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Center of Arts And Culture Initiative

October 15, 2009

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    October 15, 2009
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    Opera Carolina News

Center of Arts And Culture Initiative

When UNC Charlotte professors Bertha Maxwell Roddey and Mary Turner Harper launched the Afro-American Cultural Center 35 years ago, they sought to preserve Charlotte’s African American history, arts and culture.

At the time, urban renewal, or “black removal,” as Harper refers to it, was eliminating many black cornerstones. They pushed for the AACC, formerly on Myers Street, which hosted a broad range of cultural aspects including education, exhibits, presentations and performing arts.

Now, as the AACC, now called the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture moves to its new facility in Uptown, Roddey and Harper have watched it come full circle.

They hope their mission has not been forgotten.

New home and expanded focus
The 44,000-square foot, four-story Gantt Center is a major part of Center City amongst other new attractions like Knight Theater. The center was built by the Freelon Group, an African American architectural group and renamed after Gantt, the first black mayor of Charlotte.

“We thought the Afro American Cultural Center, now the Gantt Center, should be a part of the Charlotte landscape first and foremost and that was much of the decision to move Uptown,” Gantt Center president David Taylor said. “We also saw the opportunity that would put us on the regional landscape and also really on a national footprint.”

The grand opening of the Gantt Center is Oct. 24 with a ribbon cutting ceremony, music, dance, arts and gospel celebration.

The Gantt Center is home to the Hewitt Collection, a body of art by African Americans, including Romare Bearden, Jonathan Green and Jacob Lawrence. Exhibits also include artists Juan Logan and Radcliffe Bailey.

More to culture than visual arts
The buzz surrounding the Gantt Center should be enough to pique interest to get people in the door, but will it keep visitors coming? Roddey, 79, and Harper, 73, are happy about the launch of the Gantt Center. However, they’re uncertain about its direction after years of leaning heavily on visual arts.

“As it was envisioned, it was a multi-faceted thing which was supposed to be for all people,” Harper said. “I think programmatically the center has steered away from that now. “Initially, (the AACC) was started to preserve local black culture, then it was supposed to extend out. Now it seems to be primarily focused on the visual arts.”

Roddey is worried about who’ll preserve the history of First Ward, Good Samaritan Hospital, political leaders like Fred Alexander, the United House of Prayer for All People and shotgun houses located behind the Myers Street facility, a restored church.

“You can’t take the shotgun houses Uptown,” she said. “Those are the things that I hope because you have a pretty nice building, they will not be lost.”
Taylor says the Gantt Center will provide a fuller experience, pointing to emphasis on customer service, planning, exhibitions and the hiring of curator Michael Harris. Its location in the heart of Charlotte’s cultural district makes it more accessible to tourists and residents alike.

“We see (the center) as that beacon in the community that people will reach out and want to be a part of,” Taylor said. “It’s a place where culture and arts meet and where people can come and really have this extraordinary cultural arts experience to see visual arts, perhaps see a film or maybe listen to jazz on the rooftop.

“There is a tremendous amount of things we can do. I think it is understanding what the constituent wants and needs and being flexible enough to deliver it will be enough for people to want to come back and visit us.”

State of the art
The Gantt Center represents a new era in art museums, especially in the Southeast, Taylor says. Its design makes the center flexibile enough to host large exhibits that never would’ve been recruited to the Myers Street facility. It is also close enough to the Knight Theatre and Blumenthal Performing Arts Center to host plays or concerts at those facilities.

“We’re not the small little cubby hole somewhere that served great purposes, but certainly was inadequate to having an expanded business model,” Taylor said. “We now have a business model that gives us a chance to succeed.”

Taylor’s confident that model will convince more people to buy a $50 membership, boosting enrollment past its current 400.

“People will be able to come to the museum now because they know they are going to be some extraordinary things,” he said. “I think people want to find ways to support the center.”

Stay true to the mission
As long as the Gantt Center holds to the founding principles of telling the story of Charlotte’s black community, Harper believes it’ll flourish.
“It concerns me in that I hope the initial thrust will not be forgotten,” she said. “Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against the visual arts because all of that needs to be preserved. But as I said years and years ago, much of black culture was in old attics and trunks of the people; much of it was written down, but it was an oral progression and we have lost that.”

Added Roddey: “I hope that (African American) stories are not just looking at art. I hope our children and our children’s children understand what this center represents to the culture of the people and how we survived 300-something years in this country and in the community. If not, then we have missed the boat.”

By Ryanne Persinger
The Charlotte Post

To read the original article, visit the The Charlotte Post.