David R. Taylor, a former insurance executive who for 14 years has steered the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, will step down at the end of the year, Taylor confirmed to QCity Metro last week.
Taylor, who has served as president and CEO since June 2009, will retire just as the Gantt Center embarks on a year-long celebration to commemorate its 50th anniversary. (From 1974 to October 2009, the center was known as the Afro-American Cultural Center, located in a former church building in uptown Charlotte’s First Ward.)
In an interview on Friday, Taylor said the timing felt right for new leadership.
“You know, it’s been 14 and a half years,” he said. “When you add my time on the board [of directors] and as interim [director], I’ve spent 18 years associated with the organization, and we’ve been able to help impact its growth.”
With an annual budget of $4 million (up from $800,000 when Taylor was appointed president and CEO), the Gantt Center is on pace to attract about 60,000 visitors this year, Taylor said. It will reach thousands more through digital productions, a growth segment ignited during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Taylor counts among his accomplishments a 2016 “Vibrance” campaign, which raised more than $7.5 million for a Gantt Center endowment. Taylor called the results “transformational.” “It allowed us to do more advance planning, to know we had more financial stability,” he said. “It moved us from a paycheck-to-paycheck mentality.”
Taylor said establishing “some level of [financial] stability” was a primary objective when he accepted the Gantt Center’s top position, convinced it would take him no more than three years.
The job proved more challenging than he had anticipated. “Quite frankly,” he said, “we had dysfunctionality on the board, dysfunctionality on staff. Dysfunctionality probably is not the right word; it was a growth thing. It just took some time to do that.
Before joining The Gantt, Taylor spent 30-plus in the financial services industry, where he held leadership roles with Fortune 500 companies, including Lincoln Financial Group and First Genesis Group, an office of Met Life Financial Services. In 2003, he co-founded Dillingham & Taylor Wealth Management, LLC, which offered various financial planning services.
Taylor said the Gantt Center’s Board of Directors has been aware of his retirement plans since late summer, and he said a new leader will likely be announced “soon.”
You started out on the board of directors and later served as board chair for the Afro-American Cultural Center, the Gantt Center’s predecessor. They also appointed you interim director before you became president and CEO. Have you enjoyed your time with the organization?
I have. That’s what’s kept me here. I thoroughly love what I do. That’s why it’s difficult to leave. It’s one of the things that I could be doing until they roll me out of here. But it’s important, I think, to position the organization for new leadership, and I think it’s well positioned for that. We have a great program plan for next year, for the 50th. We have great sponsorship support for that. And the community is rallying around it. So I think it’s the ideal time. I’ve been thinking about this since before COVID, and then COVID came. Then, as we worked through COVID and the 50th was right around the corner, I said, “Well, we’ll get through the 50th and recover from COVID.” So, I think it’s a great time for me to move on to the next chapter in my life.
I was going to ask about that. Why not wait until after the 50th anniversary to retire?
As an executive director, I think it’s important to leave a success opportunity for the next leadership. With the (anniversary) program being like it is, it’s going to be a really exciting year. What better time to introduce a new leader, so they come in and meet the community on a high note? Much of my mission is accomplished. First and foremost, that was elevating the center beyond the city limits of Charlotte. We’ve done that. We are comfortably the premier African-American cultural institution in the Southeast, and like I said, we’ve met some of our financial objectives.
How old are you, David?
I’ll be 70 at the end of April. That’s the real reason to leave! (Laughter) My friends would always say, “When are you quitting?” And I would say, “This is my last year.” They finally quit asking. So they’ll be surprised, too, when they read about it.
How is the Gantt Center positioned within the Charlotte market?
I think it’s more about how we stay true to our mission in terms of presenting and promoting African-American arts, history and culture. When they rebranded the Afro-American Cultural Center to be the Harvard B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, I think there was real messaging in that. There was a real intentional choice to keep “center” in the name versus a museum. We wanted to stay true to our roots about who we are. There was real intentionality about it being “arts” versus “art,” because the community had spoken and wanted multidisciplinary arts. Then also, the “+ culture” piece. It was important to be about culture and being able to be dynamic and relevant, speaking to things that were important to Black culture in real time. We think we are doing a good job of that. We want to continue to do more of that. We’re excited that we’re starting to do more performing arts. We’ll see more of that next year as we do our (anniversary) programs. We think that’s a critical piece as we work with Blumenthal (Performing Arts) more closely to deliver those kinds of things.
I think the Gantt Center may have been at its best during the COVID pandemic and in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing, when you hosted various community conversations about race, equity and public health.
Why did that go away?
Good question. I asked my staff that a lot. Personally, I was quite proud of what we did during COVID. I think we, as an organization, were nimble enough and innovative enough to reinvent ourselves. Everybody took on a new role. We were no longer doing on-site events, but our [staff] looked at those online productions and they took ownership of that. My assistant took on Zoom. We weren’t used to Zoom, but she learned it. I think it really spoke to who we were at the core of the organization, to our persistence and our ability to survive and be relevant. Those were some proud moments. We haven’t forgotten those moments, and I think we anticipate doing more of it. Those are still very, very important conversations.
How is attendance?
Attendance is back to where we were pre-COVID. It’s taken a couple of years to get that back, but we’ll probably see 60,000 folks attending this year. We’d like to continue to see that growth. It’s never enough, but we’re excited to see that happen.
What is the Gantt Center’s penetration into the community? I used to attend events pre-COVID, and I would often see the same faces.
Because we are a multidisciplinary organization, and I think because we speak to a people — we celebrate a people — we have to be focused on what programs we have that speak to this generation and what programs we have that speak to that generation. Art After Dark is one of our success programs. We see north of 1,000 people coming out for Art After Dark. We’re reaching out to a broader community to come in and get a variety of cultural experiences.
Has the board put in place a strategy to find your replacement?
Yes. The board has been active. I notified the board back in August about my decision to retire at the end of the year. Since that time, they’ve been active, and they have informed me they feel like they will be making an announcement soon.
What do you think will be that person’s biggest challenge?
You know, I feel good that there are no crises that have to be addressed. So when we say challenges, I think that’s a little bit in the eye of the beholder. For me, I hope that person is able to continue to maintain a good, strong sense of financial responsibility but also have a strong sense of creativity. I think our ability to continue to build programs is key.
What are you most proud of during your tenure?
Well, it’s a number of things, but probably one of the proudest moments was being here on October 24, 2009, when we opened to the public and had over 10,000 people come to the building. But for me, it was even bigger than that. I was inspired by being able to see a vision come to reality. That was probably one of the many, many highlight moments because I knew what it meant long-term for Charlotte and the citizens of this community.
Are the facilities sufficient going forward?
Yes, I think that goes back to the digital thing. We’ve always had a Gantt-beyond-the-walls strategy, whether it’s physical or digital. You can always ask for more space, but with that comes financial stresses as well. (He points to the Gantt Center’s new digital arts studio.) I think this is an example of utilizing our space to align with where our audiences are now. This was intentional to reach that whole artistic audience that’s on digital platforms. We think we’re reaching a whole new audience that we weren’t reaching before.
Anything I left out? Anything you want to add?
For me, it’s been an amazing almost 15 years. It’s not a job I would have ever said I was going to lead. Had you asked me a year before, six months before, even when I was approached about it, my response was, why would I want to do that job at that particular time? But it came at a point in my life where it was important. It was one of the few things I had a passion for at that particular time, and it helped me through some difficult times. So, I’m just proud of what we accomplished from that standpoint. It is not easy work. I’ve gained a new appreciation for folks who run nonprofits, institutions like this. It is not easy work at all. I’ve worked much bigger jobs in many ways, but not one quite this difficult.
What will you do in retirement? Do you have hobbies?
For a while, I want to see what it’s like when my highest priority on a given day is either to pick up or take my grandkids to school. I want to feel what that’s like. That may only last two weeks, but I want to feel what that’s like. I want to focus on my health; that’s important. And then I hope to travel some. People ask me what I’m going to do next. I have no plans, but they assure me I’m going to get bored and want to do something, so we’ll see.
David Taylor’s answers were edited for length and clarity.