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NPR Arts & Life

NoDa Is Charlotte's Arts District, But Where's The Art Gone?

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North Davidson, or NoDa, is known as Charlotte’s arts district – but that reputation might not be deserved anymore. A lot has changed in the last decade. So where is Charlotte’s local arts scene going? Contributor Greg Lacour reports.

One thing you notice when visiting Charlotte’s Arts District is that it’s difficult to find the art.

The local galleries that once lined North Davidson Street are mostly gone. In their place is a succession of bars, restaurants and coffeeshops.

Back in 2006, NoDa had eight galleries. Today, there’s just one. Organized gallery crawls have given way to disorganized pub crawls.

There’s a good reason for that, says Joe Kuhlmann. He heads the NoDa Business Council.

“The cost of retail space and everything just kind of made it where the business model of an art gallery became more difficult."

The financial crisis of 2008 had plenty to do with that, but Kuhlmann says there are other factors. The more popular NoDa became, the more real estate prices rose. Gallery owners found themselves priced out of the neighborhood.

“The retail space and the cost of those spaces—you know, just wall space—cost a lot of money,” Kuhlmann says.

And then there’s the Internet. It’s often easier to sell artwork online.

Sure, Charlotte’s longstanding arts showcases like the Mint and the Blumenthal remain, but what about local art? Where is it?

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Credit Greg Lacour
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Gallery 22

Gallery 22

Gallery 22 is a bar. It’s also an art gallery. Roney Raines opened it five years ago in Plaza Midwood.

“We just knew that we were going to have to do something that would generate more money on its own than you can count on from a gallery—which is precisely why so many galleries fell apart in North Davidson,” he says.

Customers sip wine and microbrews as they peruse more than two dozen paintings and prints on the walls. They range from abstract clashes of color to pop-art renderings of tacos and hot dogs.

Displays rotate every month or so, and pieces sell for as low as $10 and as much as $8,000. Raines takes a 40 percent commission.

“We have something that allows people to feel like they’re part of the art community, and that’s the important part to me - that social structure that’s being created.”

So local art really isn’t evaporating; it’s just dispersing to art-friendly businesses that sell paintings and photographs along with drinks, food and coffee.

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Artwork by Tim Sheaffer

I’ve found for myself that restaurants, breweries, pubs, and cafés were good for my work,” says artist Tim Sheaffer.

Sheaffer goes online to sell his paintings of rock stars like Bob Dylan and stylized portraits of classic cars. But he isn’t shy about asking business owners to display his work.

“I have a lot of artist friends, and we talk about this all the time: ‘How do you market, how do you market?’ It’s kind of a free-for-all. You just kind of have to find your own way,” Sheaffer says.

He’s had luck simply going to his usual hangouts, like Heist Brewery in NoDa.

He hung a 4 x 10 painting of his, an impressionistic rendering of marbles in the place. Eventually, the owners bought it.

“I just walk in with a piece of artwork and show  them em what I’ve got. I go to places that I think I would enjoy hanging out in, because I think my work would settle in there better, or be viewed better.”

And local artists are getting more support from the Arts and Science Council, which seemed unlikely a decade ago.

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Artist Tim Sheaffer

Traditionally, the ASC has relied on workplace giving and large charitable donations to fund big arts institutions. The established and local arts scenes had little connection.

But in the past three years, the ASC has started to give local artists more exposure. There are programs such as ArtPop, in which the paintings of 20 artists occupy billboards throughout town. One of Sheaffer’s works, an enormous acrylic painting of marbles — he admits a strange obsession with marbles — is on display off the Brookshire Expressway near Interstate 85.

It’s one of the new avenues local artists will have to turn to, says Paul Sires.

“People who are bemoaning the loss of edgy art galleries and things like that—you know, each generation has to figure out how they’re going to put stuff together and go out and try to do it and make it happen.”

Paul and his wife Ruth Ava Lyons are credited with starting NoDa’s arts district 20 years ago when they opened the Center of the Earth art gallery.

They closed their gallery in 2010, but Paul remains optimistic about the opportunities local artists have.

In some ways, this is an old story. The best art markets, like the best artists, are constantly changing shape.

This story was produced as part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance, with support from the Wells Fargo Foundation.