Charlotte Arts Center promotes inclusion, independence and growth for resident artists

The Charlotte Arts Center offers adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities a means of creative expression, integrating with the community, and even earning some income.

“We look at what their strengths are, what they do naturally, what mediums they are drawn to and look to see how we can help them excel in that area,” says Alex Cruz, manager of the Charlotte Arts Center. “We’re helping them as individual artists to expand their skills. We want to help them create something that’s personal to them and helps them expand as artists.”

The Arts Center also has an art critique every week, just as an artist would in art school, so they can get feedback from their peers and learn how to speak towards specifics in their artwork beyond just saying something is pretty.

“We treat them like adult working artists because that’s what they are,” Cruz says. “We hate the words ‘can’t’ and ‘never’ because all their lives that’s what they’ve been told. In art it’s so open to all different ways of being. You never know what someone can do unless you provide them an opportunity to do so. We’re not going to limit the participants at the Arts Center. Here they can really spread their wings and try some new things, make some mistakes – not mistakes, but happy accidents!”

The Arts Center is located in the trendy historic arts and entertainment district NODA (“North Davidson”), a walkable neighborhood that is home to many art galleries, bars and restaurants, and live entertainment venues. The Arts Center has a presence at various Charlotte arts and cultural events, like the NODA Eclectic Marketplace and various festivals held each weekend, where participants sell their work for a 40 percent commission.

Some of their artists have built a local fan base of collectors who commission work from them and receive steady work from these commissions. One artist in particular, Danny, exhibited a strong skill for architectural visuals and drawing skylines. He was asked to paint a portrait of a person’s house and has since built a reputation for doing these for private commissions that people proudly hang in their homes, and has even been recognized on the street as the artist behind them. “He’s on a wait list, he’s so busy!” Cruz laughs. “He’s connected with his community through his artwork. This shows [our artists] that they can impact their community through art. It’s empowering to them to learn that they can do that. We try to teach them that art can be their communication tool.”

The Charlotte Arts Center is a program of UMAR, a North Carolina-based nonprofit organization that runs 24 group homes and nine apartments as well as three arts centers for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. UMAR’s mission is to promote community inclusion, independence and growth through residential, employment, and cultural enrichment opportunities.

In addition to operating the housing and arts centers, UMAR also helps its residents find jobs within the community. The Center has two artists working in a high-end gallery where they are learning vocational skills, and another working in a yarn house where she sells yarn and teaches weaving and crocheting classes.

“We are able to transport them to and from the Art Center. This is something they’re really proud of and it gives them sense of purpose. It gives them an identity; they are able to say, ‘This is my place in the world; this is my purpose.'”

Participants in the Arts Center program are able to work in a variety of mediums including clay and fiber art, and the Center also works with the McGill Rose Garden in NODA. The Garden allotted the Center its own planting area for a specialty herb and plant garden, and anything that participants cultivate they also receive 40 percent of in sales.

“These are plants and herbs you don’t really find in stores,” Cruz says. “It is supposed to serve as a microbusiness; we’re marketing to [places like] local restaurants. A lot of people like the idea when you purchase a plant, you’re still giving back to the participant artists.”

They’ve been working in the garden for a year and a half now and this part of the program continues growing; they are also partnered with a nursery to keep the plants alive in the winter.

“We really look at being ‘artists’ as being broad,” Cruz explains. ‘We don’t give up on them if they don’t have an interest in drawing. What other form of expression relates to them? Gardening is another art form and can be very therapeutic as well. It’s another extension of the art in the Arts Center.”

There are two other arts centers in Lincolnton and Reedsville. The Lincolnton location has a storefront and gallery space in front with studios in back, so participants learn to do things like greet and interact with customers and maintain a gallery.

The Charlotte Arts Center does not have a storefront but is actively looking for a space. “That is a huge part of interacting with the community,” Cruz says. As for right now, the Center continues to reach the greater North Charlotte community with a continued presence at art crawls and other cultural events, where they also pass out information about UMAR in an effort to raise awareness about the organization and its various programs in addition to selling the participant artists’ works.

The Arts Center is also active in building relationships with other community arts partners. They recently partnered up with Artists in Residence at the McColl Center for Art + Innovation. Their artists created some jewelry and costume pieces for a resident artist’s stage performance, and they also created the paintings on the cover of the show’s programs. Cruz hopes next to work on a joint performance at UpStage in NODA where UMAR participant artists would perform with a group.

The Arts Center also partnered with Queens University‘s Music Therapy students once a week. “This has been a way for us to serve as a practicum site for their senior level students, and is also a great way for us to incorporate the art of music into the program. Some of our staff is very musical – they play guitar or sing – so we were already incorporating that, but this is really helping us to learn different ways to approach it.” Just last month UMAR artists participated in a performance at Queens University, further expanding the organization’s reach into the community.

Cruz says that on Fridays they try to make it a point to go on a community outing as a group, whether that is going into nursing homes or down into the city to perform and sing. “We teach them how to really harmonize to perform and sing and teach them technicalities that come along with it.”

The Arts Center staff, who are referred to as “arts counselors,” provides a lot of support both on the arts side and on the human services side, as they tend to have strong backgrounds working with intellectually and developmentally challenged populations in both fields. There are also two art therapists on staff as well as numerous guest artist volunteers.

“They’re meant to guide others in their art making and provide instruction so they have skills they need to succeed. They’re more here to guide them into themselves as artists,” Cruz says. “It’s really important to keep independent studio time for them to explore independent creative time, but that doesn’t mean “free time” – participants recognize they need to self start and continue working on a project for more than an hour.”

More than anything else, Cruz wants the greater Charlotte community to see the work the Arts Center and UMAR do and what a tremendous resource they are for these challenged populations that might otherwise have no other recourse.

“We’re from Charlotte and proud to be here. We want people here to be proud to have us; we want people to really recognize who we are,” she says.

“We treat social issues in the community. This is much more than art for art’s sake.”