By Todd Cohen
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Harriet Sanford has headed the Arts & Science Council for less than two months, but the former tri-athlete already is teaming up with Charlotte’s cultural community on some long-distance events.
Those include financing ambitious expansion plans by a handful of cultural groups, extending cultural programs into local neighborhoods, launching an initiative promoting culture to tourists, and conducting a study of cultural groups’ economic impact on the region.
“This is a community that lives its dreams,” says Sanford, formerly director of the Fulton County Department of Arts and Culture in Atlanta. “The question will be what the dreams will actually be and how they’ll live them.”
Supporting the local cultural community is the mission of the council, which was created in 1958.
The council raised a record $9.2 million from more than 35,000 people in its annual fund drive in January and February.
In the fiscal year that ends June 30, the council is handing out $13.1 million to arts groups, community programs and artists.
Of that, more than $10 million will be annual operating support for 27 of the council’s 50 affiliates – representing nearly one-fifth of their combined annual budgets.
Funding is at the heart of one of the council’s biggest challenges, says Sanford, who spent four days in April and May meeting with affiliates as they presented their requests for operating support.
Charlotte, she says, is relatively small cultural community, yet one with complex challenges. Cultural groups have developed strong programs and organizations, and are relatively free of debt and “in pursuit of the next level.”
“Organizations are looking to expand their facilities and artistic endeavors,” she says. “Both require money. Can you do that and ensure that five months from now they’re not wrought with debt and contemplating how to meet the next pay check?”
The council’s role has been to be “the manager, overseer, guiding light, strategic-thinking entity for the cultural community,” Sanford says. “We’re going to have to break new ground.”
Staking out that new turf, she says, will require working with individual organizations to think through their own strategies – and then sorting through the combined impact of all those plans and charting the best direction for the council.
The council also is moving ahead on several fronts to expand the reach of cultural programs.
In April, for example, the council announced $70,000 in grants in its first round of funding for a new program to support culture in local neighborhoods.
That new program stems from a five-year cultural plan that the council conducted in 1998. The plan found that residents enjoyed cultural programs downtown but wanted them closer to home as well.
That plan also resulted in the council expanding its support to history and heritage programs. Last year, the council for the first time provided annual operating grants totaling $1 million to seven history and heritage groups.
The council also has teamed up with the Charlotte Convention & Visitors Bureau to use cultural programs to promote tourism. Each group will give $50,000 to the program, which will be housed at the bureau.
And later this year, the council plans to update a December 1998 study by the University of North Carolina at Charlotte that found that cultural programs had an impact of $55 million on the local economy.
And in 2002-03, the council will conduct another five-year arts plan.
In helping to shape a cultural strategy for the region, Sanford says, teamwork is the key.
“We are one player in this,” she says.