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Making the Hard Sell 

What does a contemporary arts organization have to do to win official backing in Raleigh these days?

Making the Hard SellDenise Dickens was still smiling as she left City Council chambers in Raleigh last week. But it was a smile more weary than winning.

Once again, the executive director of the Contemporary Art Museum (CAM) had watched her organization being snubbed by city officials. Museum leaders were on the agenda to present a request for $600,000 to support renovation of a downtown warehouse building to house the 18-year-old arts institution. But despite a core of supporters on the council and the presence of more than a dozen prominent backers in the audience--including Larry Wheeler, head of the North Carolina Museum of Art--Mayor Paul Coble refused to let the CAM contingent speak, referring their request to a budget committee instead.

For Dickens, the mayor's dismissive treatment was a sharp reminder of the numerous times CAM has found itself fighting City Hall in the recent past. "Oh yes, we've been here before," she says, with a slight shrug. "This is not a total surprise."

Compared to four years ago, when the council eliminated all city funding for the museum, Coble's decision was a minor setback. But CAM supporters worry that if the building request gets sidetracked in committee, plans to open a permanent space by next year will also be left in limbo.

"It's unfortunate that this is the environment we have to work in in Raleigh," says Frank Thompson, chair of the museum's board and a major donor to the building project. "You have a group of volunteer citizens who've invested a huge amount of time and money in this and are trying to do something positive for downtown. We're at the point where we really need to get rolling. It's frustrating."

The museum hasn't always gotten the cold shoulder from city leaders. Originally known as the City Gallery of Contemporary Art, it was created by the City Council in 1983 as a way of boosting Raleigh's downtown arts scene after the N.C. Museum of Art moved to Blue Ridge Road. The city gave generously to the gallery in its first decade, providing the seed money that made many of its ambitious regional and international exhibits possible. But in 1996, the group ran up against Mayor Tom Fetzer and his allies on the council--including then-councilman Coble. Bolstered by conservative attacks on the arts led by the likes of U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, Fetzer's majority first cut the gallery's annual $150,000 appropriation in half, then axed the organization from the city's budget completely. The move forced the gallery from its storefront in Moore Square and it's been homeless ever since.

CAM's leaders have been busy remaking the gallery's image as a "museum without walls," hosting exhibits in borrowed spaces and sponsoring studio tours. But without a permanent space, it's been hard to keep up the organization's profile. "I field calls all week from people who want to know where we're located," says Sharon Kanter, CAM's development director. "It's challenging for people to connect those exhibitions with us as an institution."

The museum's pitch for city funds to buy and renovate the old Briggs Hardware building was shot down by a unanimous council vote in 1996. At the time, city officials criticized CAM supporters for failing to line up private donations before lobbying for public funds. Three years ago, museum backers bought a brick warehouse building on Martin Street near downtown and this time, they are determined to get the process right.

So far, CAM has raised a little more than half of the $1 million needed to transform the 20,000-square-foot building into a major downtown arts center. Besides added space for exhibitions and education, the new museum will feature a 150-seat theater, sculpture garden, bookstore and café. In addition to $600,000 over the next two years from the city, museum leaders plan to ask for $400,000 from Wake County. They've pledged to match public funds with $1.5 million in private dollars--including two pending foundation grants--to pay off the building loan and set up a modest endowment fund. The project's total price tag is $2.5 million.

Funding from the city will do more than open the doors to more private support: It's also an important symbol, Kanter says. "It sends a signal to the community that the government values this project."

CAM is not alone in seeking funds for a major building project. A recent survey by the United Arts Council of Raleigh and Wake County found that more than a quarter of the county's cultural organizations will outgrow or need to renovate their facilities in the immediate future. Since 1995, local arts groups have launched 27 capital improvement fund drives --the majority of them in the past two years.

The heightened competition comes at a time when experts say raising private money for the arts has become more difficult--not just in Raleigh but around the country. "A lot of the traditional foundation sources have turned to education and to supporting nonprofit programs" rather than building projects, says David Winslow, owner of a Winston-Salem fundraising firm that once counted CAM among its clients. "Corporations are also focusing on giving to K-12 education, which means arts groups have to look in other directions."

Because of its pioneering content, contemporary art has always been a hard sell, both with individual donors and public officials. But the N.C. Museum of Art's Larry Wheeler sees a growing local audience for such work. "Our city is ready to be a major stage for contemporary exhibitions, particularly large-scale installations," he says. "There's an urban energy that's expressed in contemporary art. What's important is to connect the contemporary art centers with urban life."

CAM's leaders are trying to do just that by stressing how a new building will contribute to downtown redevelopment. When it opened in Moore Square in 1986, the old City Gallery helped spark a commercial revival east of the downtown Mall. Museum supporters are hoping the refurbished warehouse building will do the same for the west side. The property is located in the heart of an emerging commercial center and one block from a proposed new mass transit station. "A lot of our neighbors in that area are very pleased we're doing this," Kanter says. "This will become the cultural circle of downtown."

CAM supporters have their eye on Raleigh and Wake County hotel and restaurant taxes, which are expected to generate $400 million for arts and cultural programs in the next two decades. A measurable effect on the local economy is one of the key requirements arts groups must meet to qualify for those dollars. Hotel and meals taxes have already been used to pay for the Exploris children's museum, the Entertainment and Sports Arena and the BTI Center for the Performing Arts.

CAM's leaders have convinced at least one City Council member that their building project is also a good use of those funds. "They aren't coming in here and asking us to match them one for one," says Benson Kirkman. "If you look at the equity they've already got in that building and what they're asking the county for, they are probably going to match us four or five to one. I like those economics. They are the missing piece of the pie in the downtown area."

Others are a bit more circumspect. "I don't think any one project is vital to downtown revitalization," says Councilman John Odom. "I think we need to help CAM but I'm not sure how that's going to happen," given the number of groups seeking city support. Neither Mayor Coble nor two other council members who have voted against the museum's funding requests in the past--Kieran Shanahan and Marc Scruggs--returned phone calls from The Independent.

The stakes are high, not only for CAM but for the entire Raleigh arts community, says Margot Knight, president of United Arts, which raises funds for member groups. She contrasts the support contemporary arts groups have received in cities like Charlotte and Winston-Salem with the current lack of official backing in Raleigh.

"The next challenge for Raleigh is to take itself seriously enough to really begin to invest in public art," Knight says. "It's important for us to have political leaders who don't see the arts as something you do after all the other problems have been solved. When politicians see the arts on a level playing field, that's when we'll get our due."

CAM supporters are confident that, for their organization, that day is coming.

"We own a building and it's just going to be a matter of time to get this done," says Thompson, the museum's board chair. "It will eventually happen and when it does, it will be a great thing for Raleigh. Right now, it's Raleigh that's losing out." EndBlock

  • Raleigh's City Council stalls on approving funds for the Contemporary Art Museum's new home.

More by Barbara Solow

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