Charlotte's Gantt Center weathered COVID. Here's how it's celebrating Black History Month
Museums across the nation have taken a financial hit during the pandemic, leaving thousands facing the possibility of closing permanently. A drop in attendance has forced many to lay off staff, but the Harvey B. Gantt Center of African-American Arts + Culture in Charlotte is an exception.
Director David Taylor said the Gantt has not laid off any staff and has even added a few employees. The center did close in March 2020 as the coronavirus spread, but it reopened in October of that year with limited hours. Taylor says the Gantt is now open six days a week and close to meeting a $10 million fundraising goal as attendance online and in person is increasing.
David Taylor: We’re probably still 50% of where we were, about 2,500-3,000 folks a month but we’re comfortable with that because we want people to be safe. We still require masks. And as we’re doing events, now, we’re requiring those events be proof of vaccination.
Gwendolyn Glenn: How are you doing financially?
Taylor: Our finances have been good. We’ve had a surplus. The Knight Foundation awarded us a $1 million grant to do technology transformation. That's a lot of the streaming and virtual work we're doing. It has kind of supported that. It's also supporting us to be able to transform our creative space to a more digital-based workspace. We're in the process of doing the early design with that, and we got something we think we will have open to the public in early summer.
Gwendolyn Glenn: Is it something that people will notice when they come in or is this something that they'll see in exhibits themselves?
Taylor: I think the space itself is something they'll notice when they come in. I think they'll begin to see that in the exhibitions. They'll see that in many of the ways that we operate.
Glenn: Well, how are you doing in terms of community outreach? Because I know you talked a lot about wanting the museum to be more active in issues such as issues of race, economics and also working closely with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. How is that work going?
Taylor: One of the things that we also kind of learned through COVID is the important role that the Gantt needs to take — and has always taken — as it relates to social justice and things of that nature. We also think our work through our Initiative for Equity and Innovation, that's really been at the core of the work that we do.
So as we do our Gantt Teacher Institute, which is a product of our Initiative for Equity and Innovation, the theme and focus for that institute is building equitable classrooms. We've been fortunate enough to do four of those with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. We'll be doing the fifth one this March. We have an EnVision Me strategy that we hope to roll out to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools this coming fall. We'll be using film and photography and other creative tools for them to be able to express themselves. But at the same time, that expression of creativity intertwines with their academic requirements.
Glenn: So, this is Black History Month, and you have some new exhibits that just opened. Let's first talk about "Visible Man: Art and Black Male Subjectivity." What's that exhibit about?
Taylor: It really speaks to Black male identity. And there are few things that really kind of stand out to me when I look at the installation, with the barbershop chair is always kind of an element of the Black community but also Black males because of the time we spend in the barbershop and how we communicate, that whole thing about community that takes place there. Michael Harris, the curator, in conjunction with the Bowling Green University, has really put together this cross-section of works from across the country. It's not just two-dimensional work and sculptures — it's video as well that people can experience.
Glenn: Well, another exhibit you have is "Reflections of a People: Photographs from the Archive of Jamel Shabazz." Tell me about that exhibit.
Taylor: This exhibit is about 50-plus photographs that Jamel does that really speaks to community and Black culture. It kind of takes place in Harlem, but when you look at those photographs, it's really almost any town in the U.S. where there's Black people, right? You see these very vulnerable photos of youth that he takes, families getting together. And we think about family reunions or we're just getting together for a holiday. I mean, he depicts that. You can just see it in those photographs. It's just really, really powerful. You see old and young, multi-generation, you see fashion. But it resonates with, particularly, us as Black folks, I think, no matter where you are.
Glenn: And "FuturePresent: Acquisition Highlights" — that's the third one.
Taylor: This is a representation of works from the Gantt's collection that we have that we sharing with the community. We've developed this strategy to really acquire pieces of art over the next 10 years to really kind of build a contemporary art collection. We think there is a responsibility — a fiduciary responsibility, in many ways — that institutions like us find ways to collect this art from these amazing contemporary artists to preserve our history and our culture. This particular collection features ... some amazing artists. I think you'll see some really interesting works in those pieces that are there, so we're excited about that.
Glenn: I used to attend — and I'm sure many of our listeners did — Art After Dark at the Gantt, which were just wonderful events. Any idea when those will be back?
Taylor: We're looking at doing a modified version — certainly a scaled-down version — that we may do as early as spring. But obviously, we want to move with an abundance of caution. But you're correct: It's really an amazing experience. We're anxious to get it back. The staff is anxious to get it back.
Glenn: Great. I'm looking forward to that.
Taylor: Stay tuned.
Glenn: OK. Well, David Taylor, thank you so much for being with us today.
Taylor: My pleasure.