Local

Gantt Center gains steam, aiming higher

dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

Buoyed by a $100,000 grant from the Duke Energy Foundation and riding a wave of successful exhibitions, Charlotte’s Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture is moving to broaden offerings and educational opportunities.

Marking five years since moving into its new building at the uptown Levine Center for the Arts – which thrust the Gantt into prominence in the mainstream cultural district with the Mint Museum, Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, Wells Fargo history museum and nearby Discovery Place and Levine Museum of the New South – the center has more than doubled its membership in the past year to about 2,000 and accepted the Duke Energy grant, one of the largest gifts in the Gantt’s history.

As the center gears up with increased support, it wants to expand such offerings as the Family First art activities offered the first weekend of each month, look for new opportunities to explore social issues as it did with the “America I Am” and “Question Bridge” exhibits and engage more children through its partnership with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, said Gantt president David Taylor.

“We want to ensure that this cultural experience is part of the educational experience,” said Taylor, who says student tours have been affected by budget cuts for field trips.

First five years

Before Taylor opened the uptown Gantt in October 2009, the center’s previous incarnation had been through five directors in 10 years. Since then, Taylor and the board have stabilized the leadership and the center’s $1.3 million budget has grown to $2 million annually. Launched at the height of the recession, the Gantt was able to slowly grow staff and donors.

“But it’s not been without challenges, make no mistake,” Taylor said. “Every dollar we get we need.”

Still, the center has attracted top African-American exhibitions, including the largest exhibition of objects from the Kinsey Collection and Tavis Smiley’s “America I Am: The African American Imprint” during the Democratic National Convention in 2012.

About 20 percent of the center’s visitors, Taylor said, come from outside the African-American community.

Support from Duke

Duke Energy Foundation, which has been supporting the cultural campus since its organization, has a vision for the Gantt Center that makes it prominent among operations of its type across the nation, said Richard “Stick” Williams, foundation president. That was part of the reason it issued a $100,000 challenge grant to be paid if the Gantt raised its membership from about 700 to 1,974 – for the year 1974 when the Charlotte Afro-American Cultural Center was formed.

“Since it moved uptown, we decided this ought to be a premier facility for the Southeast,” said Williams. “This idea of tripling the membership was an audacious goal and we wanted to support it. For us, this is all about getting the Gantt Center to the point of sustainability.”

Without a big operating endowment, membership is an important component in maintaining a cultural organization because it provides a reliable income, Taylor said.

Other major supporters for the center include some of Charlotte’s most prominent philanthropic organizations including Carolinas Healthcare System, Novant Health, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, PNC bank, Snyders Lance and Compass Group. It also gets $180,000 in operating support annually from the Arts & Sciences Council.

Goals for future

Taylor said the center has established a national profile that is helping attract top-flight exhibitions.

“No one else is putting African-American art forward 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he said. “We want this to be the chief place to come for visual African-American art. We want to pretty much own that space. Artists are drawn to it.”

No other cultural institution quite matches the Gantt, whose holdings include the John and Vivian Hewitt collection of 58 works by 20 artists, including Charlotte native Romare Bearden. It was a gift from Bank of America in 1998.

“You can’t go to New York and see it, or D.C. and see it,” said Taylor. “They come from those cities here to see it.”

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At the Gantt Now

“Venturing Out of the Heart of Darkness,” an exhibition about the impact of colonialism on prevailing societal attitudes that define black culture in America. Adult admission: $9. www.ganttcenter.org.

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