Cultural leaders reflect on past, present and future of Greensboro

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The Greensboro Cultural Center stands on Davie Street (File Photo)

George Scheer used to play tennis in the middle of South Elm Street in the evenings.

“Downtown would shut down at 5,” he says. “Most people didn’t come downtown.”

Scheer, who founded and ran Elsewhere museum for 16 years, recently stepped down from the position to pursue new opportunities. He says the timing was right and now he’s working on completing his dissertation. Scheer is just one of a handful of cultural giants in the city who recently left, or are leaving, their longtime positions at art organizations. Laura Way, the former executive director of the Greenhill gallery, is another.

Scheer opened Elsewhere with co-founder Stephanie Sherman in 2003. (file photo)

“I wanted us to be outward focused,” she says about her time at Greenhill. “We did collaborative exhibitions, pop-up artist residencies…I didn’t want to be insular.”

In April, Way started her new position as the president and CEO of ArtsGreensboro, a major funder of the arts in town. She understands that there’s still a lot to do in terms of art and culture in the city.

“My job is to elevate and amplify and support the arts of my community,” she says. “My job now is to build trust throughout the community and make sure that ArtsGreensboro is thinking about the entirety of the community.”

Way points to a cultural arts master plan that was adopted unanimously by city council late last year as a turning point.

“The arts in Greensboro is very robust but financially fragile,” she says. “We did research on organizations and found structural deficits within the entire system. We needed to be more robust in being a funding mechanism for the arts.”

The plan, which can be viewed online, is composed of four parts that will provide sustained support for the arts by enhancing and expanding resources, foster cultural equity and arts participation for all, create a prosperous environment for artists and arts organizations, and raise awareness for the arts.

The planning process for the comprehensive plan began in January 2018 and is headed by a taskforce of 21 members that include local artists, educators and business and nonprofit community leaders. The group is co-chaired by Councilwoman Nancy Hoffmann and Jacquie Gilliam, a community volunteer.

“I think it’s really quite a significant piece of work,” Hoffmann says of the plan. “I think it’s really valuable to us at the city.”

During the beginning stages, the city facilitated several community dialogues to get feedback directly from artists and patrons about how they would improve the cultural landscape of Greensboro.

“What we learned is that what really is important is maintaining what we have but that it’s really important that we provide access to all citizens in Greensboro to art and culture that’s important and meaningful to them,” Hoffmann says.

Still, it’s impossible to maintain the current organizations if there’s no funding, says Rich Whittington, the founding managing director of Triad Stage.

Whittington opened Triad Stage in 2002 with his business partner Preston Lane. (file photo)

Whittington moved to Greensboro in 1998 and helped found the theater shortly afterwards. He plans on stepping down this summer to spend more time with his family and to bring new energy to the organization. For him, funding has always been an issue.

“The challenge has been we haven’t necessarily seen the infrastructure, the funding sources,” he says. “We all tend to go after the same arts supporters and those arts supporters are feeling the crunch.”

Scheer agrees.

“ArtsGreensboro is the only arts funder in our community,” he says. “The majority has been focused on eight or 10 organizations but those structures are shifting.”

Scheer says that new funding approaches such as tax measures, endowments and increasing private donors will be key to sustaining the arts in Greensboro.

“How do we make the pot larger?” he asks.

Part of the plan is to create a city-level arts and culture office that will be dedicated to development. This step is already in process, according to Hoffmann.

“We will be taking some of our programming that already exists and putting it under this department,” she says. “Some of it is realignment.”

She says the job description for the position that will lead the new office is done and should be posted soon. She also says that implementing the whole plan will be a five to 10 year process. But for her, funding isn’t the only factor that plays into having a thriving arts community.

“That’s certainly one part of it,” she says. “But it wasn’t all about finance…. You really needed to have a bigger picture view of our entire arts community.”

That’s where Part 2 of the plan comes in, the part about fostering equity for all Greensboro residents. To achieve this, the plan proposes adopting a cultural equity policy as well as creating a leadership program for professional and community art leaders.

“We have a significant amount of individual artists who are trying to make their living as artists in this city and we have small groups of artists who are operating at the community level,” Hoffmann says. “What this plan really says and talks about is really serving all of those individuals and organizations and meeting the needs of those organizations as they interact with citizens.”

For Scheer, part of that is making sure that those who are marginalized have access to funding and participation in the arts.

“There’s a lot of work to be done for the ALAANA [African, Latino/a, Asian, Arab and Native American] population,” he says. “The arts community has tended to be fairly traditional and white. We need to be supporting people of color and build professional relationships and help build funding from their own communities and how the arts can support them. We need to think about how we pursue a creative ecology.”

In addition to a new cultural equity policy and a leadership program, the plan proposes using newly established grants program with an initial budget of at least $500,000 that will “recognize the unique characteristics and needs of large institutions distinct from midsized and smaller organizations.”

“We need to make the case to the public of how important the arts are to the community,” Whittington says. “We have to build empathy and build community.”

One thing all three of the leaders emphasized was how the creation of the new Tanger Performing Arts Center might affect the city’s cultural landscape.

All three said new performing arts center, scheduled to open next spring, shouldn’t overshadow established organizations as well as those that are just beginning.

“The Tanger Center needed to happen,” Way says. “It’s critical for us to have something that was new and exciting and could create enthusiasm for arts in downtown.”

Still, she notes that there was a decrease in funding at Greenhill over the last few years and that Tanger might take funding from other organizations.

“I hope the Tanger Center has the kind of impact that LeBauer Park has,” Scheer says. “It’s diverse, there’s families, it’s fun, it’s beautiful, it’s comfortable. There’s so many people out and being present. In New York, you walk down the street, you see so many people. In the South, in car culture, you don’t see that…. I hope that the Tanger Center creates that sort of dynamic diversity…. Then the whole downtown becomes a venue.”

Whittington agrees.

“Twenty-one years ago, we made the decision that Greensboro was gonna be the right place for us,” he says. “And 21 years later, we know that the answer was yes. Greensboro is a terrific community. I think it’s full of possibilities.”

View the complete cultural arts master plan here.

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