Since its inception, the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts + Culture has aspired to play a crucial role in Charlotte’s ever-evolving story.
Unlike other institutions within the Levine Center for the Arts, the Gantt Center was created to preserve and celebrate black culture, to provide a place where people of all backgrounds could gather for thought-provoking conversations about the difficult topic of race in America.
To a growing extent, the Gantt Center is making progress in its mission. But money has long been a concern for the institution that traces its beginnings back to a humble, grass-roots effort in 1974.
Now with help from some big donors, the Gantt has launched a $10 million endowment campaign specifically to address the center’s sustainability and programming. The effort already has gotten $6.1 million in pledges, the center announced at a Wednesday reception.
Early donors include former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl, the Knight Foundation, Bank of America and Duke Energy. McColl, the largest individual donor, was named honorary co-chair of the Gantt Center’s Vibrance Endowment Campaign, along with the center’s namesake, former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt.
In a statement released by the Gantt Center, McColl said his contribution reflects his long-held belief that the Gantt Center “should be the key place to go (in Charlotte) to have multicultural discussions, so that we can learn to better live together.”
“…It’s an institution so important to our city that it deserves all of us putting our shoulder to the wheel,” he added.
Gantt Center officials did not disclose how much donors gave.
The start of a longer journey
In an interview with Qcitymetro, Gantt Center President and CEO David Taylor said the endowment campaign began quietly about a year ago and will now enter a public phase.
“This is the first phase of what will be an ongoing endowment initiative by the Gantt Center,” he said. “We don’t pretend to believe this is over. People should not walk away thinking the Gantt Center is healed.”
As with any institution, he said, money is the lifeblood of museums and cultural centers.
The Gantt Center operates with an annual budget of about $2.1 million, up from about $800,000 when Taylor joined the organization 10 year ago.
Asked what a $10 million endowment would mean to the center, Taylor said the impact would be “significant.” He estimated that an endowment of that size might generate, in a good investment year, $400,000 to $500,000 in operating revenue — money needed for growth.
“It would provide some stability in the sense that you’ve got some predictability of revenue,” he said. “But you’ve also got much better predictability of programming… That is a huge, huge opportunity.”
From humble roots
Few can question the Gantt Center’s progress.
From its humble start as the Afro-American Cultural and Service Center (later named the Afro-American Cultural Center), it now attracts more than 40,000 visits each year. About 20 percent of those visits are by people who identify as non-African American. Visitors trek to the center not only to view art exhibitions but also to attend social gatherings and community dialogues.
Within a two-day span in late September, the center played host to a lively meet-and-greet for young, black professionals and then co-hosted a communal dinner where a small group of history buffs talked about the need to preserve former slave dwellings across the United States — while it also displayed a collection of art exhibitions.
Taylor said he likes to think of the Gantt as “a cultural center built to museum standards.”
The center got a boost in October 2009 when it moved from a former Little Rock AME Zion Church building in Charlotte’s First Ward into its current location within the Levine Center for the Arts – a multi-million dollar project that included the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, the Mint Museum Uptown and the Knight Theater.
The Gantt Center also was helped by a citywide endowment campaign in 2010 that raised $83 million in pledges to support facilities and maintenance for some of Charlotte’s arts and cultural centers. The Gantt Center’s share came to $5 million, which generates about $200,000 a year for the institution, Taylor said, noting that the money cannot be used to improve programming.
Despite its gains, the Gantt Center, like many of its peer institutions that focus on communities of color, has had its financial challenges.
In 2015, the Gantt Center took part in a national “Diversity in the Arts” study conducted by the University of Maryland’s DeVos Institute of Arts Management. The study found that institutions with exhibits and programs that reflect communities of color lack sufficient endowment. More specifically, it found that:
• The median budgets of the 20 largest arts organizations of color were more than 90 percent smaller than those of their largest mainstream counterparts.
• Arts organizations of color got only about 5 percent of total revenue from individual donors, “ indicating a disproportionate reliance on government and foundation grants…”
• Nearly half of the nation’s 20 largest arts organizations of color ran deficits of at least 10 percent of their total budgets for fiscal year 2013.
Taylor said much of that disparity can be traced to greater levels of corporate support and “multigenerational wealth” that benefit mainstream institutions. He also noted that, like the Gantt Center, many of the institutions that focus on communities of color sprang from modest roots.
All the same, he said, “In order to sustain on Main Street and maintain relevance on Main Street, you have to have all the tools that Main Street institutions have. Our work is expected to be as good as anybody else’s work.”
That’s where the current endowment will help, Taylor said. Annual gains from the investment of those donations will be used to fund better exhibitions and programming.
“It’s time to move forward. There is no basis for waiting, no basis for getting ready,” he said. “It was time to move forward with some campaign to change that dynamic for the Gantt Center.”
From members to donors
Taylor said that for the Gantt Center to reach its full potential, it would need endowments totaling at least $20 million – or twice the size of its current campaign. And for that reason, he said, the center’s fundraising efforts will continue well into the future.
“Our institution will thrive based on donors making significant contributions to the center,” Taylor said. “We’re still in a growth mode, so developing donors is essential not just to the Gantt Center but any arts organization.”
With a membership base of just under 1,500 people, the center gets about 7 percent of its revenue from membership fees, which start at $25 a year, Taylor said. But as the current campaign progresses, he said, the center will be looking to convert more of those members to donors.
Chief among his concerns, he said, is that some members may falsely assume that the current campaign will be sufficient.
“It’s important to note that, though $10 million is really a lot of money, this is not a cure-all for the Gantt Center,” he said. “No one should walk away and say, ‘Boy, the Gantt Center is done, taken care of, got all they need.’ That is not at all the case. These payments are over multiple years. It’s not like we’ve got $6 million in the bank.”
Meanwhile, Taylor said he also wants Gantt Center members, as well as his staff, to appreciate the journey.
“We certainly have vision to continue to grow the Gantt Center,” he said, “but at the same time, we really have to stop and smell the roses about the many successes the Gantt Center has experienced.”
Learn more about donating to the Gantt Center