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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.

Half a dozen executive directors from ASC's affiliates took Sanford on different tours of town. She developed a sense of mission.

"And I left thinking, Livable city, struggling to find. . .and I don't mean this in a corny way. . . but like its roots. I mean what is it? What's holding it? I don't mean the soul because I don't know what that means. But what's your genesis and where are you going to go from there? So I decided to come."

We heard positive reactions about the new arts Czarina almost as soon as she took office, particularly from the disaffected theater community. Theatre Charlotte's Candace Sorensen, one of the execs who chauffeured Sanford during her exploratory visit, issued glowing assessments on Sanford's attitude and priorities. She walked the walk, too.

"The most exciting thing about her is that she's actually taking time to learn this community," says Children's Theatre artistic director Alan Poindexter. "I've seen her out at a lot of events. She seems to be genuinely interested in what the arts community is doing and how she might help the arts community."

Significant endorsement there. Poindexter, co-founder of the Innovative Theatre guerrilla group before settling in at Children's, had a checkered past with the ASC. Like other small groups during the Marsicano regime, Innovative ran afoul of the ASC's beancounters.

"Harriet has said that one of her priorities is quality," Poindexter points out, elaborating on Sanford's positive impact. "So I find that exciting because that's never been a priority at the Arts & Science Council. The atmosphere in this city seems to be more supportive of the artists now, which is good. It's time for us to get to that point and for us to start focusing on the artistry."

Lon Bumgarner, founder of the Charlotte Shakespeare Company, raged and fumed back in 1992 when the ASC allowed his award-winning group to sink in a sea of financial troubles -- never granting Shakespeare a dime. Not one to mince words in his crusading youth, Bumgarner called the ASC stupid, Stalinistic, and un-American, fingering Marsicano as "the number one problem with the arts in this town."

Last year, Bumgarner and local filmmaker Dorne Pentes were funded by ASC's Community Cultural Connection Grants Program to teach their skills in high school. Then he published a major feature in The Leader last November, "Art for Heart's Sake," praising the program and urging others to apply.

"It's hard to find anything negative about the organization's new Community Cultural Connection Grants Program," he wrote. "Unlike many other ASC activities, this one is designed to aid not institutions or non-profit organizations but rather individuals who may possess special talents or skills than can serve or enhance our community."

While their enthusiasm was well-placed, Bumgarner and The Leader's facts were askew. The Community Cultural Connection Grants Program also aids fledgling non-profits struggling for survival. In fact, it was a grant to a coalition of three small groups that finally convinced the ASC's most persistent detractor -- Creative Loafing -- that a radical sea-change had occurred up at the Carillon Building.

Almost a year ago, July 19 to be exact, the ASC began funding a project that became known as "Charlotte's Off-Broadway" through the Cultural Connection Program. Off-Tryon Theatre Company, BareBones, and Chickspeare were given $8,500 for the purpose of publicizing their joint project through direct mail pieces, media ads, and whatever marketing tools they chose. The result was an unprecedented slate of 17 plays from the troika and perpetual theater activity through the Memorial Day weekend.

"If you've read these pages for the last 14 years," we wrote, "you already know that the ASC has not, in our view, energetically supported or nurtured fledgling theater groups. Beyond hanging now-extinct groups like Charlotte Shakespeare and Innovative Theatre out to dry, they have a history of discouraging diversity. Repeatedly, what they've been urging is merging.

"So the new Cultural Connections grant is by far the most visionary and progressive action the ASC has taken on behalf of small, deserving theater groups in Charlotte. And the "Charlotte's Off Broadway' promotion now in its launching stages is the most massive grassroots marketing effort ever undertaken on behalf of fledgling theater groups in Charlotte."

Yes, we were impressed -- and thankful when Charlotte's Off-Broadway proved to be a winner. The quality of the offerings was so consistent that the three company leaders shared CL's Theatreperson of the Year honors.

Access makes the arts grow

Anne Lambert was one of those three winners, famous for getting chopped out of our 2002 Awards Issue from the forehead down. A co-founder of the all-female Chickspeare company, our future Theatre Forehead of the Year was serving as development director at North Carolina Dance Theatre when she drew up the landmark grant proposal with BareBones and Off-Tryon. Currently, she's handling the development beat at Charlotte Rep.

Aside from directing and acting with her fellow Chickspeareans, Lambert eats, breathes, and sleeps grant proposals. Pick up her idle, unconscious doodlings at staff meetings, and you're likely to find encrypted budgets, timelines, and delegated responsibilities.

From Lambert's perspective, the ASC was never aloof even in the dread Marsicano era. You had to learn how to navigate the voluminous forms and the labyrinthine procedures of the grants process. But she insists the terrain was navigable. Part of the blame for arts funding not getting spread more widely, Lambert maintains, must be laid at the cold feet of artists and administrators who were too proud or defeatist in their attitudes to embark on the twisted grant-writing voyage.

But even Lambert recognizes that the current ASC is reaching out to artists more aggressively and offering a helping hand.

"Certainly the grants process from our grant-writing point of view got streamlined," Lambert remarks. "She came in right away and said she's looking at multi-year application procedures. And the application process kind of slimmed down: it went on a little diet and lost a little weight. For those of us who write those grants, I just think you can't do enough of that. There is already an enormous due diligence process that all of the groups go through, and it's way too complicated even now. To most people in the community, it's sort of a mystery. Anything that can be done to demystify the process -- and I see Harriet doing this -- is a step in the absolute right direction."

The beauty of the streamlined application routine isn't merely onionskin deep. Today's ASC is sitting down with potential grants recipients and guiding them through the labyrinth. Nor do you have to make a pilgrimage to the Carillon Building to receive the ASC's blessing. They find you.

"In the process of the Grassroots and the Access Grants," Lambert confirms, "they have a meeting. It's called the Community Cultural Connections Grant Workshop, and they have them all over the city. Down in Davidson, Pineville-Mathews. They have them in West Charlotte, they have them in North Tryon neighborhood, First Ward uptown, the Community Services Center. They have them in churches, basements. They're designed to get this information out to the community. It's a grant writing workshop. Regina Smith is the VP of Grants and Services, and one of her mandates is to try to reach that group that is a potential application pool for the Access and the Grassroots Grants."

To Sanford, making those cultural connections is as important as calculating BOGs for established arts affiliates. Which areas are most likely to win approval for individuals and new groups from the ASC's Grants and Services? Anything.

"I want to reach out into communities, let them define what they want," Sanford stresses. "If they want dance class -- and it could be jazz, tap, ballet, I don't care what it is -- for 22 weeks in their community, then if you're going to organize it, we should put some money to help you make that happen. I will not be the arbiter of what is valuable and not valuable."

So if there's grassroots support for steel drumming, Sanford says the ASC will go with the flow and cut a check. Suddenly, the outlook is wide open. Or to use one of Sanford's favorite words, omnivorous. It's not that Sanford totally ignores her agency's fiduciary responsibilities to Charlotte's big corporate arts donors. That's "a given" in Sanford's book -- but it's not why she's here.

Nor is today's ASC caught up in the curious contradiction of preaching diversity one day and coaxing consensus the next. Sanford grasps the fundamental difference between great theaters and great corporations, so she's not interested in seeing our theater scene consolidate with group mergers. She'll proudly tell you that the population of Atlanta theater groups grew from a dozen to "like a hundred" during her 20-year tenure -- and the best groups were forced to get better. Or perish.

The Dutch Reformer

Neatness and tidiness may be desirable in our banking towers, but Sanford perceives they're unhealthy for a vibrant cultural landscape.

"I have no artistic talent," she confesses. "I'm a mediocre athlete. What I do well, I believe, is my intuitive sense of what makes a community work, respecting other people on the way, and trying to balance all those things to build it. You don't just need an arena, but you don't just need culture in the Center City. You need as broad a reach of it as possible. Our responsibility is to juggle multiple things. Giving people as many choices as possible to have as balanced a life as you can. I don't know that you can build community consensus, but I think you can create an environment where as many points of view as possible can be expressed. Really, what I'm more interested in is that we allow what I hope would become civil dialogue to happen without judging everybody."

Respecting people, you quickly learn, isn't a mere position statement for Sanford. It's her style. It's why the description you hear most often applied to her is "down-to-earth."

Did she apply her credo of respecting people to the religious right? You bet.

Armed with more charm than guile, Sanford usually tosses aside ploys and strategies when facing tense situations. At her job interview for the ASC post, and in her September 2000 talk to Charlotte's religious troglodytes, Sanford reverted to being herself. And empathizing with others.

She'd sent out her advance team, so she knew the people she was speaking to would be more conservative than she. And she talked about growing up in the church. No, this Yank isn't a Baptist or a Methodist. She's Dutch Reform. Every Sunday, she went to church, and in the summers, she went to church camp.

"I went to a Catholic school for a year," she confides. "I was the number one student. I've read every word in the Bible; I used to be able to recite most of it. And it framed who I am. What religion gave me was the ability to be respectful and forgiving and still love art at the same time. So that's kind of how I introduced myself that day. It's a little unnerving to have a Yankee and a Dutch Reform artist-loving person run an agency because what do you go after them about?"

So far, nobody's going after Sanford, on either side of Charlotte's political/cultural divide. In the aftermath of September 11, she had the sensitivity, the intuition, and the smarts to properly gauge the public's mood on the annual ASC fund drive. For the first time, there was no increase in the fundraising target. Even then, she divined the right button to press as the campaign tally was $50,000 above the 2001 drive.

Local arts groups aren't getting their customary funding hikes for 2002-2003; in fact, there's a 2 or 3 percent drop to contend with. No grumbling has been heard, although one can't imagine even small reversals being accepted over a longer period of time. For now, reviews continue to be glowing in the theater community.

Dan Shoemaker, Actor's Theatre's executive director, welcomes Sanford's energy and initiatives.

"Prior to Harriet, more emphasis was placed on the corporate connection," Shoemaker remembers, "and I think now the arts are at the forefront, more so than the corporate contributions to the arts. She consistently says that she's there to support us, and if we don't excel, then it's not because there's not support there. And that's exactly right."

Opera Carolina, moving full steam ahead on expanding their season despite a minimal ASC funding increase, is also reporting complete ASC support.

"I think she's done an excellent job," says OC's executive director, James Meena. "She's very inclusive, a nurturing yet very strong person, but also one who listens well and tries to take into account everyone's viewpoint. She's made a lot of good strides in getting the various directors of the organizations together and creating a sense of artistic community."

Being supportive does not mean that Sanford isn't sharply critical on occasion. What she wants to avoid is being hurtfully critical. So far, she seems to be pushing her agenda forward without ruffling any feathers. Partly, it's that respectful strain, and partly it's because Sanford is working so hard on affiliates' behalf.

Topping Sanford's to-do list are marketing and audience development. Looking at the frequent queue of advertisers in the Observer's Sunday arts section, she's acutely frustrated that so many groups are mired in the same worn-out strategies.

"It's a huge market out there," Sanford insists. "It's not a little town anymore. A lot of disposable incomes. Most people that I talk to, who don't live within a certain radius of downtown, say, "I just don't feel invited.' So we just have to think about how we package and promote, and I think we ought to package and promote to everybody within a 40-mile radius."

Since she arrived two years ago, Sanford has instituted an annual retreat where ASC affiliates get together, discuss problems, hash out new ideas, relax, and bond more tightly as an arts community. This year, the whole problem of marketing was a prime challenge for the arts execs.

At least two strong innovations are on the horizon. A marketing firm has been contracted to do a complete demographic marketing study to spark more effective strategies. And instead of their usual glossy annual report geared to donors, the ASC will publish a tabloid annual report as a newspaper insert. Prime focus will be on what affiliate groups achieved artistically instead of how the ASC raised and divvied funds.

Sanford even finds reason for dissatisfaction with Charlotte's overachieving donor group.

"We want people to know: yes we need your money, but equally important, I need you to go to the theater, go to the museum. If you only give me money and don't cross the threshold, I fail."

Like many fine works of art, what Sanford is trying to do must be fully understood before it can be fully appreciated. Yes, she's taking our Arts & Science Council beyond its proud heritage of efficient, prolific fundraising and generous corporate volunteering. She's even looking beyond building respect for local arts organizations and getting local artists paid.

Harriet Sanford is attempting to exponentially increase participation in the arts throughout the Metrolina area -- actively encouraging more people to create art and more spectators to enjoy what artists do. In the process, she's attempting to use the ASC as a catalyst for artistic expression, for bringing us together as a community, and enhancing community life. In other words, Sanford is trying to lift us all.

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