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Arts in the Harriet Sanford Era 

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

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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

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