Saturday, November 19, 2011

We're expanding arts coverage

Mention the arts in Charlotte and many people immediately think of events at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center or exhibits at the newly opened museums at the Levine Center for the Arts.

These institutions are cultural gems, and our region is much richer for having them. But they only begin to define a broad and diverse arts scene that also plays out in neighborhood theaters, universities, coffee houses, galleries and churches.

Less familiar with those venues? Well, that begins to change this week.

On Thursday, the Observer debuts Arts Alive, a full-color package in print and online designed to introduce you to the full range of opportunities to experience the arts. That includes emerging art trends, artist profiles and news of upcoming events.

Our first installment introduces you to Charlotte’s own aerial dance troupe, Caroline Calouche & Co. The Observer’s Lawrence Toppman describes its namesake this way: “Like a New York developer, this choreographer owns both the ground she inhabits and all the space above.”

The group rehearses in Charlotte’s NoDa community and will perform Saturday in a production at Central Piedmont Community College.

“I don’t think we’ve ever done a full-blown feature on this troupe,” says the Observer’s features editor, Michael Weinstein. “We can now write about groups like this in addition to those that are already very well known to the community.”

This adds to our Sunday arts coverage and frequent reviews of organizations like the Charlotte Symphony, Opera Carolina and the N.C. Dance Theatre.

How can we expand coverage in an era of media cutbacks? By using a relatively new funding model. It relies on a specific underwriter to support the added cost.

This model is new to newspapers. But it is quite familiar to you through other media, including public radio and public television.

The underwriter for the Observer’s Arts Alive content is Carolinas HealthCare System (CHS). As the region’s largest employer, CHS corporately supports a wide range of arts initiatives. In 2011, its employees contributed more than $600,000 to local arts organizations in Mecklenburg and surrounding counties. CHS also uses art and music therapy in its rehabilitation programs.

“This region is truly exceptional when it comes to artistic and cultural enterprises,” says CHS CEO Michael Tarwater. “(Underwriting) is one means by which we can encourage everyone to enjoy all of the benefits that accrue from a healthy and growing arts community.”

Underwritten content is produced independently through the Observer’s newsroom. Underwriters play no role in the selection of stories or direction of coverage. Carolinas HealthCare joins two other underwriters now working with the Observer in this way:

Duke Energy underwrites SciTech, two pages of news about science and technology from across the Carolinas that appears in Monday’s Observer and on

Piedmont Natural Gas underwrites Young Achievers, news about the exceptional accomplishments of young people in our region. It appears in Tuesday’s Observer and online at

Underwriters choose to invest in quality content, recognizing that this helps build stronger communities. We’re pleased that such a moment has now arrived in Charlotte for the arts.

The Observer hopes to shine still more light on the arts, beginning this week, through a new partnership with a variety of other local media.

The Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance (CAJA) includes the Observer, public radio station WFAE, television station WCNC and two publications that are solely web-based, and

For its launch, this group is being assisted by a grant it won in the Community Arts Journalism Challenge, a national competition sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Our alliance is one of five groups nationally that submitted winning proposals to reinvigorate coverage of the arts in their communities. Each member of the Charlotte alliance will enlist freelance journalists to cover the arts, and then share that content freely with other member organizations.

UNC Charlotte also is a member of this alliance. Its College of Arts and Architecture will develop seminars and courses that could help equip journalists who are new to covering the arts.

The initial grant of $20,000 is being used to pay journalists in an experiment at content-sharing, as well as to plan curriculum. The grant is being administered locally through the nonprofit Arts & Science Council (which played no role in the selection of the proposal or its details).

Later this month, the alliance will submit a final proposal to the Knight Foundation and the NEA that could lead to another $80,000 in funding.

Our goal is to elevate both the volume and the quality of local arts coverage. By collaborating, we also expect to reach wider audiences, which will only benefit both our community and the arts organizations that aspire to enrich it.

Reach Rick Thames at, and Phone: 704-358-5001.