious to aficionado.
It’s cause for rare collaboration among Charlotte’s arts institutions and an opportunity to capitalize on Picasso’s name recognition to forge connections in the community. Ten local artists will paint mural responses to Picasso’s Guernica, and the museum has coordinated programming with the symphony, Bechtler, Gantt, Theatre Charlotte, JazzArts, the library, and the ballet. The symphony, for example, will play Igor Stravinsky and Erik Satie ballets, which Picasso designed sets and costumes for.
The effort is part of The Mint’s ongoing quest to transcend the stuffy old art museum stereotype and get out into the community with the message that art is for everyone, that art is for you. But even the folks in charge admit skepticism about their reach.
“The audiences are so super limited because—I don’t know. I don’t know what the audience looks like for the visual arts in the city,” says Jen Sudul Edwards, curator at The Mint Museum. “Just like I don’t know what the audience for the opera or the symphony looks like in this city.”
Justice thinks it’s unrealistic to expect the community to show the same excitement as curators, who naturally have an outsized passion for the work they’re bringing to town—no matter what town it is. “You can’t expect to reach everybody all the time,” he says. “And you certainly can’t expect to elevate everyone’s enthusiasm to the level of your enthusiasm.” Instead, he celebrates that diverse perspectives and interests draw us to different things, and he believes that, despite the challenges, Charlotte is on the right track.
He has good reason to be optimistic. In the next couple of years, the symphony hopes to bring its ranks of full-time musicians up to 65. It’s now auditioning conductors, including women and racial minorities, to replace outgoing music director Christopher Warren-Green. This season’s lineup is more diverse than it’s been in years—a program this month includes works by Gabriella Smith and William Grant Still—and the eventual hire will bring new direction.
In April, Charlotte Ballet hired celebrated Spanish choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo to steer the 53-year-old organization. The renovated Carolina Theatre will, fingers crossed, be open well before its centennial in 2027, and Theatre Charlotte will once again have a permanent home. (A fire destroyed its venue three days after Christmas 2020.) Small companies like Three Bone Theatre persist through sheer will, and when it opened last summer, the Independent Picture House broke the city’s two-year spell of having no art film theater at all after the Manor Theatre closed in May 2020.
In 2021, Charlotte dramatically restructured the way it funds the arts sector, shifting most responsibility away from the Arts & Science Council, whose budget was cratering. ASC’s annual fund drive revenue dropped from $11 million to $7 million in 2009. The city, along with private-sector partners, allocated $36 million, which Foundation for the Carolinas will disburse to fund the sector from 2021 through 2024. The city also appointed Priya Sircar as its inaugural arts and culture officer to lead arts strategy and helm an 18-member advisory board.
But while these developments signal an ambitious vision, it won’t mean much if the community doesn’t provide a market for that vision to flourish or if the institutions fail to reach audiences, no matter their background.
In the 1970s and ’80s, Los Angeles recognized that it had a dearth of culture and decided to buy some. As in Charlotte today, the avant-garde arts community was disparate and underground. (The typical rejoinder when people say Charlotte has no culture: “You have to know where to find it.”) But LA’s developers, magnates, and moguls understood that the arts were essential to build a world-class city—not just as a matter of civic pride but because it gave land development a leg up.
Those players, including J. Paul Getty, Armand Hammer, and the Disney family, lavished funds to build a cultural powerhouse. In L.A.’s Cinderella story, the fairy godmother’s wand spurts cash. Charlotte, too, is a single-industry town, and we’re not short on money. (Our art museum occupies and is named for the place that used to print it, for heaven’s sake.) Banks and other corporate sponsors lend hefty support to the ballet, symphony, and museums—but too often, that money bankrolls marquee events like the Broadway Lights series while smaller organizations scrounge for scraps or, like Actor’s Theatre, go under.
“Charlotte is a city that got a B-minus and maybe would work a little harder to get a B,” Toppman says. “It’s not a city that wants to be great or is trying to be great. It’s a city that talks about being great and has studies about how to be great. It really is like a schoolchild. ‘You want to know how to get an A, this is what to do.’ And the child goes, ‘It’s hard, and you know what? A B isn’t so bad.’”
Whether the flickers of hope unite to become a national beacon depends on a populace and leadership, elected and corporate, that prioritize a healthy arts ecosystem—from affordable housing and studio space for artists to underground galleries and small venues to showpiece museums. But under the shining skyscrapers still beats the heart of a small Southern town. In 2019, a quarter-cent sales tax increase would have injected $22.5 million into the local arts sector. The referendum failed.
Allison Braden is a contributing editor.