An Open Dialogue About Alternate Visions for the Arts in Charlotte

By Grace Cote for McColl Center for Art + Innovation

McColl Center convened Stimulus: Alternate Visions & Counter-Institutions on October 10, 2019, a panel discussion led by fall 2019 visiting curator Laura Ritchie, to discuss the need for, presence of, and discipline behind nontraditional, grassroots art initiatives in Charlotte. 

(Ritchie hosted a similar discussion in September at The Carrack, an artist-centered exhibition space she co-founded in Durham, which has since closed.) 

The Stimulus panelists included McColl Center alumna artist Rosalia Torres-Weiner, a self-proclaimed “artivist” whose initiatives infuse Latino communities with creativity and technology; Dammit Wesley, founder and director of BLK MARKT CLT, an exhibition and studio space for the Black creative community; Janelle Dunlap, artist and community organizer; and Amy Herman, co-founder of Goodyear Arts, a residency program that awards studio space to Charlotte-area artists. 

The conversation began with panelists explaining their projects and defining the term “counter-institution,” which Ritchie admitted is intentionally provocative and vague. Wesley said BLK MRKT CLT exists for an under-represented population and is a “safe space for Black creatives in the community” to explore race, gender, and sexuality. He added, “It shouldn’t sound like a revolutionary idea but it is.” 

Both Wesley and Torres-Weiner see their efforts as serving communities that are wrongfully and intentionally excluded from art institutions and opportunities to express themselves creatively. 

Herman explained Goodyear Arts was founded to solve a simple problem: in a developer-happy, soaring-rents city, artists were losing affordable studio space. Her program provides creative space for artists serious about their profession, but still without résumés that catch the eye of museum curators. 

Audience members were eager to ask questions: How do you get everything done? Where is your own art practice amidst all the administrative duties? Are you worried about the longevity of your program? 

All panelists agreed finding a mentor and learning to delegate were essential components of their practice. Dunlap stated, “You have to lead from behind.” In other words, choose good people to work with, trust them, and guide them when they need it. Dunlap began her career in 2017 when she won a grant that funded her project of satirically addressing the social process of gentrification. 

Each panelist’s counter-institution project began with an idea to aid creatives in need. 

All four are practicing artists and admitted finding balance between managing an organization and art practice is difficult. Herman said, “I put Goodyear first and my art suffers, but everything comes in waves.” 

Panelists’ opinions on the importance of longevity fell on both sides of the fence. They recognized a lack of financial stability is rampant in counter-institutions and also the major obstacle to longevity. However, none of these artists’ organizations is more than ten years old, and anyone would be hard-pressed to name a Charlotte counter-institution predating the 2008 recession. 

Nevertheless, the passion and determination driving these artists are not new concepts. The four panelists gave examples of Charlotte counter-institutions that came before and admitted theirs were not immune to the passing of time either. 

Counter-institutions survive on the idea that an arts organization does not have less value if it is transient.

The conversation also included a spontaneous debate about the quarter-cent sales tax referendum on the November 5 ballot. Panelists and audience members wondered whether the new tax—slated to support parks, education, and the arts—would trickle down to counter-institutions. Those in favor argued grant and support opportunities would remain available for anyone willing to apply, even though the model for arts funding, and the Arts & Science Council, will very likely evolve post-referendum.

Alternate Visions & Counter-Institutions was part of McColl Center’s Stimulus series, which provides deeper insight into the work and ideas of contemporary artists in our constantly evolving local arts community.

Join us for the next Stimulus conversation—Stimulus: Space, Place, and Body—on Thursday, November 7, 2019, from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. here at McColl Center. 

Fall 2019 artists-in-residence Anna Garner and Pablo Rasgado, visiting artist Carolina Maki Kitagawa, UNC Charlotte College of Arts and Architecture Director of Galleries Adam Justice, and McColl Center visiting curator Laura Ritchie will discuss the use of sculpture as a medium to examine the movement of bodies in private and public space.