2020 Best Of Tapestry: How The Arts World Adapted To A Year Like No Other
The coronavirus pandemic left artists, performers and restaurateurs reeling. Between that and the social justice protests that overtook the U.S. after George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis, creatives were finding new ways to reach audiences and make an impact in 2020. WFAE had just launched a weekly arts and entertainment newsletter, Tapestry, so we were fortunate to be able to tell some of those stories. Here are a few of the ones that stuck out the most to us.
In late May and early June, the streets of Charlotte erupted in protest. George Floyd’s death at the hands of police was the spark that lit a fire of uprising, but the kindling had been piling up for a long time. Charlotte artist Alex DeLarge didn’t want the names of other Black people killed by police to be forgotten. On a black wall on North Davidson Street, he painted 25 names in huge letters. They ranged from people whose names were known nationwide, such as Michael Brown and Breonna Taylor, to those who were killed in our area, such as Keith Lamont Scott and Marlon Lewis. The family of Lewis, who died after Stanly County deputies used Tasers on him more than 20 times in 2016, drove 45 miles to watch his name go up on the wall. “A lot of people get to pretend like this doesn’t happen,” DeLarge said. “A lot of people don’t even hear about when this happens.”
As people poured onto the streets to protest, they didn’t just use their voices. Some had original artwork on signs. Some designed COVID-19 masks with Black Lives Matter and other slogans on them. And others took to painting plywood boards that uptown Charlotte businesses had put over their windows. “There’s a lot to be frustrated about,” said Charlotte artist Dyair Steele. "We're cooped up, social distancing, and we are having to confront a very old, ugly energy that's been in our nation for quite some time and it's coming to a head now.” As it turns out, all of that imagery is fair game for a potential exhibit at the North Carolina Museum of History, which along with the State Archives is collecting ways to tell the story of 2020 to future generations.
Why call off a DJ battle just because of a pandemic? Year 1 in 2019 was a hit, so DJ Sir Charles figured the CLT DJ Battle should continue in 2020 — albeit virtually. He wants to help put the Queen City’s music scene on the map and bring together artists from all across the city for a fun competition. In a decade, Sir Charles said, he hopes to look back and see the battle event as the beginning of a legacy. “I think Charlotte's a music city that doesn't know it,” he said. “We get credit for banking and things, but we don't get credit for our talents.”
The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture has long been at the forefront of public forums in Charlotte. The center's popular Talk About It Tuesday events brought experts together to talk through vital and complex topics like gentrification, the criminal justice system and barriers to economic mobility. The pandemic forced a pivot, and the Gantt rose to the occasion. The center’s virtual Unmasked series shed light on health and social justice issues and wound up getting bigger audiences than could fit in the Gantt’s physical space. Plus, the Gantt is putting together a “We Can’t Breathe” exhibit that focuses on police brutality and recent protests for change in Charlotte and elsewhere. Art, after all, plays a role in documenting society. "It's making a statement,” said Witnie Martinez, the Gantt’s vice president of institutional advancement. It's giving a voice to those who consider themselves to be voiceless."
It’s really never too late to finish something you’re passionate about. Charlotte rockers Fetchin Bones’ heyday was in the 1980s, but for years, lead singer Hope Nicholls had nagging feelings of unfinished business -- manifesting in a recurring dream about a forgotten song. Well, Nicholls, who’s now in the band It’s Snakes, and her husband, former Fetchin Bones member Aaron Pitkin, found the song — and a few others — on long-forgotten demo tapes. And after 32 years, Fetchin Bones dropped new (well, old but new) music. “Maybe the dreams will stop now,” Nicholls said.
It’s nearly impossible to live near Charlotte and not, at some point in your life, visit the Carolina Renaissance Festival. Each fall, the 25-acre village redesigned as a 16th-century European marketplace comes alive with pageantry, fair food and the occasional falconry demonstration. Every fall except 2020, that is. But it’s an event that draws nearly 200,000 visitors a year, so the character actors and artisans who rely on it for an economic boost were missing out. For some, that meant adapting to online shows to keep fans engaged. “It’s a whole new world we’re trying to navigate,” said Matthew Mansour, better known as Sir Maxmillian, the Jousting Earl.
Speaking of pivoting… Charlotte’s a city that values its live productions. And for a few long, long (did we mention long?) months, it didn’t have any. As some restrictions put in place for the pandemic began to ease this fall, productions started returning, although with some major changes in order to keep performers and audiences as safe as possible. For Blumenthal Performing Arts, that meant staging an interactive theater performance outdoors — with a bit of detective work thrown into the mix. Based on the real-life — and unsolved — 1990 theft of $500 million worth of art from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, “Art Heist” took audiences on something of a walking tour through uptown, complete with socially distant interviews of suspects, in an effort to solve the crime. Director T.J. Dawe called it a cross between an escape room and a scavenger hunt. “This show — this type of show — scratches a lot of different itches,” Dawe said.
Art institutions took a hit in a year that’s caused financial pain for so many of us. So for 24 projects around Charlotte, money from the nonprofit Arts and Science Council’s Cultural Vision Grant program went a long way. We highlighted one of them: an effort to launch an art trail connecting the dots of public artwork in east Charlotte. It begins with a plan to add three new colorful crosswalks along the Monroe Road corridor designed by local artist MyLoan Dinh. She and fellow artist Bunny Gregory solicited ideas from residents along the Monroe Road corridor that they’ll compile into designs for the crosswalks — contributed ideas that will come together like patchwork quilts. "It's all about community, and it's about sharing bits and pieces in the physical way — bits and pieces of fabric, but what I interpret that as is bits and pieces of our stories, of our lives, of family, of friends," Dinh said. "And particularly, this area of town is very diverse, culturally."
This story originally appeared in WFAE's weekly arts and entertainment email newsletter. Subscribe here.