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Arts in the Harriet Sanford Era 

ASC President's openness and innovation earn -- gasp! -- kudos from all quarters

Amid the local smoke and strife over arenas, schools, and budgets, have you noticed something? The Great Culture War, pitting politicians against the arts, pulverizing Charlotte's progressive reputation nationwide, has virtually vanished into thin air. The Charlotte/ Mecklenburg Arts & Science Council, once the hottest political football around, lies at a comfortable distance from the trench warfare.Credit can be parceled out in various directions -- including the electorate, which neutered the once-mighty Gang of Five in cold blood. But some of the kudos have to go to Harriet Sanford, who took over the reins as President and CEO at the Arts & Science Council two years ago.

If you'll remember, when the arena controversy was at its zenith, Sanford and the ASC didn't make a beeline for the sidelines. No, they fashioned an arts package that was bundled into the arena referendum -- and plunked down $100,000 to actively support the pro-arena campaign.

Michael Marsicano, Sanford's esteemed predecessor, would have been more prudent. An arts connoisseur and one of the most gifted fundraisers in Charlotte history, Marsicano tirelessly pursued community consensus. Yet ironically, under Czar Michael the ASC was a lightning rod for controversy and discontent.

Religious crazies, viewing Marsicano from a distance, castigated him as liberal, arrogant, elitist, and ungodly. Members of the arts community, who saw the Czar up close -- and quaked in his presence -- often characterized him as more dedicated to erecting buildings than supporting artists, more deferential to the dollar and the bottom line than to artistic excellence. Accountability always trumped quality. And they saw him as arrogant. Some consensus, after all.

Here at the Loaf, we were ambivalent toward the Czarist ASC. Mostly, we bashed them for lavishly funding established affiliates and stifling the growth of struggling groups. We bashed their myopic notions of cultural diversity. We bashed their scorn toward Charlotte's theater groups, who could do no right, and their favoritism toward our longhair companies, who could do no wrong.

Politically, Marsicano's finest hour came during the Angels in America controversy when he staunchly defended Charlotte Rep's freedom of expression. Even then, we weren't enthused when the ASC second-guessed Rep's handling of PR and froze their funding. More appeasement to fundamentalist yahoos was offered when Marsicano convened a community-wide Public Funding Task Force to establish new boundaries for artistic propriety.

After the lion sat down with the laughable in a futile quest for consensus, the ASC went backstage and wielded a cudgel. If the Actor's Theatre wouldn't agree to drop Dream of a Common Language from its season schedule for 1998-99, the ASC indicated that their BOG (basic operating grant) would be in jeopardy. Although there was none of the homoerotic raunch of Angels in Common Language, there definitely was nudity -- albeit of a highly chaste and artsy kind. When Actor's Theatre capitulated to the coercion from the ASC, Marsicano and his minions at the Carillon Building applauded their "courage" and "artistic integrity."

Considering that the voting public had already cashiered the Gang of Five, we lambasted the ASC and their policy of appeasement. Czar Michael's approach seemed to be "We Won! Now let's surrender."

The Czarina brings changes

Earning raves for her work in Atlanta as Director of the Department of Arts and Culture for Fulton County, Sanford knew about the tribulations of Charlotte's arts community. Over the past two decades, she visited our fair burg at intervals and got a close-up view. Charlotte didn't strike her as livable until she saw two significant changes in 1999.

First, there was the Uptown Mint. "When I heard they were doing Craft and Design here, I thought: a Southern city is finally deciding that craft was OK! And then I went in, and I couldn't believe it -- extraordinary collection."

Gradually, she noticed the tall buildings that had sprouted up since her previous visit in 1989. And while she might have liked to see some older buildings in the mix, she began to warm towards Charlotte.

"I ate at three restaurants over the course of the three days I was here," she recalls. "And the food was all great. There was a fabulous pace, and I thought, Hmmm. . .And I'm at the Tryon Center -- an artists' colony in sort of an urban setting, not on 700 acres of land where people don't know what the artists do. I thought, They're gonna do R&D for artists in Charlotte!?!"

The place had changed for Sanford. This is livable, she told herself. This feels OK.

But not perfect. When Sanford interviewed for the top position at the ASC, she came with a notebook divided into eight or nine sections. Each section was partitioned into columns: positives and negatives. She found, to her delight, that the people interviewing her weren't just looking for the right answers. They were listening, conversing, engaging in dialogue -- willing to admit there was room for improvement here in Charlotte. Perhaps even a new way of doing things.

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