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Ars Longa, Vita Brevis 

Charlotte's chance for a great museum may have slipped away

Charlotte's not renowned for its visual sophistication. Our city is more excited by the ephemeral possibility of installing a whitewater rafting course, or in the soap opera of the Hornets and a new arena, than in anything as effete as . . . well, a new art museum.

As a low wage mill town, we were conservative; as a high wage banking town, we're still conservative. The nature of banking and bankers is conservative. Though Charlotte -- corporately and individually -- gives generously to the Arts & Science Council, it's mainly to support educational grants and established groups. Safe support. Avant garde visual art doesn't hold much sway in a place where abstract painting and sculpture are considered radical, and where few local art venues show cutting edge work.

Our architecture is much the same: serviceable, safe and conservative.

The same can be said of our museums.

Like a short-lived butterfly, the possibility of a new Mint Museum uptown flitted briefly across our future until it was stung to death by being "bundled" with the Hornets. That fiasco set back the cause of the arts in Charlotte by at least a decade. There's no new uptown museum on the horizon now.

Compare this failure with several other cities who have recently used innovative museums and museum additions designed by signature architects as ways of revitalizing urban life. Examples include Frank Gehry's Guggenheim in Bilbao, Northern Spain (1997), which turned a gritty industrial city best known for its soccer team into a global cultural destination; the same designer's proposed addition to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis; Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum in Berlin (1998); I.M. Pei's bold Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, touted as being the "centerpiece of Cleveland's North Coast Harbor"; and the National Centre for Popular Music, in Sheffield, England, designed by Nigel Coates and adorned with "spouts" coated with Sheffield steel. Most recently, Santiago Calatrava's astonishing extension to the Milwaukee Art Museum provides another example of an art museum that has become a destination in its own right. In this amazing building, great "wings" of hydraulically powered fins open to shade the main space of the building, creating an unforgettable image.

In these cases, museums were deliberately sited to rejuvenate urban areas. We may think Charlotte's uptown has come a long way, and indeed it has. But the complacency our city suffers from when we make some progress holds us back from going further, making it better.

As architecture critic Arthur Lazere said, "It's no coincidence that some of the best new buildings are art museums -- what more likely source of forward-looking, informed taste?" Is it too much of a stretch to imagine such an opportunity for Charlotte's Mint Museum of Art? Could we ever get it together to create a new work of architecture that would make this city known for something other than conservative bankers and failed sports teams?

Our city's opportunity to build at least one great work of architecture may have passed. But maybe not. Maybe our heyday as a visually stunning city is yet to come. Imagine a great building coming our way. Imagine an inspired building superimposed over the Hearst Tower's strangely overwrought exterior. Imagine a new art museum. What would it look like?

We have one good building uptown, Cesar Pelli's elegant tower. The Hearst tower by TVS of Atlanta (who also designed the Convention Center and the more appealing Carillon Building) was outdated from its conception. Same goes for John Portman's new Convention Center Hotel. Been there. Done that. The appalling, unfinished, shiny "Big Pink" box by Jim Gross looks like a bad student project from 20 years ago -- punk ambition at best.

Big, experimental design statements such as those by Gehry, Libeskind or Calatrava are clearly too challenging even for contemplation in Charlotte. But we don't have to go "Euro" or be as "big name" as Gehry to do this; we could have "cutting edge" design as good as the new St. John's Museum of Art in Wilmington, NC, by Charles Gwathmey.

Charles Gwathmey of New York is a North Carolina-born architect and one of the most noted museum designers in the US, best known for recent additions and renovations to Frank Lloyd Wright's Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in the early 1990s. He was selected from a group of 22 architects invited to submit proposals. The St. John's Museum of Art in Wilmington project was initiated with a gift of $4 million from the Bruce B. Cameron Foundation and five acres of land from the Louise Wells Cameron family, valued at more than $2 million to the museum in memory of their mother. The Kresge Foundation offered the project a $500,000 "challenge grant." Total cost for the 42,000 square foot facility was about $12.6 million.

Finding this sort of funding is what city "fathers" and museum boards are for. Perhaps ours could take a lesson from little Wilmington. But a project like this also requires a population and leadership committed to making a cultural statement: putting art before sports, before whitewater gimmicks, before empty arenas, before the clutter of everyday life.

When the Roman philosopher and statesman Lucius Anneus Seneca uttered the immortal words, "Ars longa, vita brevis (Art is long, life is short)," he added a warning: "Opportunity is fleeting."

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