Charlotte is wasting its empty space. Here’s how I think it could be used

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harlotte-based developer Crescent Communities still plans to knock down a former Goodyear store at Stonewall and Tryon streets to make way for a 27-story office tower, but until that happens, the site is about to get a bit more artsy. On Wednesday, the company said it’s opening the space up to short-term artists-in-residence through September.

I have never lived in a city more profoundly littered with vacant spaces than Charlotte. Some spaces have been empty since I moved here in 2009.

Charlotte prides itself on innovation and creativity, but innovators don’t waste resources. One of the biggest resources that can actually move Charlotte farther down the road to becoming a real player in innovation is art.

All over Charlotte, there are empty spaces itching to be filled. Cities all over the country recognize that sitting on empty buildings is not good for business, but activating them with artists is.

There are some amazing artists and arts organizations in Charlotte and a growing number of people who recognize the importance of cross-sector collaborations, but there is a disconnect keeping this city from achieving its potential. In Charlotte, we fail to recognize how important it is for businesses, communities, audiences and artists to be truly invested in each other’s success.

When people don’t plug in and make the effort, a new generation of artists never gets off the ground. Major funders are disconnected from smaller arts organizations and upcoming artists, and Charlotteans largely aren’t coming out to engage a diverse arts community. When the arts become a part of a city’s identity it’s because they have been woven into the city at the ground level.

Think of what could happen if artists and community organizations filled the empty church at the corner of Hawthorne and Kennon in Plaza Midwood, or the empty space in Chantilly at the end of Shenandoah, or the old movie theatre on Sugar Creek, or any of the empty spaces on Wilkinson or in the Gold District.

There are a wealth of artists who lament that they can’t find an empty space to use for short-term projects, or groups with a vision for how to use empty space in the long term to engage artists, audiences and underserved communities in new ways. Property owners aren’t being asked to give away their space for free, they’re entering into a partnership that allows for an vacant space to become an activated space.

To developers and property owners: work with us, not against us. Maybe opening up your space to artists isn’t what you usually do, but if you let artists come in and activate the space while it’s not being used, then we can draw some attention to it.

To artists: Stop creating in a vacuum. Look for ways to engage your audiences instead of just offering them a product. Let go of your need for control. It’s a community, not a competition.

To funders: Innovative art isn’t free. Creating new art takes time, which is only possible if artists are being paid. It’s great that you give to larger arts organizations, but an art scene without smaller, well-funded companies pushing the envelope and trying new things lacks balance and depth. Be a part of bringing smaller artists with new ideas to the forefront.

To everyone else: Go see something you wouldn’t normally see. Follow a local artist you don’t personally know. If you can afford something, buy something.  Look at the art, watch the performances, tell the artists what you think.

Be a part of the process. Treat artistic experiences as access points for building the city you want and not as products for you to consume. Be a part of building something deeper. Just be a part of building something.

Photo: Mark Hames/Charlotte Observer

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