Paved with generosity: Street hails Levines

To honor a couple whose philanthropy has expanded as the recession increased the need for it, Charlotte is giving part of West First Street uptown a new name: Levine Avenue of the Arts.

The street runs through the Levine Center for the Arts, the South Tryon Street complex that benefited from a $15 million donation last spring from Leon and Sandra Levine. The new name applies to the block west of Tryon, running between the Mint Museum Uptown on one side of the street and the Knight Theater and Bechtler Museum of Modern Art on the other.

New street signs emblazoned with the name will be unveiled this afternoon at a ceremony outside the Bechtler.

At today's event, the Arts & Science Council - which oversaw the center's planning and fundraising - will announce plans to install eight "sculptural markers" at the center's boundaries. The markers will announce to pedestrians and drivers on Tryon and other streets that they're entering the complex, which also includes the Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture.

The Charlotte City Council voted in September to put the Levines' name on part of West First Street.

"Sandra and Leon Levine have made so many generous contributions to the Charlotte community, including their substantial gift to close the campaign to complete the cultural facilities.... It is only fitting that we recognize the Levines by renaming First Street in their honor," Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx said in a statement Monday.

The eight sculptural markers will stand at locations including South Tryon just above the Bechtler museum; South Tryon and Stonewall streets; and Church Street at the new Levine Avenue. The markers will be designed by Cliff Garten, a California-based artist who has created outdoor works for government buildings and other projects across the U.S.

Garten's designs are at a preliminary stage, ASC staffer Jean Greer said, so the ASC isn't releasing them. Examples of Garten's other work are on www.cliffgartenstudio.com.

The ASC will pay for the markers, president Scott Provancher said Monday. The ASC expects to spend $500,000 to $600,000 for the markers and new signs throughout the complex with the Levine Center name - which replaces the original name, Wells Fargo Cultural Campus.

The cash will come primarily from the $83 million cultural facilities fund drive, Provancher said. The ASC views the markers and signs - and the money spent on them - as a boost to the center's branding.

"The investment... will ultimately pay off in bringing additional visibility to the project," Provancher said.

Garten was picked from among 10 designers the ASC invited to apply. The ASC assembled a selection panel that included representatives of the arts groups at the center; ASC leaders; staffers from the city, which will maintain the markers; and representatives from Wells Fargo, which managed the center's construction.

The panel picked Garten, Provancher said, because his style - emphasizing the interplay of metal and illumination - is "unique and exceptional, but would not be overbearing." The panel wanted the architecture of Bechtler, Mint and other buildings to remain the dominant feature.

The $83 million cultural facilities drive raised endowment money for the buildings' maintenance. Launched in 2006, the drive stalled after the recession hit. But the Levines' $15 million donation in April - along with $5 million from Duke Energy in their honor - pushed the drive to its finish line. The Levine gift followed others the couple made to arts and social-service groups struggling in the downturn.

Wachovia successor Wells Fargo, whose name originally went onto the complex, agreed to give up the name in recognition of the Levine gift.

Leon Levine, in a statement released Monday, said the arts complex will not only pay dividends for education, a prime interest of his Leon Levine Foundation, but will go beyond that.

"An expanded cultural system," he said, "will educationally benefit the entire community, not to mention the economic impact of a major project like this one."