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Reinvigorate city’s arts, culture sector

The biggest fault line in Charlotte politics, perhaps, goes by the shorthand, “sidewalks versus stadiums.”

That moniker oversimplifies a complicated topic: What’s an appropriate investment of local tax dollars? To what extent should Charlotte and Mecklenburg County be tending to the basics like sidewalks versus amenities that help make the city attractive to would-be employers and residents?

Over the years, public investment has helped pay for things like the Bobcats’ arena, the NASCAR Hall of Fame and, most recently, the uptown Knights stadium and new escalators and scoreboards for the NFL Panthers, even as neighborhoods sit on a waiting list for badly needed new sidewalks.

The latest chapter of this debate may play out in coming months, as a group called the Cultural Life Task Force comes out with recommendations on how to sustain a healthy arts and cultural sector in Mecklenburg County.

It’s a pressing question. Cultural nonprofits took a beating in the recession, putting the very survival of some in doubt. From the Charlotte Symphony to the Museum of History to the Raptor Center and beyond, every group had to wrestle with a weakening economy and get smarter about how it operates.

The Arts & Science Council, historically the largest funder of Charlotte’s cultural groups, suffered too. Its annual fund campaign plunged from $11.6 million in 2008 to $7.1 million in 2009 and has been trying to claw back ever since. Besides the recession, the ASC is grappling with changes to its bread and butter: the workplace giving campaign. That approach fueled a vibrant cultural sector for years but is looking increasingly anachronistic.

At the same time, government funding of the arts sector has dried up.

Thus the creation of the Cultural Life Task Force. Co-chaired by attorney Valecia McDowell and Allen Tate President Pat Riley, the 22-member panel has been meeting roughly monthly since June. Members have been digging in to how nonprofits could operate more efficiently, how to modernize the workplace-giving model and how other cities have tackled similar problems.

The group is expected to issue between 10 and 20 recommendations a month or so from now. One or more will almost certainly involve some kind of dedicated public funding for arts and culture.

This will be hard for some folks to swallow. But it’s an opportunity for this community to decide what it aspires to be. If we want to be a vibrant, growing city that attracts businesses, entrepreneurs and other residents, we will need to reinvigorate an arts scene to offer not just impressive uptown buildings but also first-class programming, both in the center city and throughout the community.

The details will matter tremendously. There are too many competing demands to expect public funding to carry the arts. Any lasting solution will require the kind of partnership between the public and private sectors that has separated Charlotte from its peers over the decades.

There is an essential role, though, for the public sector, because arts and culture are a fundamental element of an economically healthy and whole community.

Note: Editorial Page Editor Taylor Batten serves on the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte board.

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