Spirit Square on North Tryon Street in uptown Charlotte.
By Bernie Petit
Charlotte might be considered a young city, but its cultural roots run deep.
It’s what makes October, or National Arts & Humanities Month, an ideal time to not only celebrate the arts and culture we enjoy locally, but to also explore the cultural past that laid the foundation for all of it.
Therefore, to recognize the role the arts and humanities have played in shaping our city and county, we’ve asked Arts & Science Council (ASC) Interim President Robert Bush and Dr. Tom Hanchett, staff historian at the Levine Museum of the New South, to share four turning points in our cultural history.
1) Turning Point: The Great Depression
It was during the Depression era that Charlotte took some notable cultural steps. Among them, the first North Carolina municipal orchestra, the Charlotte Symphony, is founded in 1932.
“There’s this crazy guy (founding symphony conductor Guillermo S. de Roxlo),” Hanchett said, “who says, ‘Everybody’s out of work anyway. Let’s play music.”
Today, Hanchett said, you’d expect a city of Charlotte’s stature to have an orchestra. But back then, “Charlotte and Raleigh and Winston-Salem were all kind of vying for bigness, so it was not obvious that Charlotte, the business center, would get it.”
Four years later, to save the original branch of the United States Mint, the treasury building was torn down and reassembled in on Randolph Road as the Mint Museum of Art. It was the first art museum in North Carolina.
“So we come out of the thirties with a celebration of history, which is what the Mint is, even though it’s not a history museum,” Hanchett said. “It’s a celebration of art and a celebration of history.”
2) Turning Point: The Bicentennial
“People could see it coming and it was a moment of reflection, of taking stock, of dreaming big,” Hanchett said of the U.S. Bicentennial, the 200th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence in 1976.
From that contemplation came the Historic Landmarks Commission and the Fourth Ward Historic District, which demonstrated that history could be the nub of new construction at a time people were leaving the center city in droves.
At the same time, a group of citizens put together a plan to save an abandoned downtown church, which led to Spirit Square.
“We now take for granted that we will have arts institutions throughout uptown,” Hanchett said. “But in 1975-76, when Spirit Square was being created, that was a wacko idea.”
Spirit Square helped create momentum for Discovery Place, which opened in 1981 right across the street “in a part of the city – North Tryon Street – that people had assumed was just going to be abandoned,” Hanchett said. “So there in just a very few years – five, six years – the Bicentennial is a beacon. Folks began to create this robust arts culture that we have – arts, science, history, heritage – that Charlotte is known for.”
3) Turning Point: A champion for Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s long-term cultural health
As bank executive who built NCNB into what became NationsBank (and ultimately Bank of America), Hugh McColl realized
that in order to compete for top talent, he needed to help make sure Charlotte could offer young workers the quality of life they were looking for.
His recognition of the role the arts and humanities play in attracting and building a talented workforce is what made his support of ASC and artist such as Ben Long (he of the Bank of America Corporate Center and Transamerica Square frescoes) critical to the cultural community. It also made him the ideal person to chair the 1995 Endowment for the Arts & Sciences campaign.
“We needed to start building endowments for the long-term health of the sector and that campaign was the first major effort to endow,” Bush said. “It raised $27 million dollars.”
4) Turning Point: “Angels in America”
ASC briefly lost county funding in the 1990s in the aftermath of the controversy surrounding the 1996 play “Angels in America,” performed by the former Charlotte Repertory Theatre, which was an ASC-funded affiliate.
At the time, the Charlotte theatre was one of six American companies granted the rights to produce Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning epic, according to “Creative Loafing.” Still, its homosexual themes and full frontal male nudity during a hospital examination scene sparked the controversy that led five county commissioners to vote to suspend ASC funding in 1997.
Despite the funding loss, ASC sustained major operating support to its cultural partners. The 1998 ASC annual fund drive broke records among united arts funds across the nation, as a team of 800 volunteers raised $6.6 million – a 14-percent increase above the $5.7 million goal. In 1999, the county restored ASC funding.
“‘Angels in America,’” Bush said, “is clearly a watershed moment in the cultural history of this city and it solidified that art is protected by freedom of speech and the first amendment.”