News: Charlotte Exclusives

Drop the Curtain, Strike the Set

Arts funding plan needs a script doctor

The grand Charlotte arts funding show, two years in production, should wrap up soon. The city council faces a hard deadline in the coming weeks to decide whether or not to ask the state legislature for permission to hike the car rental tax from 11 percent to 16 percent as part of $132 million in public-funding for the scheme.

Leaving aside the wisdom and propriety of trying to raise $67 million from rental cars for arts programs, the overall Arts and Science Council designed-package points in a direction that the local arts community quietly has doubts about. Specifically the plan to shift $24 million in facility maintenance costs from the city to local arts groups is viewed as, well, nuts.

“Somebody is smoking crack,” one very active member of the Charlotte arts scene declares. The plan the ASC has taken to the city council, heavy as it is on new buildings, simply does address the actual wants and desires of the grassroots arts community and merely pretends that millions can be easily raised to takeover city costs.

Even those with no particular beef with ASC president Lee Keesler marvel that a plan that utterly depends on the city shifting from upkeep mode to building mode has made it this far. Some confide that they assumed Keesler’s background as a Wachovia exec would mean the numbers would take care of themselves and this funding process did kick-off with pledges from Wachovia, Bank of America, and Duke Energy totaling of $18 million. What could go wrong?

Plenty.

As city councilman Don Lochman has noted, there is nothing in the ASC funding plan that makes clear the arts groups can indeed handle $24 million in upkeep costs. There is a stipulation that new fees on each ticket at city-run venues would go towards those costs, but that assumes the added costs will not drive people away from those venues. Any shortfall could then the city holding the bag, Lochman notes.

But it is the intermediate step that should give art supporters in Charlotte real pause about this package. Should the upkeep money not come through, and again that is down to fickle and price-sensitive ticket-buying trends, the ASC will almost surely be asked to cover the difference before the city. If the ASC obliges, money that might have previously gone to fund actual productions and actual shows and actual attractions will slide towards sweeping up and taking tickets at the new uptown spaces. This does not seem like much of a deal for Charlotte’s art community. Money for sweeping crowding out acting, singing, dancing.

Indeed, the supposition of the ASC package seems to be that if you get the city to help you build some new spaces, you will automatically create patrons and supporters out of thin air. However, leaving aside the $32 million to update an admittedly beat-down Discovery Place, it is not clear that the projects on the wish list would really cause all that much excitement. After all, art is more than what goes on in a nice, new building as all the vibrant happenings in NoDa and South End attest.

Somehow Charlotte has ended up back on the path that would plop down yet more under-utilized “destination locations” uptown. We’ve seen that show before. Big empty space, not much going on; maybe a touring production of a decades old Broadway show, or a small convention politely stumped by our nearly-random $40 million trolley. Nice though, very nice and clean.

Thanks to all the sweeping up.