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Outside the current Charlotte Art League building on Camden Road. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

Outside the current Charlotte Art League building on Camden Road. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

Charlotte Art League Is Being Forced out of South End, and Only the Neighborhood Stands to Lose 

A League of their own

On a recent Thursday afternoon, the scene outside Charlotte Art League was glum. Rain clouds promised to spoil the Panthers' last preseason game later that night, but for now were content to dump a steady drizzle on the Camden Road construction site across from the building, creating a pit of mud where Common Market and Black Sheep Skate Shop once stood.

But inside the large warehouse, the mood was vibrant. Volunteers moved art around and chatted cheerily, while a little white Peek-a-poo (Pekingnese and poodle) named Gabi sat at the receptionist desk, ready to help anyone who walked through the door.

It would have been hard to tell that day that CAL had been informed just a week earlier that the organization wouldn't be allowed to stay in the building it had called home for 22 years. The way the ladies inside CAL were facing that rainy day, however, was a metaphor for how they look at any news that tries to bring them down.

Cindy Connelly, executive director at CAL, took a seat on a modern-but-worn leather couch in the back of the building and explained that, while the short notice from the venue's owners — Asana Parnters enacted a clause in the lease that would force CAL out in six months — was a surprise, the move was something the whole team had anticipated and was looking forward to.

Connelly had watched as community staples had shut down around her to make room for business offices and condos over the last three years, and she had already begun planning to move into a new space. She expected they would have to leave within three years, but not by January 24, 2018, which is what she faces now.

"Asana never gave us the indication that they were going to give us that small timeframe, but there was never much communication there," she said. "So when the letter came it was kind of like, 'Ugh, oh man.' We had been working on it, because we knew it was inevitable, we just didn't think it was going to be that short of a timeframe."

Still though, the team's proactive approach paid off. Three months before the letter came, they had started planning, figuring out their budget and outlining proposals for potential new facilities.

"So really it was a fantastic time, because we already had most of the work done," Connelly said. "We knew how much we could afford, we knew what we were looking at, we were just working on our talking points for when we went out to talk to facilities and partners. So the timing really couldn't have been better. We knew it was inevitable, we just got a bit complacent. We kept thinking, 'Oh, 2020 maybe?' So when the letter came, we were halfway through. We just ripped the Band Aid off and now we're running."

Connelly hopes CAL can find a bigger space as they continue to expand, and looks at the unexpected letter as a positive.

"We've grown out of this building," she said. "We need more space. We have more nonprofits that are in need of space. So I think it's a good thing. We're going to be a bigger, better CAL. There's nothing negative about it. I mean, it's a short time frame, sure, but we're running with it. We have no choice."

click to enlarge Inside the Charlotte Art League. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)
  • Inside the Charlotte Art League. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

Charlotte Art League originally formed in 1965 as a group of local artists who would meet at each others' homes or in local churches to create and share artwork. Thirty years later, the League found a home in the old biscuit factory on Camden Road in an area that was then known for Price's Chicken Coop and not much else. It began as a "clubhouse" of sorts for local artists, and eventually gained a reputation as a fine arts gallery, but in recent years CAL has transformed into a studio for nonprofit organizations and a venue for a diverse range of expression, from pottery kilns to stage plays.

In the last three years, CAL has acted as a haven and gallery space for 25 nonprofit and for-profit partners. The League works with organizations like UMAR Services Inc., which promotes inclusion and independence for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities; and Studio 345, an out-of-school youth development program that teaches students an array of multimedia art forms.

Susan Dunn, president of CAL's board of directors, said the League's increased work with its various community partners has been one of the most fulfilling aspects of her three-year tenure.

"We're bringing together people and making partnerships with people that would have never met each other," Dunn said. "Studio 345 is housed in Spirit Square. We didn't know that those kids were learning graphic arts. We've got the perfect opportunity for them to fill that need for us, while at the same time validating their skills and talents as artists."

Another example Dunn cited was CAL's work with Guerilla Poets, who work to "give poetry back to the people" with spontaneous poetry readings and community volunteering with at-risk youth.

click to enlarge Susan Dunn. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)
  • Susan Dunn. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

"I know in my day-to-day life, I wouldn't have met them or heard their stories or their experiences had they not come here," Dunn said of Guerilla Poets. "It's giving everybody a platform to tell their story, and it's all within the art field. We've got spoken word, we've got theater, we've got musicians who come in — it's not just oil on canvas. Everybody needs to open up to all the different arts, and I think that's really the direction that CAL went, was from just being a gallery with beautiful paintings, to we've got everything now."

While CAL has built up its repertoire to include just about "everything" in the local arts scene, the surrounding South End area has seen its culture slowly vanish into a cluster of similar-looking breweries and condominiums.

The loss of CAL, for example, will be a huge loss to the popular South End Gallery Crawl, which takes place on the first Friday of each month. Some have compared the potential effects to how the development of the Camden Avenue lot where Food Truck Friday was held eventually led to that event being split up and scattered around town.

Larry Elder's recent sale of Elder Gallery, which sits across the construction site from CAL, sent rumors swirling that it might be South End's next loss, but gallery director Cassandra Richardson told Creative Loafing that new owner Sonya Pfeiffer is a longtime family friend of the Elders and has no intentions of selling the building to developers.

Everyone Creative Loafing spoke with during a recent visit to CAL spoke of the recent demolition of the Common Market across the street like they were referring to the death of a close friend.

"It's very heartbreaking," said Kristen Winger, a volunteer and artist at CAL. "Charlotte doesn't seem to hold on to its history, whether it's funding or whether it's volunteers or whatever, so watching directly across the street from us, as the Common Market and those buildings we demolished. It was really hard watching it go. You feel hurt, you feel anger, you feel loss. You feel so many things, and then you know it's coming for you. You feel like instead of looking for a light at the end of the tunnel, you look for a darkness at the end of your tunnel, and you anticipate that it's going to happen to us. But we're also realizing that it means a change, it means growth opportunities for us, and I'm excited about that."

Kirsten Winger with her dog Gabi in her 'Flutterby Art' studio in CAL. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)
  • Kirsten Winger with her dog Gabi in her 'Flutterby Art' studio in CAL. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

Artists at CAL turned the demolition of they're beloved Common Market, Black Sheep and Modern Fabrics locations into an art project, of course, photographing in sequence as the buildings fell. Many of them snatched up mementos from the rubble.

Connelly emphasized that it was about more than the easy access to a good lunch, but that CAL lost a neighbor they had built a strong bond with. For Dunn, it was the symbol of a neighborhood on the decline, despite what the development firms tell you.

"It's been sad," Dunn said. "I hated losing our Common Market across the street and the other artists that were in the buildings around it. The charm of the neighborhood kind of left when Common Market left, and that eclectic, funky feel is not really here anymore. So, you know, maybe we'll bring our funky, eclectic feel to a new area."

And so the question remains: Where will CAL bring that funky, eclectic feel?

For now, the folks at CAL were still waiting to hear back about a proposal for a space on Hawthorne Avenue, in a rapidly developing area between the Belmont and Plaza Midwood neighborhoods.

With plans pending there, the board has continued searching for a space that would fit their expanding needs. Camp North End, the hip, new spot on Statesville Avenue, was out of CAL's price range, so the search has continued in spots down South Tryon Street and in different areas of east and west Charlotte.

"It's like doing House Hunters: Commercial Edition," said Connelly. "It's been really interesting to see all these properties that aren't air conditioned and are smelly and haven't been occupied for 30 years. It's like seeing a little bit of Charlotte's history. There are a lot of opportunities out there, we've just got to find that one place that's going to have the foot traffic and that's going to be safe for the artists to be in at night. I'm sure we'll find it."

If CAL hasn't finalized a plan by the end of September, Connelly said, they will begin looking for a smaller, alternative space to serve as a placeholder until a bigger space is ready, but she's optimistic that won't be necessary. Whatever happens, she said, CAL won't go dark.

click to enlarge Inside the Charlotte Art League. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)
  • Inside the Charlotte Art League. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

For Winger, the ideas come spilling out when she's asked about what she'd like to see come out of a new location. Emphasizing that she was just expressing her personal wishes and not speaking for fellow board members, she was at the ready with plans for a more communal CAL than what it's been in South End. Her dreams sound a lot like a new version of what Camp North End has become in recent months.

"My dream, personally, is to have a place where local bands can play, and we could have a coffee shop and a co-op type atmosphere," she said. "Maybe a yoga studio, and you come in for yoga class, 'Oh my gosh, I like that art piece, I never knew that was here.' And, 'Hey look there's a crawl going on next week,' or something, and just in the community getting out there. I hope we find a bigger, brighter place with an opportunity to draw a different crowd of people in, whether it be a different group of artists or a different group of clientele that comes in and looks at the art."

For Dunn, the search gives CAL a new opportunity to continue expanding its work with nonprofits and other community organizations, so that CAL can reach community members that may be Charlotte's next great artists, they just don't know it yet.

"That's the exciting part about this move. Yes, we're sad to leave South End, it's been a great community for us, but we think we can find a larger facility, maybe in an area of town that doesn't have as much going on," Dunn said. "Maybe we're going to reach people who wouldn't have had access to canvass and paint. We've got a lot of nonprofits that come in and work with us, so we're hoping to be more accessible. In a larger facility we would have more space to share with our partners.

"So I'm not looking at this as doom and gloom. I'm looking at this as, it's a bump in the road. Nobody likes change, but if we can get to that place where we say, 'Wow, that was great but look what we've got now,' that's where I want to get to."

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