Local Arts

This merger aims to strengthen Queens University’s place in the local cultural scene

A rendering of the Sarah Belk Gambrell Center for Arts & Civic Engagement at Queens University of Charlotte. The building’s grand public opening is schedule for February 2020.
A rendering of the Sarah Belk Gambrell Center for Arts & Civic Engagement at Queens University of Charlotte. The building’s grand public opening is schedule for February 2020. Courtesy of Queens University of Charlotte

Here’s the most unusual arts union in recent memory: The grandpappy of Charlotte presenters is joining a baby that hasn’t quite come out of the womb. That’ll happen April 28, as Charlotte Concerts and Queens University of Charlotte announce a merger effective this summer.

When Charlotte Concerts offered its first season in 1931, Queens was a tiny campus with no modern arts center, no masters degrees and no men. But time brings change, and Charlotte Concerts’ board of directors decided Queens represented the best route forward as the 90th birthday approached.

This summer, Charlotte Concerts will cease as an independent organization and become absorbed by the new, membership-based Arts at Queens. The old group’s two goals, importing performers and educating students, remain intact though diminished: Charlotte Concerts will provide money for one Legacy Fund concert each spring and will supply an annual $5,000 scholarship for a student majoring in music at Queens.

Those concerts will take place in the Sarah Belk Gambrell Center for Arts & Civic Engagement, which will have a grand public opening in February 2020 after members-only events this fall and a soft opening for students in January. The university has hired a Tony-winning performer it hasn’t named for that February gala.

Gambrell, a longtime Charlotte Concerts supporter, was a middle schooler when that association first sponsored recitals and performances at Charlotte Armory Auditorium, which burned in 1954 and was replaced by Grady Cole Center.

Now, at 101, she awaits the opening of a center that will house two performance spaces, two galleries, classrooms and office space. In fact, the building honors two big Charlotte Concerts patrons: The Carolyn McMahon Center for Music will occupy the second of its three floors.

Sarah Belk Gambrell.JPG
Sarah Belk Gambrell photographed with grandson, Christopher, at her 97th birthday. Observer file photo

Future art lovers

Queens has already established an ongoing relationship with the city’s professional theater for adults: Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte has an extendable five-year contract to perform at Hadley Theatre on another part of campus. The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra and Opera Carolina have discussed the possibility of performing at Gambrell Center. (The orchestra had a concert series at that Selwyn Avenue site, then called E.H. Little Fine Arts Center, in the 1980s.)

So the relationship with Charlotte Concerts represents an ongoing attempt to make Queens a major player on the professional culture scene, though it has yet to seal other deals as a presenter.

“The Legacy Fund allows us to bring a caliber of classical musician our students have never been able to experience here,” says Sara Henley, director of the Gambrell Center. For example, Charlotte Concerts has an ongoing relationship with the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition and has presented its winner every four years.

“Taking on a few folks from the Charlotte Concerts board will help (Arts at Queens) with recruitment of performers and programming,” adds Nancy McNelis, associate vice president for advancement and managing director for external relations. “We’ll inherit their membership list. The main thing is, the scholarship and Legacy Fund concert are building future lovers of art.”

For Paul Anderson, the last president the Charlotte Concerts board will have, the move is bittersweet. Queens will not continue the group’s tradition of giving instruments to low-income Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools or present the CMS Musical Showcase to highlight scholastic talent. On the other hand, Queens does plans to keep asking performers to conduct master classes for students before their shows.

Says Anderson, “With the 90th anniversary coming up, we established a strategy group to determine our future. We looked at other options — including other institutions — but Queens has the stability of a large organization and a dedicated hall for concerts.”

The Arts at Queens board of directors will schedule four Spotlight Series events each season, including the Legacy Fund concert. (The one in April 2020, not yet announced, will involve musicians from two of the world’s most prestigious orchestras.) Those four could be concerts, literary events, perhaps something pertaining to the visual arts. Smaller recitals and exhibits, including those by Queens faculty and students, will occur throughout the year.

Big events will take place in the 1,000-seat Sandra Levine Theatre, which will have 750 seats downstairs and 250 seats divided between two balconies. The 170-seat Suzanne Little Recital Hall, acoustically pleasing but infamously easy to overlook, will remain in the basement.

However, it will have prominent access from a new atrium. This may soothe the ghost of Suzanne Little, who’s rumored to play the piano there – perhaps in an attempt to make the hall more noticeable to outsiders than a fallout shelter hidden by an overgrown cornfield.

This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.