As president and CEO of the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, David Taylor likens his job to that of a ship’s captain: He knows where he wants to take the organization, so now he must chart the right course.
On Saturday, Oct. 24, the Gantt Center will open in its new $18.6 million home at the corner of Tryon and Stonewall streets. Taylor says the day will mark a new era for the organization, which traces its roots back 35 years.
Taylor believes the center can play a vital role in Charlotte’s cultural life, and not just for African Americans. He envisions a place that attracts national speakers, school students, lovers of the arts and parents seeking weekend activities for their children.
The four-story, city-owned building will have 7,000 square feet of gallery space in three exhibit halls. One of its premier exhibits will be the Hewitt Collection, which was purchased by Bank of America in 1998. The collection features works by Jacob Lawrence, Elizabeth Catlett, Romare Bearden, Jonathan Green and Ann Tanksley. A gift shop will open in the ground-floor lobby.
Because the Gantt Center was built to museum-quality specifications, Taylor said, it will be able to attract traveling exhibits that require climate controls and top security.
Taylor, 55, is no stranger to the task that lies before him. He was chairman of the Afro-American Cultural Center from 2004 to 2006 and helped plan the new building. He also served as board chair of the Urban League of Central Carolinas and, until recently, was co-owner of Dillingham & Taylor Wealth Management LLC. He has been in Charlotte for 30 years.
Below is our Q&A with Taylor, edited for brevity and clarity.
Q. What’s your vision for the Gantt Center?
I think we should be the premier African American cultural center in the country. I think we have a footprint and a business model that will allow us to achieve that. One of the things I said in a recent presentation to my board is that our No. 1 priority should be to develop a curriculum that aligns with the schools. We should be a real player there. I think we have a responsibility of ensuring that the African American experience, from a cultural standpoint, is shared in our community. Second, it’s extending our outreach program. It’s important that we go into communities that are underserved. But more important, I think our programs should be extraordinary enough that we can go into any community and share the African American experience.
Q. The Gantt Center does not have a theater. What does that mean for performing arts?
We have a history of doing performing arts, and we want to re-energize that. This facility is built to be great at visual arts and exhibitions.
We felt there was enough theatre capacity in the area to allow us to develop an extraordinary performing arts program. So our goal is to re-energize that starting in 2010. We think it will help us build our brand. We also think our brand is strong enough that we can drive our audience to the different venues. It’s the most cost-effective way to do that. We don’t have to maintain a (theater) facility. We partner with other organizations
Q. What new can we expect?
We want to roll out a lecture series. We think Charlotte is ready and ripe for some of the country’s most renowned personalities. We can be the venue that makes that happen. Again, leveraging the many facilities around the area, we can do that. Why not have people like Henry Lewis Gates or Cornell West? We think that flavor is missing in the mix of Charlotte, and we think Charlotte’s ready.
Q, What do you mean when you say Charlotte is ready?
We always say Charlotte is a great place for young African Americans. I think that is true. As Charlotte grows and continues to morph into that big city, these are components we’ll need. To be a big city you need these multiple cultural experiences and different personalities that connect on a national level. I think we’re ready for that.
Q. How will the center’s relationship with the African American community be different?
I think we will reach a broader group of people, and not just African Americans. And reaching non-African Americans doesn’t mean we have to be something different than who we are. I think we can be who we are and expand our audience. We want to reach out and touch the interests of more people. I think the purist will come. Our challenge is to make sure we can balance the purist with the popular. What kind of extraordinary things can we do to make sure people get up on Saturday morning and say, ‘We’ll be at the Gantt Center from 9 to 11 because there’s something great to go to down there?’ That’s the kind of commitment we’re going to make to the community, and I think we’re going to be distinctively different that what we’ve been able to do before.”
Q. How do you make all of this happen?
Part of it is about leadership. It’s about execution. It’s about having talented people on the staff level and on the volunteer level. And money is certainly part of that. As I tell the board and everyone I talk to, it’s really about having a business model that allows us to forecast far enough ahead. You can’t do three-month forecasting when it comes to programming. You have to do three-year forecasting.
Q. How large is your budget?
Our operating budget this year is about $1.3 million. We need to grow that number, and we think we can do that in a number of ways. Obviously we think our attendance numbers will go up. We also think we’re uniquely located to capitalize on tourism and other things that we were not able to capitalize on before. There also may be some limited rental space that takes place where we can drive that revenue line.
Q. Where would you like to see that revenue number?
I think for us to execute the plan that I envision, it certainly needs to be between $2 million and $2.5 million. If we’re in that level I think we can do some extraordinary things. And as we do those extraordinary things I think it will drive our budget.
Q. What’s opening day going to be like?
It’s going to be extraordinary. There will be inside and outside events going on. There will be an outside stage with different kinds of artistic performances going on all day. Inside there will be different things going on, from classical jazz to spoken word to theatrical performances in our multi-purpose room. Outside there will be a tent where people can get some hands-on artistic experiences. It’s really a community coming together. We’ll use a lot of local talent. We’re just hoping for great weather.
Q. What keeps you up at night?
Not having enough time to execute all the things that I perceive to be urgent. I’m laying out a five-year plan that I want to execute in the next 18 to 24 months. The time is now. We don’t have the luxury of a $20 million operational endowment. We have some wonderful partners, like the Arts & Science Council and Foundation for the Carolinas and others. All our corporate partners have been great. We’ve been given this gift. I’m so excited about what we can be, and I know there are some critical steps we have to take to ensure we get there. We think we should be one of the extraordinary places that people want to visit.