A new period for Charlotte's modern art museum

Plus: Longtime Eastover stationery store on the move; Readers react to Myers Park High article; State unemployment rate drops; Covid numbers mixed; Randy Travis' homecoming

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Q&A: In his first year as the Bechtler’s executive director, Todd Smith oversaw a palate of big changes; new ‘immersive’ exhibit coming this fall

Todd Smith, shown here in the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art’s second floor gallery, became the museum’s executive director during the pandemic. In the last 12 months, he’s ushered in big changes, from a new focus on living artists designed to attract a broader audience to staff cuts aimed at freeing up money for more expansive exhibits.

by Cristina Bolling

To say that this is a season of fresh starts at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art would be an understatement.

The 10-year-old museum known to many for its highly Instagrammable Firebird sculpture out front on South Tryon Street is on the cusp of rolling out a new exhibit unlike anything it’s ever had before. And the museum’s top leadership is completely different — and its staff is far smaller — than the one that the Bechtler entered the pandemic with, including its new executive director, Todd Smith.

Next month, the Bechtler will unveil an immersive multimedia exhibit that’ll take over the entire fourth floor of the museum, showcasing the work of Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi by British artist and filmmaker Isaac Julien.

The exhibition, called Isaac Julien: Lina Bo Bardi—A Marvellous Entanglement, runs Oct. 30 - Feb. 27, 2022, and will feature images, music and dance with a spotlight on Bo Bardi’s world-renown architecture as it makes its U.S. premiere at the Bechtler.

Even before the pandemic shut down arts venues, sent institution leaders scrambling for Paycheck Protection Program loans and canceled big fundraising galas, Charlotte’s arts scene was already reeling from the failure of a quarter-cent sales tax referendum in 2019 that would have pumped $22.5M into arts and culture groups.

Since the pandemic, the public funding model for arts groups changed drastically, with the decades-old umbrella arts funding group the Arts & Science Council receding and elected officials opting instead to create a city position to oversee arts spending.

For arts institutions like the Bechler, so many questions are still unanswered:  When will people flock to museums and events again like they did in the past? How will civic arts funding shake out in the long term? Will donors step up their funding to keep the city’s art scene growing?

The Ledger sat down with Smith earlier this month on the first anniversary of his arrival at the Bechtler to hear about what it’s been like to assume leadership of a museum in the midst of a pandemic, the future of arts fundraising and why big changes are necessary as the museum enters its second decade.

Comments have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: What was it like to take the helm of a museum in the middle of Covid? What changes did you realize you needed to make right off the bat?

(The pandemic) gave us a pause. A lot of institutions could take the time to pause and say, OK, well, what do we want to be when we come out of this? What changes do we want to make internally during this period where we’re slightly out of the limelight and we don’t need to be performing the way we (usually do). … We took advantage of that.

So what you’re seeing is us coming out of it with exhibitions that are expansive for us, and they are taking the museum in new directions, exposing us to new media and new artists. A fresh brand identity with all the bells and whistles, a new website. We (retain) the strong history of the institution, the strong legacy of the Bechtler family as collectors and as major players in the art world, and the Bechtlers as civic philanthropists. So all of that is very much still in place and very much celebrated by what we’re doing. But it’s very clear that this is the next chapter.

Q: You made some significant staff changes, including big cuts. Why?

Our four-person leadership team all changed within the last 18 months: the deputy director of development, deputy director of art education, deputy director for marketing and communications and me.

Before, we were at 20 full-time positions. I arrived and we did a big restructuring of our entire staff and eliminated positions, so now we’re at 13 full-time employees. Now we are fully right-sized. The shift we made was both to reduce overall expenses but also to take those personnel costs and to put them directly into exhibitions. 

We knew the exhibitions we wanted to do were going to be above and beyond what they had spent normally on exhibitions. So we knew we couldn’t just add expenses to the budget. We were also realistic. We’re coming out of the pandemic. We still don’t know what the fundraising landscape is going to look like. We don’t know what admissions is going to look like.

Q: What has the pandemic done to arts fundraising?

It’s shifted. The close donors have remained very supportive. Many have stepped up their giving because they’ve been in a position where they could and they also saw the need as being real and they wanted to ensure that the institutions they supported thrived and were ready to come out of this when it was the right time. I will tell you, the city has been amazing. They’ve made some of the CARES Act (federal Coronavirus Relief Fund) money available to the cultural groups.

The shift in fundraising from the ASC to this hybrid between private donations and city — we don’t know yet what all that’s going to look like. It’s encouraging that the city has contributed more money from its city budget to the arts (this year) and that speaks volumes about the importance of how they see us in helping bring back the community. The private money the foundation has been able to raise in order to match the city has been amazing. There’s more money today for the arts than there was a year ago, two years ago.

Q: What does the future for fundraising look like at the Bechtler, specifically?

We don’t know yet. All the cultural groups have received the same amount (in government funding) that they received last year. The city has just hired the new arts ambassador. She’s fantastic from what I’ve seen. We’ll see how much money is left, and that will be a competitive grants environment.

(In terms of direct donations to the Bechtler), there was a dip, but there was also a dip in our expenses. We couldn’t hold our gala, for instance. Luckily our budget wasn’t so dependent on it. But it’ll be back this coming spring.

In terms of visitor numbers, the last two months for us have been really good. We just looked at the numbers, and we were like, “Wow.”

Q: Was it hard to get your footing as the museum’s executive director without being able to network and see people in person?

I was here 20 years ago, at the Mint, and my family lives in Charlotte, so I always came back. I never really left it. (Smith was a curator at the Mint Museum from 1996-2000. He came to Charlotte from Orange County, Calif., where he served as the director and CEO at the Orange County Museum of Art for six years.)

When I was (at the Mint), I was involved in the purchase of the Hewitt collection, which became the core collection for the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. I was overseeing the Bank of America Gallery at the Mint Craft and Design museum, which is now the Foundation for the Carolinas building.

I think it would have been tough for any museum director to start during a pandemic if they weren’t familiar with a city. A lot of the first six months is getting out and meeting people and getting to know how systems within museums work. I had experience with that, so that felt comfortable. The museum has such a strong following, that people really open themselves up very quickly. Almost everyone said, “We’re excited to see something new happening at the museum. We love the museum, we love what it stands for, but we’ve been at it 10 years. Let’s see some fresh ideas.”

When we unveiled the new exhibitions and programs to the board, and talking to donors, the enthusiasm is incredible. It feels authentic and organic. It just feels like an evolution.

Q: What changes will visitors to the Bechtler see as you start this new chapter?

Because our history and our foundings are for the most part European modern art from the 1920 to the 1970s, it’s always been this discussion internally about how do we engage with living artists? We came up with this decision that we would focus on modernism and its legacies.

The first show out of the gate is this work by a Black artist from London who has been in the arts scene for 30-plus years. He’s known for his film and sound installations. We’re taking all of the walls out of the fourth floor for these nine huge projection screens that tell the story of his fascination with the Italian Brazilian female architect Lina Bo Bardi.

She is known for these amazing architectural structures in Brazil. She has been a relatively unsung architect up until the last 2 to 3 years, and she’s extremely famous. She also designed art museums in Brazil. The film he created is a 39-minute film across nine screens with sound, dance, some talking, and it’s acted by a mother and a daughter who represent the architect at different points in her life. It’s this immersive experience around who this architect is, told by a modern-day contemporary artist.

Q: Is “immersive” art the new big thing? Clearly the “Immersive Van Gogh” exhibit now happening at Camp North End has captivated a lot of attention.

What we’re showing is something that has a beginning and an end, but you will enter it at different points. It’s not like it starts at the top of the hour. You come, you experience it, you sit through it, you try to make sense of it, you watch it for awhile and you walk around. You’re probably going to have to wait for it to loop again. It’s called “time mixed art”; 39 minutes is the run.

Isaac Julien created this work to be seen in a gallery, and it’s immersive. There’s an immersive quality to it. Van Gogh never intended for his paintings to be projected on floors and ceilings. It is going to be different: different audiences, and different intentions. While maybe the fascination and attendance at Van Gogh will help us because people will be curious and comfortable, the connection pretty much stops there.

Check it out: Isaac Julien: Lina Bo Bardi — A Marvellous Entanglement opens Oct. 30 and runs through Feb. 27, 2022.

Starting Oct. 27, four uptown arts venues will open their doors for free every Wednesday night: the Bechtler, the Mint Museum uptown, the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture and the Knight Theater. (Look for more details on that in the coming weeks, arts leaders say.)

Today’s supporting sponsors are T.R. Lawing Realty

and Payzer:

What’s up (at the) Buttercup? A new location.

After 27 years in the same two-story building, Eastover landmark The Buttercup gift and stationery store is moving a few blocks down Providence Road later this fall.

Owner Kim Gordon told The Ledger last week that the building the store has occupied since 1975 has been sold, so the Buttercup will move less than a mile south to Myers Park Center, which is home to a two-story Harris Teeter, Fancy Pants kids’ clothing store and Charlotte Ultra Running, among other businesses.

County records show the 0.2-acre parcel sold in February 2020 for $1.1M, and there’s currently a “for lease” sign posted on the property. Records show the 0.2-acre site sold for $1.1M to a company affiliated with the adjacent property owner on Circle Avenue.

Although the store has a long history at its current location, Gordon said she feels relief at the thought of the move. Customers now have to climb five stairs to enter the Buttercup, and the stationery department is on the second floor, which requires climbing another set of stairs, which can be difficult for some customers.

The current building didn’t have to adhere to Americans with Disabilities Act rules because it was grandfathered in, but Gordon said she hates to see customers struggle.

“It just breaks my heart,” she said.

The Buttercup dates to 1975, and its locations have always been in the Myers Park area. Gordon bought the business from her mother-in-law in 2017.

The new location’s square footage will be slightly smaller than the current Buttercup, but Gordon said she expects it’ll feel bigger, because it won’t be broken up over two floors.

And while the location will change, her offerings won’t: gift items, designer and custom-designed stationery, home décor and clothing. Gordon said she expects to open the new location in late October or early November.

“We’re excited to be where everything is fresh and just feels clean,” Gordon said. “I feel like the new space will showcase what we have to offer. … I feel like it’s a fresh start.” — CB

Readers respond to our ‘What happened in the woods?’ article on Myers Park High

Readers gave a lot of feedback on our investigation earlier this month into the reports of sexual assault at Myers Park High School. You might recall that we came across some court records in those cases that had not previously been widely publicized, and we shared those and tried to give a fair and more complete picture of those incidents. They received a lot of attention this summer and led to questions about the adequacy of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ response to reports of sexual assaults as well as to the paid suspension of Myers Park’s principal, Mark Bosco.

Whether readers praise us or condemn us, we appreciate the thoughtful responses, and we thought you might, too, on this important issue.

Responses were mostly, but not all, positive. At least two of our paid members canceled their subscriptions and wrote that they found our report biased:

  • “I feel there was bias in the coverage of the Myers Park rapes.”

  • “I went in thinking it was fair and balanced journalism. It’s not.”

Another woman took to Twitter to share her displeasure with our report:

We also heard from many more readers who thanked us for looking at the subject in a thorough way:

  • “Thank you for digging into the details to provide a more balanced article.”

  • “Kudos on digging into the court files on the Myers Park cases and the nuanced reporting.”

  • “Thank you for providing facts to this story. People have created their own scenario for what happened without ever investigating the facts. Sad for everyone involved. I have two children at Myers Park High School. It is not perfect by any stretch, but it is a good place with good people.”

  • “Just read The Ledger’s story on the Myers Park High School sexual assault cases, and it may be the best piece of journalism I have seen in my 10 years in Charlotte. So thorough, so well-written, so well-researched.”

  • “Thank you for reporting the truth in this recent article. What we have seen by other reporters at other media has been half-truths or outright lies.”

  • “Thank you for taking the time to do such an exhaustive and thorough story on the details of this case, enabling us to see its complexity.”

  • “It told the whole story, with all the messy nuances. Life is complicated. These issues are all complicated and messy and not black and white. The media often fails to tell the messy, complicated stories. Consequently, our society puts everything in terms of black and white. The world is grey.”

Ledger’s take: We believe our role is to provide information and facts, because they help you understand the world around us. Sometimes that’s easy, sometimes that’s complicated, especially when reporting on sensitive topics.

We have produced more than 550 newsletters in the last 2 1/2 years, and the one on the Myers Park sexual assaults was the #6 most read of all time. To us, that’s a signal that readers appreciate deeply reported, in-depth articles, so we will work to provide more of those as we continue to grow.

If you missed our Myers Park piece, you can check it out here:

The Charlotte Ledger
What happened in the woods?
We’re breaking with our usual Wednesday format to give you an in-depth and deeply researched investigation of the Myers Park sexual assault cases. Because of its importance, we are making it available to everyone. If you support thoughtful, independent journalism for Charlotte, we invite you to become a Charlotte Ledger member today…
Read more

In brief:

  • National Merit semifinalists named: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools had 71 seniors named National Merit semifinalists, the district said. Ardrey Kell led the pack with 25 students, followed by Providence (16), Myers Park (12), Hough (6), East Mecklenburg (3) and Hopewell (2). Seven other CMS high schools had one each. (CMS)

  • Dilworth restaurant closing: Zen Asian Fusion, which has served a combo of Asian and Spanish specialties in Dilworth for the last 16 years, said it is closing Oct. 3. “The past few years have presented unparalleled challenges to our beloved restaurant community,” the owners said. They are also affiliated with Miró Spanish Grille in Ballantyne, which remains open. (CharlotteFive)

  • Unemployment falls slightly: North Carolina’s jobless rate fell to 4.3% in August from 4.4% a month earlier, the Labor Department said. That’s lower than the 5.2% national rate. Pre-pandemic, in February 2020, North Carolina’s jobless rate was 3.6%

  • Mixed Covid numbers: The number of weekly Covid deaths in Mecklenburg County hit a seven-month high, and hospitalizations fell for the second straight week, according to new health department data. The numbers showed that 35 Covid patients died last week, the highest figure since early February, and cases rose slightly. (Mecklenburg County Health Department)

  • SouthPark building sale: Several commercial buildings at the intersection of Fairview and Barclay Downs Drive were sold last week for $46.25M, according to real estate records. A company affiliated with Taurus Investment Holdings of Boston bought portions of two parcels at 6230 and 6302 Fairview from Capridge Partners of Austin, Texas.

  • Foul smell protest: Protestors fed up with the stench from the New Indy paper mill rallied outside the South Carolina governor’s mansion on Sunday morning. “There’s like a fecal odor that is going throughout a 30-mile radius — I mean we’re talking all the way into North Carolina and Charlotte,” a protest organizer said. Protestors said Gov. Henry McMaster has made only one tweet on the topic and that “it has been over eight months, and we are still being poisoned multiple times per week.” (WBTV)

  • Environmental business innovation: The Innovation Barn, an incubator for environmentally sustainable businesses, opened this weekend in Charlotte’s Belmont neighborhood. “If you can keep stuff out of the landfill, you can turn it into innovations, which turn into jobs," said Amy Aussieker, the executive director of Envision Charlotte. It also has a coffee shop and a craft beer and wine bar. The city spent $5M renovating the building. (WFAE)

  • Centene merger speculation: Rumors are picking up that health insurance giant Humana might be interested in acquiring Centene, which is building its East Coast headquarters in Charlotte’s University City area and has said it plans to create 6,000 jobs here. Wall Street news site StreetInsider said the speculation is based on chatter that a private jet from Humana was spotted near Centene's headquarters in St. Louis, according to a summary of the report. Two years ago, Humana publicly denied it planned to purchase Centene.

  • Country legend returns: Country singer Randy Travis made a rare return trip to his hometown of Marshville, 35 miles southeast of Charlotte, on Saturday for the Randy Travis Music Festival. Health issues have left the 62-year-old unable to sing, but he posed for photos with fans.

Taking stock

Unless you are a day trader, checking your stocks daily is unhealthy. So how about weekly? How local stocks of note fared last week (through Friday’s close), and year to date:

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Executive editorTony MeciaManaging editorCristina BollingContributing editor: Tim Whitmire, CXN Advisory