When newcomers to Charlotte describe the city’s cultural scene, they often applaud the “can-do” spirit of the arts institutions and their supporters. And perhaps no institution illustrates that spirit better than the one where many newcomers go to learn about this region: the Levine Museum of the New South. On the corner of Seventh and College streets, the Levine Museum of the New South, which shows the South’s transformation from 1865 to present day, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. As far as museums go, it’s young (The Mint is turning 75), but the museum has quickly earned a reputation for being “the most comprehensive museum interpretation of post-Civil War Southern history,” says president and CEO Emily Zimmern. “From field to factory to finance.” It all started the summer of 1990, when 57-year-old Sally Robinson got a phone call from her eighth-grade homeroom teacher, Anne Batten. Robinson had only seen her former teacher once since her Alexander Graham Middle School days, but she knew Batten was the chairman of the Mecklenburg Historical Society, and Batten knew of Robinson’s love of history and the arts. “She started out by saying, ‘We feel very strongly that Charlotte needs (another) history museum and we wondered if you would take the lead in helping this get under way,’ ” Robinson recalls. Robinson agreed under two conditions: First, they would have to concentrate on the New South period because the Charlotte History Museum was already doing a nice job with the colonial days up to the Civil War. And secondly, they would have to do without a building for five years. Robinson was serving on the Arts and Science Council board, which had recently decided against building any cultural facilities for up to five years to concentrate on endowments and membership. The new endeavor would have to be a “museum without walls.” Batten was surprised yet unfazed. “She always had a calm and lovely voice,” Robinson laughs. “Who could say no to their old eighth-grade teacher?”
‘Museum with no walls’
Robinson assembled a small organizing committee of community leaders and historians, and a $4,000 gift from the Mecklenburg Historical Association allowed them to bring a museum consultant to Charlotte that fall. The following spring, they dissolved the committee to assemble a 31-member board made up of academic and community leaders. The board called their project the Museum of the New South, and became a registered nonprofit April 25, 1991. After raising about $400,000, the board hired Robert Weis, a 30-something scholar known for his program-building at a museum in New England, to lead the fledgling organization. “It would have to be a young person with a lot of nerve who would want to be the head of a museum with no walls,” Robinson says. The budding museum set up shop in a suite of offices donated by First Union (now Wells Fargo), and Museum board members taught classes at the public library on how to gather oral histories, and gave walking tours of historic areas including Dilworth, Elizabeth and Fourth Ward. Their first exhibit was just a kiosk at Founder’s Hall in uptown Charlotte. It had a video of oral histories and old photographs about textiles, banking and transportation as the cornerstone for the new southern economy. The museum then developed more exhibits, such as “When Southern Women Went to College” and the history of men and women’s basketball in the Piedmont, coinciding with the 1994 NCAA’s Men’s Basketball Final Four in Charlotte. They set up a circus tent in a vacant area at the corner of Sixth and Tryon, with display boards and a small basketball court for the children. More than 22,000 people visited.
‘Conversations on Courage’
After nearly five years on the move, the long-range planning committee decided the “museum without walls” should buy a $1.2 million building at the corner of Seventh and College streets. Soon after, Weis told Robinson he planned to step down. He enjoyed developing programs, but the impending capital campaigns, construction and renovations were outside his element. “This was sad for me,” said Robinson. “We must have talked on the phone every day, Monday through Friday, for three years. he became one of my best friends.” Weis’s replacement, Emily Zimmern, has been with the museum 16 years. The Museum of the New South’s completed building opened in 1996, and after the $10 million capital campaign, the name was changed to the Levine Museum of the New South, after donors and board members Sandra and Leon Levine. The museum has earned national attention, especially for the 2004 exhibit “Courage: The Carolina Story That Changed America,” which studied the Clarenden County, S.C. lawsuit that was the first in the U.S. to challenge racial segration in public schools. The case was one of four lawsuits that led to the landmark 1954 “Brown v. Board of Education” Supreme Court’s decision that ruled “separate but equal” unconstitutional. After visitors saw the exhibit, the museum facilitated small-group dialogues called “Conversations on Courage.” More than 1,800 people participated. “It was really remarkable,” Zimmern says. “Approaching a tough issue like equal-opportunity education in...this (format) made it easier for people to open up and talk about them.” The exhibition and the dialogue went on to win top honors from a number of national museum associations, as well as the White House. And for its 20th anniversary, the museum has brought it back. “ ‘Courage’ is really the exhibit that put us on the map,” said Jenni Gaisbauer, senior vice president of development. “It reminds us of what we do well.” The Museum is hosting a fundraising event called “Taste of Time: Looking Back, Moving Forward” April 28. The night will feature a DJ, Indian dancers, and a variety of food, from Mexican to Vietnamese to southern fusion. But the highlight of the event will be the museum itself, as the leaders unveil 750 square feet of additions to the core exhibit, “Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers,” bringing the exhibit up to 2010. Zimmern, 61, said the museum now puts a major emphasis on modern issues, and lets history start the dialogue. They’ve added interactive elements, like video booths at the end of the exhibit, so visitors can give their reactions and and discuss hot-button issues in the community. Those videos will then be edited and added to the core exhibit. Robinson says connecting people to their community through history has always been their goal, but Zimmern has helped the museum go even further. “I think people want to feel connected to the history of the region they live in,” she says. “If we are going to have community in the region where we live, we have to get to know each other’s stories, because out of that will come trust and a sense of belonging to the same community.”
Want to go? What: “Taste of Time: Looking Back, Moving Forward” When: 6 p.m. April 28. Where: Levine Museum of the New South, 200 East Seventh St. Cost: $100 museum members, $125 non-members. Raffle tickets are $25 each or $100 for five. Tickets will be on sale until the day of the event. Can be purchased online or by calling 704-333-1887. More info: www.museumofthenewsouth.org. Read more about the plans for the new exhibit here.