Lawrence Toppman

A cutting-edge administrator leaves a cutting-edge arts group

Suzanne Fetscher has left McColl Center for Art + Innovation after almost two decades as its leader.
Suzanne Fetscher has left McColl Center for Art + Innovation after almost two decades as its leader. Courtesy of McColl Center for Art + Innovation

For the first time since Bill Clinton was president, the McColl Center for Art + Innovation is looking for a leader. Suzanne Fetscher, founding president and CEO of the center – and head of one of the most cutting-edge groups in Charlotte cultural history – will retire Sept. 30.

On April 1, an executive search committee led by McColl Center board member Jon Joffe will look for a successor. Her replacement will fill not just big shoes but seven-league boots.

At 60, Fetscher can look all the way back to 1998, when the organization – then called Tryon Center for the Arts – huddled in a Spirit Square office with two employees, rented furniture and a few board members. During the first 18 months of her guidance, it moved to the retro-fitted church it now occupies at 721 N. Tryon St., bought all the equipment for studios, curated the first exhibition and brought in the first artists-in-residence.

Ask what makes her proudest after 19 years of service, and she hesitates.

“Opening and staying open during these tumultuous economic and political times,” she says, laughing. “That song ‘I’m Still Standing’ seems very relevant! But I’m proud that we’ve served more than 400 artists, 50 percent of them from North and South Carolina.

“There are about 550 artist-in-residence programs in the United States now, but when we opened, there were about 150. We figured out how to create a residency that wasn’t just a retreat for research and development but also connected the artist to the community .... And now other artists-in-residence programs look at our model.”

The numbers tell an impressive story: Fetscher has worked with more than 75 organizations in Charlotte and has secured nearly $2 million in grant funding for Innovation Institute, the groundbreaking, artist-led creativity training program.

McColl Center received two major ArtPlace America grants, $400,000 in 2014 for the Brightwalk Art + Ecology Campus and $350,000 in 2017 for the Tale of Two Cities project. (Only two U.S. organizations have received two such Creative Placemaking grants from ArtPlace.)

The McColl Center both met a need – a need the city perhaps didn’t realize it had – and created one.

“We evolved in response to what the community wanted and what our value could be for artists,” she says. “With contemporary art, it’s important to show how and why it’s being made, the ideas that artists are focusing on. Artists explored new ways to express themselves, and this became a creative laboratory that the community played a part in.”

Fetscher will explore new ways to express herself soon. She might do some consulting; she might find another way to get involved in what she calls “the intersection of art and the community.” At bottom, she says, “I am sort of letting the universe create interesting opportunities for me.”

Toppman: 704-358-5232