Robert Bush, 66, has been an executive with the Arts & Science Council since 2000 and president since 2014. Started in 1958, the ASC is one of the largest local arts fundraising organizations in the nation, and has undergone significant changes in that time. (The latest: Dec. 12, it was announced ASC will move its offices from the Carillon Building, where it’s been housed since 1993, to Packard Place.) Bush intends to retire in June and a nationwide search has begun for his successor. In this interview, edited for space and clarity, he reflects on his career in education and the arts.
Q. After getting your undergraduate degree in English and Spanish at Appalachian State, then teaching Spanish for two years at McDowell High and returning to ASU for a master’s in education, you taught for three years at a Hickory school for delinquent youths. Then you made a career detour – to the Catawba County Council for the Arts. Were you perceived as an outsider?
A. Well, the N.C. Arts Council wasn’t very happy. They had awarded a salary assistance grant to the council and then they didn’t pick an arts person – you had this educator over here. I think, though, it was a wonderful opportunity. I had a great education and was willing to learn and do new things. In three years, we were able to raise $3 million to renovate the old Claremont High School, which is where I graduated in 1970, into an arts complex that is now the SALT Block, home to the Catawba Science Center, Hickory Choral Society, Hickory Museum of Art, Patrick Beaver Library, United Arts Council and Western Piedmont Symphony.
Q. Your fundraising attracted the attention of Charlotte’s Mint Museum, which hired you in 1984 as its first director of development.
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A. It was a wonderful time to join the Mint. They had expanded the Museum renovations, opened the Dalton Wing, reached out in new ways to the entire community then had the opportunity to host the Ramesses the Great exhibition.
Q. You also did something new in fundraising – reaching beyond the traditional wealthy neighborhoods into others. What was your aim?
A. A lot of that came from the community education ideas that are in my DNA. We build these resources as a community. The privileged are going to have access to them but they belong to all of us – the people in Grier Heights as much as the people in Myers Park. These are our cultural assets and a lot of my time at the Mint and at ASC has been about refocusing so we are trying to serve everyone across our community, not just a few.
Q. At the Mint, you were project manager for Ramesses the Great, the 1988 show of Egyptian riches from the Cairo Museum and arguably the biggest arts exhibition in state history. But it seemed also like a gamble for the Mint – the show would need 500,000 visitors to break even.
A. We devised this ‘scheme’ – well, I should say a plan – for major companies and leading individuals in town to guarantee the $3 million working capital we needed upfront to mount the exhibition. This allowed us to set up a working capital fund that would be repaid and cover our loss if we failed to make a profit on the exhibition. First Union loaned us a banker full-time to help with the financing details. We were also investing the money we’d borrowed, and the stock market was doing well, so we were making money with that. Then the Rev. Joseph Chambers, a prominent pastor, accused the Mint of promoting pagan worship and making school children bow down to false gods. That sent ticket sales through the roof.
Q. Did you break even on the exhibition?
A. We were open 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week, and closed only on Thanksgiving and Christmas. We had to put additional parking in at the Mint and put up temporary buildings to handle the crowds and display all the artifacts. We ended up with 640,000 visitors and $1 million in the bank.
Q. After leading arts drives in Fort Wayne, Ind., and Raleigh and working as a consultant for a time, you returned to Charlotte in 2000 and served in a variety of positions at the ASC. Looking back, weren’t those the days of milk and honey in arts fundraising?
A. Yes and no. I had figured out in the 1990s that the model of united community campaigns for the arts wasn’t working. I was trying to set up one in Raleigh and we were getting no traction whatsoever except for a few workplace campaigns, unlike Charlotte and a few other cities. There were problems with the workplace campaigns, through payroll deduction, even in Charlotte – there was a perception that arms were being twisted to meet company goals for the campaigns. They were not based in building relationships to the arts that individuals might have been attracted to. At the ASC, we were focused mainly on the big groups like the opera, the symphony, the Mint and Discovery Place. At the same time, people in the workplaces were always asking what we were doing for their kids, for new kinds of entertainment and creativity and to emerging arts, science and history groups. Don’t get me wrong, what happened with arts funding here is something to be celebrated and we all should be very grateful. It built amazing cultural assets.
Q. Then came the 2007 recession. How hard did that hit local fundraising?
A. We actually held steady in 2008 because the campaign closed early in the year, but after that, it was downhill. So, you had this model that was kind of murky and then you throw the recession onto it. Then big companies changed. Instead of donating heavily in their hometowns, they began spreading their philanthropy all around the world and they had different ideas to access to employee giving. We had bought into the myth that Charlotte was the best, but we had to get to the realization that we were not the same as peer cities in terms of how they support the arts.
Q. So how did the ASC adapt?
A. In 2008, for its 50th anniversary, the ASC did the first long-term strategic plan it had ever done. We took a big step back and looked at ourselves and realized that we needed to be more open to a wider number of groups for funding instead of the few majors. Some groups were just getting too much from the ASC – like 50 percent of their operating budgets. When I got to the ASC, I was told to go out and figure out why so many artists hated us. I found out they felt like they’d been ignored by the ASC for decades. We realized that we needed to be funding these things that will be the big groups in 20 to 30 years, the groups that reflect the interest of the population.
Q. Aside from taking a broader role in the cultural sector, how has the ASC changed since you arrived in 2000?
A. It used to be you had to come to this office to get permission to breathe. I’ve made it clear that I’m not here to run their business. ASC has also been asked to take on new efforts. There are 40 (public arts) projects in various stages of development. We were asked to work in neighborhoods and build community. We were asked to transform the funding model. When we find people, who love the opera or the symphony, we encourage them to write a check directly to those organizations. I tell them if they love Charlotte, give money to the ASC.
Q. You’ll retire in June 2019 as president of the ASC. What three pieces of advice would you give your successor?
A. The first thing is that (the ASC’s goal) in this cultural community is ensuring access to everyone regardless of personal situation. You must stay focused on understanding the history of this place – realize and address our Southern past and all that signifies as we engage a new and more diverse population. Second, the creative individuals among us are the foundation of the culture of this city and your job is to protect and give them the space to be creative. And the third is, love this place.
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.