Art Works Blog

Postcard from Charlotte and Shreveport

Washington, DC

Here I am with Arts & Science Council President Scott Provancher during the panel discussion Charlotte: The Cultural Capital of the South at the Mint Museum Uptown at the Levine Center for the Arts. Photo courtesy of the Arts & Science Council

Earlier this month, I had the chance to visit two of our greatest Southern cities, Charlotte and Shreveport. This trip was maybe one of our best. We started in Charlotte, and our host there was Dennis Scholl, my good friend who runs the arts programs at the Knight Foundation. He’s a great guy and very easy to be with.

We started off with a trip to North Carolina Wolf Trap, where we saw a teaching artist in the classroom with pre-schoolers. The intersection of arts and education is always something we look for---it’s always inspiring. Then we went on to the North Carolina Dance Theatre for a panel discussion about what’s going on in the arts scene in Charlotte and also with the NEA. These panels are probably my favorite part of my trips because it’s an opportunity for real interchange. Ideas come and go and get argued, and there’s a real dialogue. Dennis moderated this panel, and it showcased people like Dwight Rhoden, the theater’s resident choreographer, and a number of other artists. It’s rare that I get the chance to actually interact with artists themselves, rather than the people who facilitate the artists.

Then we had a luncheon hosted by Bank of America, which is headquartered in Charlotte. They’re a big patron of the arts there. Other major arts patrons were also there, like Amy Blumenthal from the Blumenthal Foundation, Alisa McDonald from Duke Energy, Mary Regan from the North Carolina Arts Council, and Scott Provancher, who heads Charlotte’s Arts and Sciences Council, which is really the organization that takes care of the city’s arts. We had a chance to have lunch and exchange ideas, and that was great.

During the afternoon, we visited the Levine Center for the Arts. It’s a complex of three different museums, all very architecturally bold and innovative. So you have the sense that you’re really in an arts district there. You can see each of the museums from the others. There’s the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts and Culture, the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, and the Mint Museum. The Bechtler, which was designed by Mario Botta, was especially bold. We were able to visit with the heads of each of the museums: David Taylor at the Gantt, John Boyer at the Bechtler, and Kathleen Jameson at the Mint. And, of course, we toured the museums themselves and absorbed the work they’re doing. They have some great collections there.

Then we had an afternoon panel---Charlotte: Arts Capital of the South?---with Scott Provancher, Mary Regan, and Dennis Scholl. We discussed the things Charlotte needs to do, advances it could still make, and how far it’s come. The panel was really focused on Charlotte’s profile in the arts, and I think increasingly it is going to be more so an arts city.

Here I am in Shreveport at a press conference with (l to r) Shreveport Regional Arts Council Executive Director Pam Atchison, Louisiana Assistant to Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, City Council President Oliver Jenkins, Louisiana Lieutenant Governor Jay Dardenne, and Shreveport Mayor Cedric Glover. Photo courtesy SRAC

Then, on to Shreveport. Shreveport is really an example of what we’re talking about at the NEA---creative placemaking and what creative placemaking can do, and the momentum that our grants can generate. Pam Atchison, who runs the Shreveport Regional Arts Council,  is a total dynamo. She dreams big, she’s smart, and she puts all of her passion, soul, and energy into it. We’d love to get involved with and back more people like Pam Atchinson.

What happened in Shreveport is that we gave a $100,000 MICD25 grant to the arts council for repurposing the fire station into its headquarters. The Educational Foundation of America followed this up with a grant of $290,000, largely for the architectural work of the place. And these grants were catalysts for raising $5 million dollars locally to transform this building, and ultimately create what is going to be the Shreveport Common, an arts district around the central fire station and the headquarters of the regional arts council. This is creative placemaking at its best. It shows how our money and private sector money can be leveraged and how one and one does, in fact, equal five.

It was just a fantastic day. We toured all around Shreveport on a bus, and every time we made a turn, we saw another beautiful building that has basically fallen down, or is run-down, that can be renovated and become part of a greater Shreveport cultural district. We’re very excited about the future work we’re going to be able to do there.

We had a panel discussion late in the morning that was moderated by Jim Montgomery, who used to be the editor of The Shreveport Journal. I met William Joyce there, a nationally known artist who lives in Shreveport. Here’s a guy who could live anywhere---he’s really a great artist---but he chooses to live in Shreveport and be part of the revitalization of that community.

There was an afternoon panel that included Louisiana Lieutenant Governor Jay Dardenne, who’s very committed to the arts and really gets how the arts are in Louisiana’s DNA. When you talk about Louisiana, you’re talking about the arts. You’re talking about tourism, and what’s attracting people to Louisiana is the culture. And he totally gets this. And of course, Mayor Cedric Glover---who really started this whole thing with the MICD25 grant---was there. And boy, does he get it. He has decided to make the arts the linchpin of the revitalization of Shreveport. He’s just a joy to be around. He’s a great guy, and he inspires people.

For our luncheon, they found out that I liked Popeye’s chicken, so that’s what they served! That was typical of their hospitality---they laid out the red, white, and blue carpets. It was fantastic.

Maybe the highest high point for me was when we went to the Municipal Auditorium where, for many years, they had the Louisiana Hayride. Of course, I knew about this growing up as a kid and loving country music. I took a tour through their hallway, and there are pictures of Loretta Lynn, my hero Roger Miller, Conway Twitty, and all the great people who have played there. And, as if the past were coming to life, in front of me was Frank Page, who was the Hayride’s announcer there for all those years, and who I used to hear on the radio. And there he was, in person, showing me around! And then I met James Burton, who’s played with every rock and country great. Elvis, John Denver, Roger Miller, The Everly Brothers, Ricky Nelson…you name it, and James Burton has been on those records. He gave me a tour of his studio, and we got to talk about Roger and all kinds of points of intersection that we had. To meet James Burton in person was a thrill.

So, all in all, it was just an amazing trip. It was a joy. The people could not have been more welcoming, warmer, friendlier. What’s happening in Shreveport is exactly what we have been talking about with Art Works, with Our Town, with everything we’re doing at the NEA. I expect to come back often.

I think the key thing we’re learning is that our agenda, and the agenda of the arts in general, is not going to get anywhere unless there’s strong local participation, both public and private. The local political structure has to get it, and has to be on it, and the private sector has to be engaged as well locally. If we have those two things, you’re going to have the arts as a catalyst for real development of the communities, and Charlotte and Shreveport were two places where you saw that.

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