Work in Progress: The Evolution of Uptown’s McColl Center

Work in Progress: The Evolution of Uptown’s McColl Center

Among Charlotte’s arts organizations, McColl Center stands apart. In 1995, Bank of America bought an uptown Presbyterian church, which had languished after a fire destroyed the interior in 1984. The bank teamed up with the Arts & Science Council to refurbish the interior and opened the space as an artist residency, then called the Tryon Center for Visual Art, in 1999.

The residency program has since become a prestigious destination for artists from all over the world to refine their craft and burnish their résumés. But the organization has struggled to find its niche among Charlotte’s marquee arts attractions. For a while, towering banners on the façade proclaimed, “ART INSIDE.” Arrows pointed toward the entrance. You could live here for decades without discovering what lies behind those doors.

“We have always served artists, both local and national, but we’ve done it in a very particular way,” says Jonell Logan, McColl Center’s vice president and creative director. “And the building hasn’t been accessed by as many people as possible.”

Logan joined the nonprofit in November 2020 after stints at the Gantt Center and New York City’s Whitney Museum of Art and The Studio Museum in Harlem. Her hiring is part of a slate of changes intended to root the center more deeply in the community, a challenge it’s wrestled with for more than two decades.

In September, McColl Center announced that it would rebrand and complement the flagship residency with locally focused programs. In a press release, McColl Center President and CEO Alli Celebron-Brown said, “Our renewed vision keeps our artist residency at the heart of McColl Center, while creating new programs and opportunities that respond to the needs of Charlotte’s creative community and open our doors to more local artists.” The principle behind these programs is the ethos that will guide the center in this new phase: artists first.

This isn’t the first time the organization has changed tack. Two years after it opened, the Tryon Center for Visual Art was rechristened McColl Center for Visual Art to honor its leading patron, former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl. In 2014, the center dubbed itself McColl Center for Art + Innovation and introduced “innovator” residencies. Since 2005, the center had been home to the Innovation Institute, spearheaded by then-CEO Suzanne Fetscher and dedicated to bringing artists and business leaders together “to apply the creative process to corporate problem solving.” Less than a year after Fetscher’s 2017 retirement, the Innovation Institute closed. The evolution makes sense: Charlotte has changed fast since 1999. Local arts organizations have to keep up.

Great art lives at the vanguard of human experience, but its institutions have gained a reputation for dawdling in the back ranks, reluctant to examine how they’ve walled themselves off from the poor and racial minorities, intentionally or not. To remain relevant and connect to their communities, these legacy players have to adapt. Now, Logan says, “when you look across the discipline and across these arts organizations, they’re really embracing change. Because the only way that you remain sustainable is to change and to grow intentionally.”

McColl Center’s identity is intertwined with Charlotte’s banking legacy, but art and big business make for an awkward intersection. While the Innovation Institute tackled problems faced by business, this latest iteration pivots to address problems caused by Charlotte’s mushrooming growth. “We’re a banking city primarily, so how do you reconcile both of these really big perspectives in one space?” Logan says. “And I’m also really aware that, with our city’s expansion and building, oftentimes artists are the ones that suffer. And so there is this real loss, I think, of creative folks because they can’t afford to live here.”

The pandemic gave McColl Center’s leadership the opportunity to think hard about what they can provide—and what they can’t. “We can’t do housing. That’s just not in our wheelhouse,” Logan says. “But we can create these affordable spaces for artists to work.” Nine new subsidized studios will give local artists a temporary, community-centered creative home and provide access to hard-to-get equipment, including a 3D printer, laser cutter, and woodworking and welding tools. The studios, available for one-year terms with an option to renew, are intended as way stations, part of the center’s goal to reach a wider swath of emerging local artists. 

The last couple of years have shone a piercing light on institutional equity efforts. Logan says diversity has been a priority at McColl since its inception, long before she joined the team, but its task now is to expand that effort to undergird everything the organization does. The experience there, for artists, visitors, and staff, must go beyond optics and metrics, especially in a city known for squashing upward mobility. “If we’re inviting in all these different people,” she says, “how do we ensure that it is a space that is comfortable and respectful and open to all of these different perspectives and experiences?”

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McColl Center has rebranded three times since 1999, when it opened in a refurbished Presbyterian church uptown. Courtesy, McColl Center.

So far, that’s meant hiring staff that reflect the city’s demographics, paying artists a living wage, seeking authentic relationships and nontraditional partnerships, and designing programs with an eye toward groups long left out of Charlotte’s mainstream arts conversation. Celebron-Brown points to a paid high school internship program and weeklong summer intensives, which let youth dive deep into a particular medium. “We are placing those young artists first,” she says. “We don’t endeavor to be a day care. We endeavor to support budding artists.”

Charlotte’s legacy art museums—the Bechtler and the Mint—display finished work. The messy, frustrating, humanity-affirming process of making art is obscured behind a gauze of soft light and careful curation. McColl Center shows finished artwork, too. But step through its wooden doors, and you’re also likely to glimpse the creative process in action. A studio door is open? The artist is available for conversation. “You’re able to interact with artists and their practice,” Logan says. “You get to see how they make a thing, you get to ask questions. Your relationship with the artist isn’t always facilitated by us.” This is the root of creative community, a place where artists and visitors feel welcome to swap ideas and experience the art that comes of the exchange.

McColl Center makes a home for artists in flux and belongs to a city on the cusp. In this town, everything is a work in progress. The center’s third rebranding in two decades testifies to that. “There is this desire, I think, to identify what is unique about who we are and what we do as a city and as different communities in the city. … There’s this recognition that there are things that are great and there are things that we can do differently in order to benefit the communities that we serve or that live here,” Logan says. “And I think McColl is doing the same thing.”

Allison Braden is a contributing editor.

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