How a Booming Creative Class Transformed a Bank Town Into an Arts Destination
An influx of musicians, filmmakers, and other artistic types have turned Charlotte from a banking town into a hotbed of inspiration.
By Jennifer McGivney
The house hunt began in Brooklyn and ended in Charlotte.
Rodney Stringfellow started searching for a home with his wife in 2010. By then, the Emmy-nominated television screenwriter had lived in Brooklyn for 25 years. When they began to envision their perfect home—somewhere a little quieter, a little greener, a little easier to get around—their search took them further than expected, about 600 miles south.
This migration is becoming increasingly common. Big cities, long known as the meccas for artists and entrepreneurs, are growing out of favor—and often, out of reach—for the creative class. Now, more people move from glittering metropolises like New York and Los Angeles than move to them, according to 2018 Census data on migration. To find where they’re heading, look south. Charlotte’s become the third-fastest growing U.S. city, with a creative class that grew 32 percent between 2012 and 2017. The city’s big enough to have its own symphony, opera, and ballet, yet small enough to foster a thriving community of local artists taking chances. This doesn’t only make it a great place to create art, but to enjoy it, too.
Stringfellow hasn’t regretted the move. He says it wasn’t until he settled in Charlotte that he truly discovered his artistic voice.
“I’ve found this rich community in Charlotte that’s always creating, even when no one is dangling a network show in front of them,” says Stringfellow, who’s active in the Carolina Film Community and teaches screenwriting at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “People here are artists and they couldn’t stop being artists if they wanted to. They produce and they produce and they produce.”
Matt Olin and Tim Miner began Creative Mornings Charlotte as a passion project four years ago. Now, more than 400 creative professionals, from comedians to composers, fill their monthly breakfast speaker series. It sparked so much interest that the duo launched a non-profit, Charlotte is Creative, to serve the city’s creative class through programming and micro-grants.
“The creative class in Charlotte is growing at a meteoric rate,” Olin says. “If you have an idea and want to run with that idea, you can go to New York or L.A. or Atlanta, where the rules are in place and you have to plug in and play by those rules. Charlotte’s at a unique place in its growth. Here you can help write the rules, just by getting involved in a community and doing your thing.”
The city’s art galleries embrace interactive experiences and international perspectives. LaCa Projects, a contemporary Latin American art gallery, doesn’t want art to exist as a passive encounter reserved for the few. It creates celebrations of art that hold a mirror up to an increasingly diverse city, inviting all to participate, to learn, and to have fun. LaCa hosts events such as a Day of the Dead celebration that combines photography exhibits, dance lessons, food tastings, art demonstrations, and live music.
“When people walk in the door [of LaCa Projects], they’re blown away by the space, and their perceptions and ideas around contemporary Latin American art are totally turned around,” says co-founder Neely Verano. “We’re among the galleries in Charlotte creating a more culturally rich city and creating more cross-cultural dialogue.”
As more creatives come to Charlotte—bringing galleries, festivals, restaurants, and concerts with them—the city now holds major weekend-getaway appeal. Once known as a banking center, it welcomes more than 30 million visitors annually. More than 7,600 new hotel rooms will open in the next year, joining those in chic establishments like the centrally located AC Hotel Charlotte City Center, and the international airport offers nonstop connections to 170 destinations. Together, tourists and locals create a demand for culture that easily fills a string of days with live music, performance art, visual art, and more–and makes it hard to leave. Want in? These six must-go spots epitomize Charlotte’s creative evolution.
Bechtler Museum of Modern Art at Levine Center for the Arts
Inside the Bechtler are works by some of the most renowned names in mid-century modern art, including Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, and Alberto Giacometti. The Bechtler itself is a striking piece of contemporary art–a building designed by Swiss master architect Mario Botta that combines terra cotta, steel, black granite, and polished concrete. Swing by on the first Friday of the month-–the popular Jazz at the Bechtler offers affordable concerts in a beautiful setting.
Just steps away are three more uptown arts venues at Levine Center for the Arts: Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, Knight Theater, and Mint Museum Uptown. It’s possible to spend a weekend feasting on incredible art, listening to live music, and attending film screenings without walking more than two blocks.
Music in Plaza Midwood
Sure, Charlotte has amphitheaters and arenas for the big acts. But some of the best music experiences in Charlotte await in small bars and venues in the Plaza Midwood neighborhood just east of Uptown. Snug Harbor, Petra’s, and Thirsty Beaver Saloon are local favorites. There’s no better way to pass a fall evening. The BOOM Festival, a celebration of contemporary and experimental art with performances held in venues and on stages throughout the neighborhood, offers a reason to return again in the spring.
Camp North End
These brick buildings once produced Model T cars and U.S. Army missiles. Now they produce films, paintings, fashion, and music. The former manufacturing site has become a thriving artistic hub. Places like Goodyear Arts, dupp&swat, and BlkMrkt blend the lines between studios, galleries, music venues, and workshops, connecting local artists to each other, as well as to clients and passionate fans. From May through October, Friday Nights at Camp North End offer live music, open houses, and food trucks. Wander between galleries and stores, grab a bite to eat, and enjoy local beer from breweries on site.
McColl Center for Art + Innovation
Here, art intersects with Southern hospitality. The Center doesn’t merely display art, but welcomes visitors to engage in conversations about it. Artists-in-residence come from all over the world, and they relish inviting guests into their studios during open house events to discuss their work and share their process. Art isn’t meant to stay on walls at the McColl Center–it makes a broader community impact. The center hosts conversations about the intersection of art, culture, and community as well as workshops for aspiring artists of all levels and ages, offering lessons on such topics as color theory, bookbinding, and ceramics.
U.S. National Whitewater Center
It seems like an odd combination: whitewater rapids, mountain bike trails, and… the arts? Yet the River Jam Concert Series has turned the Whitewater Center into a prime destination for live music during the summer months, when visitors grab food and drink from the beer garden and settle on picnic blankets near the rapids for free live music. The Center also hosts a summer film series, projecting outdoor-themed feature films on a giant screen. And in spring, about 55,000 active outdoor lovers converge here for Tuck Fest–three days of athletic competitions and live music. Whether you want to paddle, run, climb, or simply enjoy the bands, it’s a fun weekend in a beautiful location.
Charlotte used to be a textile town. At the turn of the twentieth century, many of those textiles were made in what is now Optimist Hall, a soaring food hall with a wide variety of offerings to fit nearly any craving: sushi, steamed buns, dumplings, Neopolitan pizza, grilled cheese, gelato, cocktails, and more. After filling up, meander the surrounding NoDa neighborhood, flourishing with shops, breweries, bars, and music venues–and the local folk who are making this town more intriguing than ever.
Whether you’re staying for a weekend, or settling in for years to come, life in Charlotte is a culture-lover’s dream. Want to plan a visit? Start here.