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Impressive new Afro-Am center opens this month 

There's a thought-provoking catchphrase often spoken at events and initiatives that focus on diversity. "If you're not at the table, you're on the menu." This month, Charlotte's African-American community takes a big seat at a big table when the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts and Culture opens at the Wells Fargo Cultural Campus in Uptown.

This city has seen some ambitious projects take form over recent years, and the cultural campus -- which is home to several recently and soon-to-be finished institutions including the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, Knight Theater, and Mint Museum -- is a significant one. Many feel it will speak volumes about this growing Southern city and how far it has come.

Thirty-five years ago, community leaders began efforts to build a center that would preserve African-American history, a concern that grew out of witnessing historic black neighborhoods, churches and businesses torn down or moved in the name of urban renewal. After labeling itself the Afro-American Cultural Center and opening a small office in 1977 in then-newly opened Spirit Square, the organization became known largely for the successful cultural festival it put on each year. In 1986, the center moved into the old Little Rock AME Zion Church on North Myers Street, where it operated two art galleries and a 130-seat theater until closing over the summer to prepare for its move into the brand-new 44,000-square-foot facility -- four times the size of the place it left.

"I certainly recognize that whether we're in an 11,000-square-foot facility or we're here, we have an important task," says Carolyn Mints, who served as interim president at the AACC for the past year and is now transitioning to a new role at the Gantt Center. "Of course, we're stepping up our game, and we have to be far better than we ever were on North Myers Street. And I know no one on this staff, no one on this board takes it lightly or for granted. Everybody realized how important the center was to the Charlotte community all along. It's just that now we have a larger arena in which to play and we'll have more eyes on it."

The Harvey Gantt Center, which, of course, is named in honor of Charlotte's first (and only) African-American mayor, is opening in a prime location that any visitors' attraction would envy. And it's something the center had long desired.

"The Afro-American Cultural Center is an organization we've partnered with frequently, and you could feel the frustration that they were not within walking distance of many of the other downtown cultural attractions," notes Tom Hanchett, staff historian for the Levine Museum of the New South. "At the Levine Museum, slightly over half of our visitors are walk-in folks who were downtown for some other reason, are not from Charlotte, and discovered this museum, walked in, and fell in love. The new Harvey Gantt Center ensures that culture will have the same opportunity to attract people."

The Gantt Center building itself is a work of art. Durham-based architectural firm The Freelon Group created a "Jacob's Ladder" concept, drawing inspiration from the Myers Street School that once stood in the old Brooklyn neighborhood, an African-American neighborhood that was lost to urban renewal and is where this center now stands. At four stories tall, the building is long and narrow, built on just a 45-foot wide plot of land. But inside, it's awe-inspiring.

With three large galleries and plenty of storage space, it now has room to house The Hewitt Collection of African-American Art. Bank of America purchased the collection for the center more than 10 years ago, but it never had space to show as many of the 58 pieces as it would have liked (Hewitt's wife has donated another 21 pieces). Also on display when the center opens, in separate galleries, will be Between Two Worlds, by Radcliffe Bailey, and Leisure Space, by Juan Logan.

The building has meeting rooms, a large room for special events, and a terrace that overlooks the cultural campus. But to the staff, one of the most important components of the new center is the classroom space.

"We have an opportunity to do some extraordinary things here in the community and in the region," says David Taylor, who was named president of the Harvey B. Gantt Center in July. "We'll begin to expand our education and outreach programs. I want the public and independent schools -- I want to see school buses pulling up to this building and kids coming in and having a huge educational experience while being inspired by the extraordinary works of artists who just so happen to be African-American. In the past, we had facility challenges that kept us from saying 'Bring two school buses every hour on the hour.' So it's never been a consistent part of our programming, but it will be in the future."

Taylor, who was most recently a co-owner of Dillingham & Taylor Wealth Management and has a long career in the financial services industry, served as chairman of the AACC's board from 2004-2006. This was the period when the AACC initiated its ambitious plans to build a new facility. With partnerships with, and funding from, Wachovia Bank, the Arts and Science Council, the city, and others to construct the $18 million building, the center set out on a campaign of its own in 2008 to generate funds for operating expenses.

"We have a $3.5 million campaign that's been going on for about 18 months now," Taylor says. "We're going to bring it to a close at the end of March; we extended it to March. We're currently at about $2.8 million in terms of pledges and commitments, which we're certainly very proud of in this economic environment. As I've taken over the helm, I asked the board for the extension because I think we have a good chance -- I want to make sure we've done everything possible to raise the $3.5 million. I feel good about our possibilities of reaching our goal. And the thing I like about it most is we've had great corporate and individual support. African-Americans have certainly opened their pocketbooks and made significant investments in the vision of the center."

African-American support on all levels is something that will be of utmost importance, says Mints. She's concerned about keeping that vital connection to the community, which could be lost when such a large transformation is made.

"For our community, we've got to work harder to make this a home," she says. "Because we're in a larger facility, because it's new, because we're in Uptown Charlotte. Historically, for our folks to move in and out of a church is very natural. It's not so easy to make that transition from an environment, from a façade that is a church where our folks have always felt a degree of comfort and a place of respite, to make a transition to a building that's concrete, more traffic, new paint, new wallpaper and flooring -- you know, all these nice trappings. But the building means nothing without the people."

The Gantt Center's staff members say they plan to build on relationships they've established with other museums and arts institutions in the area, and that they hope to be an even larger conduit for experiencing African-American culture.

"The new Gantt Center is an expression of Charlotte coming of age culturally," Hanchett states. "Charlotte can congratulate itself for having made this kind of investment in such a handsome and promising building. There are not that many other cities that have done this -- Detroit, Atlanta, perhaps. It's something that now even the Smithsonian in Washington is about to start construction on -- a new African-American museum right on the mall, right next to the Museum of American History, and right next to the Washington Monument. And it's being done by the same architect who [designed] our museum."

As the city prepares to celebrate the opening of a new cultural arts facility, Taylor says we can view this as a positive step in race relations as well.

"This is an opportunity not just for African-Americans, but for Charlotte as a whole," he says. "It can be one of the great pillars in our community to help close that cultural divide that still exists among us. On the other hand, for African-Americans, it's a place where it's OK to celebrate who you are. I think we can achieve both of those goals without changing who we are as an organization, but certainly reaching out to a wider audience than we've been able to before."

The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts and Culture, located at 551 S. Tryon St., is hosting its Community Celebration (grand opening) on Saturday, Oct. 24. Events will begin at 11 a.m. with activities for the entire family, concluding that night with music and dance for adults. For more info, call 704-547-3700 or visit www.ganttcenter.org.

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