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‘Our story is in our art.’ Gantt Center: 45 years of elevating African-American culture

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Charlotte Arts Guide 2019-20

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Gantt Center President and CEO David Taylor’s goal has always been to build community.

This fall, the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts + Culture will launch a year-long celebration to mark its 45 years in existence and its 10th anniversary in its landmark building uptown.

Taylor says though many accomplishments and goals continue to be met, the museum’s primary goal is unchanged.

“The main role of institutions of color and institutions of culture is to build community,” he said.

The center has been doing that since its founding in 1974 as the Afro-American Cultural and Service Center.

David Taylor .JPG
David Taylor is president and CEO of the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. The Gantt celebrates its 45th anniversary in October and its 10th anniversary at the current location in uptown Charlotte. Joshua Komer

A little history

It started with a small but powerful collection on the second level of Spirit Square, with works by Juan Logan, TJ Reddy and Tommy Robinson, and programming focused on children as well as emerging artists.

It has since expanded in space and scope, moving to the former site of the historic Little Rock AME Zion Church before its current 45,000-square-foot facility in uptown’s museum district.

Its permanent collection has grown too, and includes the renowned John and Vivian Hewitt Collection and the Question Bridge exhibit.

But perhaps its greatest expansion has been in supporting public discourse on social justice issues, most recently gentrification and affordable housing through this year’s “Welcome to Brookhill” exhibit.

Showcasing artists

Over the 10 years in the new space, which occupies territory in the now-demolished African-American neighborhood of Brooklyn, the museum has shown over 50 exhibits.

They include prestigious touring shows such as Tavis Smiley’s 2013 America I Am, which ran in only eight museums nationally, as well as unique curated exhibits like 2017’s Shaping the Vessel: Mascoll + Samuel, which highlighted two wood-turning artists at the pinnacle of their creative careers.

The Gantt also shines light on local artists, such as renowned mixed media artist and native Charlottean Nellie Ashford. Her collection of 30 quilted fabric works was displayed at the Gantt for six months.

“It was an honor for us to be able to showcase her work in a gallery for the very first time,” Taylor said. “We’re doing world-class work while honoring our cultural center heritage.”

Woman Washing Clothes by Charles H. Alston is part of the permanent collection on display at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. It’s part of the “A Woman’s Work” exhibit. Courtesy of the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture.

Growing influence

As the institution’s recognition and influence grew, the Gantt increased focus on national issues having local effects on Charlotte. Several exhibitions became platforms to tell stories about equity and inclusion through the creative lens of artists.

“For us, it’s not just about showing works on the wall but how we’re using those works to create engagement, so it’s hand in hand,” Taylor said. “I’m most proud of our ability to do (traditional shows), then shift and do something like ‘Welcome to Brookhill’ ... which elevated this whole conversation of social consciousness.

“And we want to elevate that even more because if not us, then who?”

Untitled, Alvin C. Jacobs, Jr., 2018 (2)
This photo by Alvin Jr. was part of the Gantt Center’s “Welcome to Brookhill” exhibit that highlighted everyday life in the Brookhill Village community. Alvin C. Jacobs Jr Alvin C. Jacobs Jr., 2018; permanent collection of the Gantt Center

‘Welcome to Brookhill’

In 2018, the Gantt commissioned photographer and visual activist Alvin Jacobs to partner with the Brookhill Village community, an island of poverty in Charlotte’s affluent South End threatened by years of neglect and the encroachment of luxury condominiums.

Jacobs’ exhibit showcased generations of families, their celebrations and hopes in the tight-knit community, creating space for visitors to step outside class boundaries and see neighbors, not blight.

“The goal was simple: Amplify the voices of the voiceless, the folks in Brookhill, so we could make this about people and not about buildings,” Taylor said. “And we think we made great strides in that way.”

Opening night was the first time several Brookhill residents had stepped foot inside the museum, let alone seen themselves highlighted as icons of strength and resiliency.

“It was big for me, seeing myself that way,” said Van Anthony, a self-taught artist and one of the Brookhill subjects. “And to see my homies bring their families … (they) don’t leave the ‘hood. That was big, because it opened doors for them.”

Families look at artwork in the downstairs gallery at the Gantt Center during a Family First event. Isabella Bartolucci Charlotte Observer file

Elevating issues, artists

In conjunction with the exhibit, the Gantt, through its Initiative for Equity and Innovation, hosted a winter-long series of public talks on affordable housing, gentrification and displacement, with panels of experts from authors to researchers.

The exhibit has been extended through 2020, with Taylor pledging to continue work in the community.

“We want to elevate those stories of what (displacement) really means, now that you’ve seen the people,” Taylor said. “What does it do to you being able to get to work, get food, get to a support network if you have children or medical needs? It becomes catastrophic.”

USE BUT NOT LEDE TCO_AlvinJacobs_JK04 (1)
Photographer Alvin C. Jacobs Jr. was artist-in-residence at the Gantt Center when he worked on the “Welcome to Brookhill” exhibition. Joshua Komer

Jacobs executed the Brookhill exhibit under the auspices of the Gantt’s new artist-in-residency program, which invests in rising artists financially and in terms of exposure so they may create impactful work and raise their national profile. He was the first artist to benefit from the program.

“It was an honor that changed my life,” Jacobs said. “I’ve worked hard for years, but with this residency the awards and validation increased. Things I’d been doing before now carry more weight. We could have had just a great exhibition and that was that, but they thought enough of my work to extend more.”

Charlotte stories

Taylor expects the Gantt to continue to play a role in developing social consciousness through the arts.

The Gantt Teachers Institute, which grew out of the Initiative for Equity and Innovation, is going on its second year. GTI works with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, helping teachers build more equitable classrooms.

A group of 30 teachers from around CMS are convening to create curriculum that leverages information in exhibitions such as Brookhill and Question Bridge in their work.

Come September, the Gantt will also launch Diaspora Dialogues: Culture as Resilience. The memorial to 400 years of African-American culture will explore food, art, screenings and more.

Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture Observer file photo

The official anniversary takes place Oct. 26, and will feature panel speakers, activities, and dance and musical performances. An exhibit curated by Dexter Wimbley featuring the work of 25 celebrated African American artists from across the U.S., including the Charlotte region, is in the planning stages.

Other upcoming exhibits highlight over-conviction and incarceration trends as relates to people of color.

“There is so much going on, and when people come through this cultural center, this museum, we want them to be able to connect with Charlotte through the stories we tell,” Taylor said. “Our story is in our art, who we are as a people, our history.”

Obvious cool/Hidden cool

We asked artists and arts administrators interviewed for the Fall Arts preview to talk about their favorite piece of Obvious Cool art in Charlotte and their favorite Hidden Cool art.

Obvious Cool art:

“I’m trying not to be biased. But the 50-foot glass wall by David Wilson, “Divergent Thread, Lucent Memories” speaks to the Gantt’s culture and who we are. I’ve always greatly appreciated that work and as I’ve gotten to know Wilson as an artist it has become my favorite piece,” said David Taylor. “We use it iconically around the space and the original currently sits in the mayor’s office. It’s a beautiful artistic piece that frankly doesn’t get its recognition, I think, on the Charlotte landscape of public art. At 50-feet-long, it definitely gives you a moment and tells the story of family and community and color. It speaks to the culture of black people and the legacy of the Gantt, and is a beautiful piece that lights up at night. When you ride down the street you can feel it and see it. It’s a great iconic view.”

Gantt Center president David Taylor’s favorite piece of Obvious Cool art is this glass mural outside the Gantt Center. “Divergent Threads, Lucent Memories” is by Apex, NC artist David Wilson. Observer file photo

Hidden Cool art:

“The 24-foot-tall (“Commerce” and “Transportation”) murals by Tommie Robinson in the Spectrum Center speak to Charlotte history and showcase the breadth of his skills,” Taylor said. “It may not be technically hidden, but people in the arena are there for games and many just walk right by. Tommie has been in the community over five decades and sometimes we don’t appreciate the level of artist that he is.”

The “Commerce” mural by Tommie Robinson is 24-feet tall. You’ll find it in the Spectrum Center in uptown Charlotte. Photo by Mitchell Kearney Photography. Courtesy of ASC.

Tommie Robinson’s “Transportation” mural is inside the Spectrum Center in uptown Charlotte. Photo by Mitchell Kearney Photography. Courtesy of ASC.

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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