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Arts in the Harriet Sanford Era 

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

Page 4 of 5

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.

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