As with so many artists, the COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating to Ana Ogbueze. The Charlotte dancer, choreographer and producer saw work opportunities vanish, and the money she earned teaching classes dried up. “My whole business model is centered around communities and gathering,” she said.
Relief arrived late last year in the form of CARES Act assistance — enough to give her hope heading into 2021. But a new Charlotte City Council arts plan has Ogbueze and other independent artists worried anew about their future. It also should trouble the communities that those artists live in, represent and nourish.
The plan, discussed at last week’s council meeting, would fund arts and culture groups through a new city advisory board instead of the Arts & Science Council. The ASC has traditionally combined private donations with local and state government resources to fund groups throughout Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, but if the council plan is passed with the June 14 budget, council members would have final say over where the city’s arts funding goes.
There are some obvious problems with that. Charlotte isn’t too far removed from the controversy a quarter century ago surrounding public funding and the play Angels in America. Charlotteans should be wary of the personal tastes of council members — or lobbying efforts directed at them — having sway over arts and culture decisions.
But a potentially bigger blind spot of the proposal involves diversity. The plan would diminish the ASC, and minority artists and others across the city worry that it could render the organization powerless or worse. ASC has had issues with diversity — the organization released an apology earlier this month for historic inequities in funding decisions — but artists say ASC leaders have made significant strides in recent years developing relationships with creatives that reach into the city’s diverse communities.
“For artists like myself, that’s huge,” said Ogbueze, who also is vice chair of Diversity On & Off Stage, a collective of Charlotte-area artists and arts leaders. “Now funding might be put into the hands of those who might not be connected or aware of the smaller arts community,” she said.
A related issue: Charlotte’s art funding proposal came from an ad hoc committee tasked by Mayor Vi Lyles to develop a policy for arts and culture as an economic strategy for the city, the Observer’s Catherine Muccigrosso reported. Artists who spoke to the Editorial Board this week are worried that if Charlotte focuses on attracting film projects and promoting art that’s appealing to tourists, smaller groups and independent creatives who flourished under ASC will wither. Those artists weren’t encouraged by a video meeting last week in which council members reportedly talked about arts and tourism as much as independent artists and their importance to the communities where they live.
Such an approach to arts funding could be a significant step backward for arts and culture in the city. Charlotte has taken some time to understand what other cities realized earlier — that supporting arts diversity is about more than bringing arts from on high into those communities. It’s about supporting the creatives who live in those communities, represent them and give them voice through art.
“This is an ecosystem,” said actor Arletia Hailstock, a co-chair of Diversity On & Off Stage. “I totally understand the council wanting arts to encourage economic development, but let’s think about the people right here.”
The Arts & Science Council is certainly not a perfect organization. It was too slow to embrace diversity, and its business model has shown itself unsustainable thus far without significant public dollars. But ASC officials have begun to build meaningful relationships with artists throughout the city and county. Council members, who have long been attentive to diversity and equity issues, should look for an arts plan that cultivates those relationships.
“If you want to support the arts, do it in a real way,” said Ogbueze. Artists, and the communities they live in, depend on it.