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Arts & Culture

What's The Panama Canal Have To Do With Charlotte? Mint Museum Explains

Michael Tomsic

Art, the Panama Canal and the Charlotte economy intersected at the Mint Museum Uptown on Wednesday night. The museum’s exhibit featuring paintings of the canal’s construction 100 years ago served as a backdrop for a discussion of Charlotte’s role in the global shipping industry – and how that role is growing.

What are a ports authority CEO, a deputy aviation director, a consultant and a business lawyer doing at an art museum? They’re admiring the Panama Canal: not so much as art, but as an engine of commerce, even for landlocked Charlotte.

"Nothing ever starts or stops at the ports; it’s coming from somewhere, going to somewhere," says North Carolina State Ports Authority CEO Paul Cozza. "And what’s important for Charlotte, and what’s very good for Charlotte competitively, is Charlotte is connected to various ports around the U.S."

And here’s the “how,” from Charlotte business lawyer Chase Saunders.

"Rail and trucks, and a lot of freight comes in the belly underneath those passengers on the American Airlines planes, you just don’t know it," Saunders says.

Saunders and Cozza were among the business leaders at the Mint Museum Uptown on Wednesday night to tie all this together for an audience of art lovers. (Or maybe it was an audience of business people. Wednesday night, the two went hand in hand.) 

The Mint hosted a roundtable discussion called “Connecting Charlotte to the World.” It’s the kind of thing the business chamber or some other economic booster would normally put together. But the idea for this started with art.

"What artist would want to go paint an active construction site?" Curator Jon Stuhlman asked a group of about 30 people getting a tour of the Mint's exhibit on the Panama Canal. It showcases the work of Americans who traveled to Panama about 100 years ago to paint scenes of the canal’s construction, which gripped Americans’ imaginations.

"It’s a very beautiful painting, with lots of beautiful colors, pinks and purples and greens and just great brushwork," Stuhlman said about one of the works.

So there’s your first connection between art and industry – art depicting industry, albeit as sweeping impressionist landscapes.

The other connections have come because of the exhibit. The Mint partnered with the National District Export Council on a gala when the exhibit opened in the fall. And here’s how Stuhlman explained the Mint’s role in last night’s discussion:

"We need to do more than just kind of be here waiting for people to come to us," he said. "It’s really time for the arts to be part of this larger conversation on globalization in Charlotte."

The Panama Canal is a timely topic in that conversation. The link between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans in the heart of the Americas is currently being widened, which will mean ships that use the canal can almost triple in size.

Consultant Michael Gallis was part of the discussion.

"We realized, the Panama Canal, if you imagine, the pipe got three times as big," he said, "so we said, how do we strengthen Charlotte’s position, how do we become a bigger place?"

The airport is a huge part of the answer. Deputy Aviation Director Jack Christine was also on the panel, and he talked about the Charlotte airport’s new intermodal facility – a rail yard that allows for easy cargo transfer between trucks, trains and planes.

"What we were really trying to do is put together a program that allowed us to bring rail to the airport so we could bring all the modes of transportation to one site," he said.

Christine said it’s been open about a year and is already making shipping much more efficient. He and the other panelists agreed it puts Charlotte in great shape to handle more goods coming from bigger ships after the Panama Canal is widened.

The wider canal is scheduled to open next year. The Mint’s exhibit will close February 1.