News: Charlotte Exclusives

Banking on Art

Just who calls the shots on cultural life in the Queen City?

For years Charlotte’s big banks have had a close, and critics would say, suffocating relationship with the local arts scene. Now a new proposal would weave Wachovia and Bank of America even more deeply into the city’s arts landscape, co-locating arts attractions within new bank buildings.

A recent report in The Charlotte Business Journal outlines a plan to combine new museum space with a new Bank of America office tower. The Mint Museum of Art and a separate modern art collection would be a focal point of a new BoA tower on North Tryon Street. Meanwhile, Wachovia mulls a plan for yet another tower featuring a long-sought 1,200-seat theater.

As predicted in this space a few weeks ago, the Journal discloses that local government officials have, in fact, turned their eyes toward tax-increment financing (TIF) as a possible way to finance these art projects. This is a tacit admission that the $147 million price tag for the arts project wish list was far too high for a city of Charlotte’s size and resources, spending as it does a little over $9 million a year directly on local arts programs.

But far from free money, the TIF route would lock any increase in property tax revenue from the finished projects into paying for the debt issued to build those projects. An early number for that debt would be about $45 million in bonds in all. This means that revenue that would otherwise go into the city’s general fund to pay for municipal services like fire and police protection instead goes to pay for a big, new building. Supporters of the TIF solution respond that, yes, that might be true, but we have big, new buildings where otherwise we would have nothing. This “but for” assumption is crucial.

If the banks are going to build these new towers in any event, grafting a TIF-financed element onto them might be, in the long-term, a money losing proposition for the city. The attractiveness of an initial “cash-less” outlay for new art venues should not mesmerize city leaders into a bad deal. Moreover, it needs to be understood that if the symbiotic relationship between the banks and the arts community is going to turn parasitic, it must be the arts venues that leech off of the development projects of billion-dollar banks, not the other way around. Right now it is too soon to tell about the nature of this proposed relationship.

But it is not too soon to think hard about just what role the cultural arts are supposed to fill in Charlotte. Are cultural amenities, like city councilwoman Susan Burgess recently remarked, basically an economic development tool to attract big companies to Charlotte? And Burgess’ colleague, councilman John Tabor recently told Carolina Journal point blank that, “If we didn’t have the arts, we wouldn’t have Bank of America and Wachovia.”

Is that true? Well, people active in arts community in Charlotte confide that in recent years it has been hard to see where the uptown Charlotte arts scene diverges from the HR departments of Wachovia and Bank of America. The banks seem to think the primary goal of Charlotte culture is to reassure bank execs up for transfers from San Francisco or Boston that the Queen City is not a wasteland; that shows and attractions found in bigger cities will show up here too.

Certainly, there is a disconnect between what some in the local arts community say is needed and what Charlotte’s emerging uptown-centric plan provides. The explicit move to build shiny new venues and then tell the independent arts groups to find their own way to pay to use those buildings builds in a bias away from community, non-profit arts groups and towards big touring productions. Charlotte already has arts venues which local groups cannot afford to use, unable to pay for the professional backstage help that the city’s art power brokers have put in place. Talent, time, and enthusiasm the artsy locals have. Hard cash, not so much.

Even moving the Mint Museum from its old suburban stomping ground, breaking connections to donors, patrons, and its history, seems a rush job. Is this truly the best move for the museum and the community it serves or merely reflective of a development dogma which holds that attraction density trumps all? We’ll soon find out.

This gets us back to the question at the heart of the arts funding matter: If the rich and powerful get to call all the shots on where and how public money for the arts is spent, why are taxpayers spending money on the arts in the first place?