An unusual public-private partnership helped spur a fund-raising campaign that benefited an array of Charlotte, N.C., cultural facilities,
including, from left, the Discovery Place, the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, and North Carolina Dance Theater.
A N.C. Arts Council’s $83-Million Drive Rolls On Despite Economy’s Plunge
By Eric Frazier
ADECADE AGO, an arts leader in this New South financial center crafted a 25-year cultural mas-
ter plan to build new museums and a
performing arts center along a sleepy
slice of the central business district.
The Arts & Science Council, the
nonprofit cultural organization that
drafted the plan, knew it wouldn’t be
easy to pull off. In a city that ranks as
the nation’s No. 2 banking center (
behind New York), the council’s leaders
knew they would need heavy support
from the town’s two major banks.
They also knew they would have to
persuade wary city and county politicians to spend government dollars on
it. Unprecedented levels of cooperation
would be needed among multiple and
distinctively unique museums.
Much could go wrong, they knew.
And that wasn’t even counting the
worst thing that eventually did go
wrong: the recession and banking crisis that struck just two years into the
council’s $83-million fund-raising campaign, imploding its biggest corporate
supporter and freezing philanthropists’ checkbooks.
And yet, today Charlotte’s central
business district boasts three new art
museums, a performing-arts theater,
and a remodeled children’s science museum, just as the council had planned.
They sprouted from an extraordinary
public-private collaboration the council
shepherded through some of the most
turbulent economic times to hit the
city in recent memory.
For its against-the-odds triumph,
the Association of Fundraising Professionals has named the council a winner of its highest honor, the Campbell
& Company Award for Excellence in
Fundraising. The council won in the
category for organizations with five
or fewer fund raisers. “The challenges that faced ASC in Charlotte were
about as significant and far-ranging as
I’ve ever seen in a campaign, and they
came through it all with flying colors,”
says Paulette V. Maehara, the outgoing president of AFP, in Arlington, Va.
The success of the effort—called the
Campaign for Cultural Facilities—
The Harvey B. Gantt Center for Af-
rican-American Arts + Culture had
been operating out of about 11,000
square feet in a refurbished century-
old church. It graduated to a sleek,
47,000-square-foot building with multiple galleries, a boardroom most corporations would envy, and a rooftop
plaza with stunning views of the city.
About a decade ago, the Bechtler
family, owners of an expansive mod-ern-art collection featuring works by
Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol, were
thinking of building a facility north of
the city to house their artwork when
campaign officials inquired about
building a museum named after them
in the business district.
John Boyer, now chief executive of
the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art,
said at the time the organization had
no members supporting it and no way
to estimate visitation patterns. The
museum, open about a year now, has
800 members; Mr. Boyer now says he
expects that to easily double.
“Given the circumstances we’ve encountered in the past three years, it
underscores the ASC’s ability, their
remarkable strength in planning and
execution, and also the trust they’ve
built over the past 20 years in the
Charlotte region,” says Mr. Boyer.
Making a Deal
It took every bit of that trust and
expertise to get the complicated deal
structured and financed.
Kristin Hills Bradberry, a former
council staff member who helped
spearhead the campaign (and now
works as a fund-raising consultant)
said a key puzzle piece fell into place
when Bob Bertges, head of corporate
real estate for what was then Wachovia Bank, got involved. At the time,
Wachovia was one of the nation’s largest banks, with some $700-billion in
combined assets and growing rapidly.
Wachovia wanted to replace its old
headquarters building in Charlotte
and build a new tower that could accommodate some 2,500 trading desks.
When Lee Keesler, then head of the
council, approached him about the 25-
year master plan for cultural facilities,
Mr. Bertges figured new museums
would help make Charlotte a more attractive location for the bank’s white-collar employees.
He came up with a plan: The bank
would donate land around its tower for
the council’s wish list of cultural facilities. The city and state could use tax
money to pay for the structures. The
city would own the buildings, and the
museums would fill them with artistic
When officials with the campaign
approached the city of Charlotte, Mr.
Bertges recalls, city officials said they
would pay the $150-million needed to
construct the buildings, but they didn’t
want to pay operating and mainte-
nance costs afterward.
The council also knew how to raise
money in Charlotte, where philanthropic giving has traditionally been
dominated by the big banks. It installed as chairs of the fund-raising effort the chief executives of Bank
of America, Duke Energy, and Wachovia.
Bank of America and Wachovia
kicked off the drive in the fall of 2006
with twin $15-million gifts. Duke Energy, the region’s major power supplier,
chipped in $5-million.
But the effort hit a major snag about
two years in when the recession and
banking crisis flared.
In May 2009, Wachovia’s board oust-
ed its chief executive, Ken Thompson,
Mr. Thompson, a North Carolina na-
tive, stepped down from his position
with the Campaign for Cultural Facili-
ties. Some Charlotte residents blamed
him for Wachovia’s fall, and thousands
of the bank’s workers worried they
would lose their jobs.
But to the leaders of the cultural
KEY STEPS IN RUNNING
campaign, he was the well-liked heart
of their fund-raising effort. “Ken did
so much to make all this happen,” Ms.
Bradberry says. “For those of us who
worked with him, it was hard.”
It was harder to ask people for mon-
ey, with so much turmoil and financial
distress throughout the Charlotte met-
ropolitan area. The campaign’s lead-
ers decided “to take a step back,” Ms.
Bradberry says, and not push as hard
for donations. They continued trying
to educate the public about the project,
but for most of 2009 they didn’t place
much emphasis on asking for mon-
ey. They moved the planned comple-
A CAMPAIGN IN A SLOW ECONOMY
n Have a plan, but be flexible enough
to adjust to changing circumstanc-
n Listen to campaign volunteers’
assessments of local donors’ toler-
ance for continued gift solicitations.
n If the drive seems stalled, consider
slowing it down to focus on educating the public about the project’s
benefit to the community rather
than on requests for money.
n Remember that during hard times
people are sensitive to social
needs. Emphasize the way your
project helps, regardless of the
tion date back from June 2009 to the
spring of 2010.
Adding to the challenges, Lee Keesler, the council’s president, retired. The
organization hired its current head,
Scott Provancher, who steered the
campaign toward the finish line.
Small gifts from individuals buoyed
the campaign, says Ms. Bradberry.
Such donors chipped in almost $7-mil-
lion. She remembered one man who
sent $50. When she called to thank
him and asked why he had donated, he
said he’d read about it in the newspaper and just wanted to be a part of the
“For me personally, that was one of
the most inspiring gifts,” she says. “We
had a lot of people who stretched, per-
sonally and individually, to be a part
None more so than Leon and Sandra
Levine, two of the city’s most gener-
ous philanthropists. When the cam-
paign stalled about $20-million short
of its goal, many Charlotte leaders
thought of Mr. Levine, founder of the
Family Dollar discount-store chain,
whose name adorns buildings all over
town. Former Bank of America chief
executive Hugh McColl approached
Mr. Levine about the campaign. Mayor
Anthony Foxx and others gave the cou-
ple tours of the new facilities, some of
which had already opened.
The Levines agreed to put in $15-
million through their Leon Levine
Foundation. Duke Energy, which had
since taken over as the main occupant