Rethinking our arts and culture sector

The Observer editorial board

The Charlotte Ballet and other arts groups rely on the Arts & Science Council for financial support.
The Charlotte Ballet and other arts groups rely on the Arts & Science Council for financial support.

For the past 18 months or so, leaders in Charlotte’s Arts & Science Council have been trying to pull off the management equivalent of changing the tires on a speeding car.

They are trying to remake the arts and culture organization for the digital era, even as new philanthropic patterns and disruptions keep changing the terrain. The underlying problem: more and more individuals prefer to direct their own charitable dollars toward specific causes, rather than relying on workplace giving campaigns such as the ASC’s.

The ASC put together a task force more than a year ago to revamp the organization for these uncertain times. In a meeting with the editorial board this week, ASC leaders unveiled the action plan they’ve crafted from the task force’s work.

Under the theme of “Culture for All,” they aim to scrap the organization’s top-down, uptown-centric approach to cultural programming and finances. They’re downsizing the organization’s leadership board, setting up regional advisory councils, and increasing the number of arts groups receiving operating grants from 21 to as many as 50.

Given that 85 percent of ASC’s operating grants now go to just 13 organizations, that seems a commendable move – even though it will mean financial pain for some groups. The ASC says it wants to become more of a “resource hub” for arts groups; that must be much more than a slogan if the ASC wants a meaningful role in helping arts groups boost their self-sufficiency.

None of this is likely to reverse the long-term decline in workplace giving campaigns. Of necessity, the ASC must continue to rely on that unsteady stream of dollars.

That means the ASC’s long-term viability still depends on finding a dedicated revenue stream, such as a sales tax hike earmarked for the arts. Or on figuring out how to rev people’s passions for the arts so intensely that individual engagement – and giving – soars.

The ASC’s leaders are betting that spreading arts programming and leadership more broadly through Mecklenburg’s suburbs and the broader region will broaden their public support.

They hope the new structure gives them more feedback on what people want, what they are passionate about, and yes, what they are willing to open their wallets to pay for.

Perhaps it even leads to that long-sought dedicated revenue source.

This effort is of vital importance to Charlotte’s future. Whether it will all play out as ASC leaders hope is hard to say, given how rapidly things are changing.

But one thing is certain: It will seem a hollow victory indeed if we keep adding new buildings and jobs, but fail to keep growing a robust arts and culture sector to feed our growing region’s soul.