The “Arts” part of the Arts+ title has always meant performances, classes and workshops around Mecklenburg County. But in its 50th year, we’re finding out what the “+” means: a first-ever grant from National Endowment of the Arts, a new experimental temporary workspace, and plans to grow beyond its cramped (and perhaps soon vanishing) space at Spirit Square.
Arts+, which spent the first 49 years as Community School of the Arts, is sailing through its golden anniversary season with some ambitions met and other goals ahead.
That $20,000, the only NEA disbursement to a Charlotte organization in its winter group of grants, has already funded visits by nationally known artists and will pay for more. The Bridge, now open at 4100 Raleigh Street — next door to the Charlotte Art League, within walking distance of the Blue Line stop at Sugar Creek Road — has given Arts+ members a hint of what a permanent relocation might mean someday.
“At Spirit Square, we can do things only from 4 to 8 p.m. four days a week,” says Devlin McNeil, Arts+ president and executive director. “It’s not a place to test-drive programming. The Bridge allows us to be more exploratory, more interested in how a process works. Our art and music directors can try things they’re not sure of.”
The ReEmprise Fund, which often gambles on cultural endeavors that aren’t guaranteed, helped get that building open. McNeil thinks the NEA grant — the first she requested in six years at Arts+ — will further raise the group’s profile.
“It feels like a validation,” she says. “As we think more broadly about where to find funding, we know some (potential donors) will look to see if we’ve gotten a national grant. We waited to ask for one until we had a special project.”
Spotlight CLT, the one she chose, has brought three unusual artists to date.
Boston pediatrician-violist Lisa Wong sometimes prescribes music lessons for patients and spent 20 years running the Longwood Symphony Orchestra, an ensemble made up mostly of faculty, students and staff in the healthcare profession. She held a symposium for Atrium Health doctors and staff here and met with Southminster and Bechtler Museum staff about their joint Museum Memories program. Meanwhile, husband Lynn Chang (a violinist and composer) taught masterclasses and directed a recital by Arts+ merit scholars.
Then author-illustrator Timothy Bush stayed a week in April to discuss creativity with the Arts+ board and visit multiple schools and libraries, explaining how he came up with ideas for more than 25 books — and how youngsters might spark their own imaginations.
Frank Diaz, associate professor of music at Indiana University, will be down this month to conduct masterclasses at the annual Arts+ string camp. Beyond that, McNeil says, “We’re having discussions with Jazz Arts Charlotte (formerly Jazz Arts Initiative) about bringing in a major artist in the fall, taking him or her into McGlohon Theater instead of the (little) Stage Door Theater.”
Collaboration and innovation keep Arts+ buzzing. The group still doesn’t know exactly what to make of The Bridge, an 1,800-square-foot space just north of NoDa with plenty of free parking. It will offer drop-in studio hours, which Arts+ can’t do now, plus recurring classes and workshops starting next month.
The first of these, a free series of visual art sessions for adults, runs June 15-16, 22-23 and 29-30. Local artist Tom Thourne, who specializes in public art, installations and mixed media, will show participants how to apply Tufa (a lightweight faux concrete) over a metal armature, then alter it with carving, painting, mosaic, grout or found objects.
Bringing the future in view
Though Arts+ has an 18-month lease on The Bridge and could extend that run if the owner has no development plans, it’s not meant to be a permanent home. It’s simply a laboratory to bring the future into clearer view, for the undefined time when Spirit Square closes classrooms and faces redevelopment itself.
“We’ve held focus groups to find out what parents, especially millennial parents, want for their children,” says McNeil. “The Bridge came about because we were listening to ideas, and one parent said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we had a space where we could find ALL of these things?’ That building will give us the best idea of what our permanent home ought to be.”
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.
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