Arts Center Up For Grabs

For the first time ever, there's competition to manage Wilmington's Community Arts Center, but the impact of who gets the contract could be felt far beyond the U-S-O building that houses it. WHQR's Megan Williams looked into it...

Wilmington, NC, March 22, 2006 – Perched on the corner where second street rises toward the historic district, the USO building - long, low-slung, wood-sided and white-washed - was for many years considered a neighborhood eyesore. But after a decade of wrangling, the city recently agreed not only to preserve the building, but to spend more than two million dollars renovating it. Its physical future assured, the battle is now on for the center's soul.

Ed Smith, head of the Community Arts Center Accord, a group founded to advocate for the USO building's preservation, says that he'd like to see management of the building turned over to a group that doesn't also use its facilities. "We feel," he says, "that the time has come for the city to acknowledge that this is a community resource that's really only second to Thalian Hall."

Last fall the Accord asked city officials to open bidding on the center's management contract. It's the second time the city has reconsidered this contract since awarding that role to the Thalian Association more than a decade ago. And it's Thalian's first time facing any competition. Three competitors, to be precise - the Accord, the Greater Wilmington Arts and Cultural Alliance, or GWACA, and Celebrate the Arts. All these groups agree on a few key points, such as the USO building needs more night and weekend hours and more publicity for its programs. But everyone has a different idea of to what those programs should be. Currently much of the building's space is dedicated to the needs of local theatre companies, which makes sense given that it's administered by one.

But Lynn Krupey, a board member with Celebrate the Arts, says there are other arts she'd like to see included: "Literary arts, poetry, short fiction, things like that, I don't exactly know how that would be structured, but I certainly think the potential there. Healing arts, I can't really expand as much on, but it's something we're kicking around in the back of our head."

As for the Accord, Smith says his organization would use expanded hours to make the space available to non-profits and others not necessarily affiliated with the arts. And he says there's a historical precedent. "Actually, the original name of this building when the city acquired it was the Community Center. It was perceived as that for the entire city of Wilmington"

There's one monkey wrench in all these plans - the USO building will close later this year for renovations. Whichever group gets the contract will quickly find itself operating an arts center-in-exile, as it were. For Tom Cunningham, president of GWACA, it would actually be a fortuitous disruption.

"The downtime gives us the opportunity to say, how can we do this more efficiently, how can we run it better, how can we make it more available to a variety of groups. And, and gives us time, to figure out what space is needed, in Wilmington. What groups are looking for space."

GWACA'S bid for the Center has come under fire from an unexpected direction. At a recent Art Town Meeting hosted by the Cameron Museum and UNCW, several prominent members of the arts community warned GWACA representatives that operating a venue would create a conflict of interest with its primary duties as an arts council - dispersing grant money and advocating for artists and arts organizations. But Cunningham thinks the two roles could complement each other "because we'd be able to probably communicate better that we're doing this to more groups that may or may not hear about it otherwise."

Winning the contract changes any of the competing groups, but losing it would mean the end of an era for the Thalian association. Just contemplating that possibility unnerves Tom Behm, president of the group's board.

"That's going to be kind of hard to deal with," he says, laughing nervously, "because we don't have a home to go to. We hope they'll look favorably on our long tradition and history in working in this space. And our realization that some things need to change and probably should have some time ago, but we're committed to that."

City officials hopes to award a contract in May. Whichever of the groups get it, at least one already sees a silver lining to the whole process. The Accord's Ed Smith says he hopes the debate will show both the city and the public that this is a resource to be taken seriously.

Megan Williams, WHQR News.


Link to the City of Wilmington's RFP form for the Arts Center contract.

Highlights of Each Proposal

Celebrate the Arts
-Introduction of literary and healing arts.
-Extended hours.
-Grand re-opening celebration after renovations.

Community Arts Center Accord
-Return to more of a "community center" mission.
-Work with users to create publicity for their programs.
-Increased role for veterans groups.

-Website, logo, and publicity campaign.
-Use renovation to conduct Capstone project through UNCW to evaluate Wilmington's overall arts facilities needs.
-"Incubator" for new artist/arts groups.

Thalian Association
-Extended evening and weekend hours.
-Continuity and expertise.
-Advance planning to relocate groups during renovations.