Charlotte rising: How the city’s creative culture is coming into its own

When you arrive at Charlotte-Douglas International airport, take a moment to look around before you join the rush to baggage claim. You’ll see an airport brought to life by dozens of murals created by local artists, experimental photographic collages, and – looking up – the occasional gravity-defying sculpture.

This welcome to the Queen City merely hints at the inspiring diversity of art, culture, and entertainment waiting to be explored. Here are some of the people who make Charlotte pulse with creative energy, the organizations that support them, and some of the many venues where you can see, hear and feel the city’s arts scene for yourself.

Two of Nico Amortegui’s murals decorate the walls of the Charlotte airport © Courtesy Nico Amortegui

Nico Amortegui

Two of Nico Amortegui’s murals decorate the walls of the airport. Born in Colombia, Nico has called Charlotte home for 20 years.

“I started by selling my paintings on the street for $20 and completed my first mural about ten years ago,” Nico recalls. “Back then, there were only a handful of artists in the city.” He says that changed when the Charlotte Arts & Science Council led an initiative to encourage public and independent art. Now he’s seeing the momentum build.

“In the past, when I told people I’m from Charlotte, they would often say, ‘Oh, the banking place?’ Now they say, ‘Oh, the place with all the murals!’ Artists are now coming here from all over the country. We are heading in an amazing direction.”

Asked about his inspiration, Nico says it’s the social value of art. “My work reflects positivity. I think a painting or a sculpture is a way to speak about society, and to society; to focus on what connects us, to make people explore their perceptions. But above all, I want my art to make people smile.”

Artist Nill Smith says Charlotteans are now appreciating the depth and creativity of independent art © Nick Orchard / Lonely Planet

Nill Smith

Nill Smith’s creativity is rooted in West African folklore, and also includes European influences. “Much of my work portrays both the struggle and strength of African women,” she says. “I also like to include symbolism – some of it quite subtle – to add a depth of feeling to my paintings. People may not even realize that it’s there.”

Smith also shares Nico’s enthusiasm about the Charlotte arts scene. “There’s always something going on. Always something to see. … We have a thriving artistic community that is open and welcoming – and an eclectic mix of neighborhoods that have their own distinctive beat, combined with just a little bit of weirdness.”

She is noticing a changing perspective, too. “People are now appreciating the depth and creativity of independent art. Where, before, they would settle for a copy, now they visit an artist’s studio for a one-of-a-kind piece; something unique that speaks to them. That’s the Charlotte story.”

Rosa Murillo works on a jewelry piece in her workspace © Courtesy Rosa Murillo

Rosa Murillo

Some art takes its inspiration from nature. Some art includes pieces of that nature. Rosa Murillo’s handcrafted, eco-friendly jewelry does both.

“My work is inspired by nature and the geometry found in the shapes of our landscape,” Rosa says. “My pieces include sculpted sand from North Carolina beaches; others include reclaimed wood that mimics the Blue Ridge mountains.”

Some of Rosa Murillo’s pieces include sculpted sand from North Carolina beaches © Courtesy Rosa Murillo

A long-term resident of the Charlotte area, Rosa loves the city’s creativity and diversity. “New opportunities seem to pop up every day,” she says. “I have been lucky to live in the city long enough to have witnessed, first-hand, its cultural growth – like the transformation of NoDa [the neighborhood named for North Davidson Street], the rise of our beautiful street art, the revitalization of the Camp North End site. And there are so many more I could mention. It’s a great time to be a Charlottean.”

For a chance to wear a unique piece of North Carolina, check out Rosa’s work at her online store.

This mural by Nick Napoletano pays tribute to hospitality workers who were at the forefront of the COVID pandemic © Nick Orchard / Lonely Planet

A Multitude of Murals

Contrary to popular belief, Charlotte does not have a mural walk. It has a mural marathon.

Decorating all of its neighborhoods, including Uptown (the locals’ name for the city center), you can easily fill a few days exploring street art that is emotional or controversial, evocative or confounding.

There’s art around almost every corner, but if you’re exploring be sure to include 201 Rampart Street, just a few steps away from Sycamore Brewing. In one of Charlotte’s newest murals, muralist Nick Napoletano pays tribute to hospitality workers who were at the forefront of the COVID pandemic. Its hope for the future is captured in the mural’s single phrase, “From the stillness a seed of hope is planted.”

Drummers celebrate the opening of VAPA (Visual and Performing Arts) in Charlotte © Nick Orchard / Lonely Planet

Support for local artists

Underpinning the surge in the city’s creativity, various local organizations provide residencies, grants, publicity, business training, and a community connection that give local artists the space, opportunity, and encouragement to fully explore their craft.

The Arts and Science Council, the McColl Center, and Goodyear Arts have long been the city’s leading proponents for independent artists. In March 2022, they were joined by VAPA (Visual and Performing Arts) Center, which opened its 157,000 square foot facility across the street from the McColl Center.

Home to more than 130 artists, VAPA houses galleries, artist studios, theater and rehearsal spaces – and much more. Arthur Rogers, a local artist and the Executive Director of VAPA, is excited by the possibilities.

“We are striving to cultivate accessible exhibition and creative workspaces to inspire and nurture the relationship between artists and the community. Artists will be able to create and exhibit – and performers will be able to learn, rehearse, and perform to an audience – all right here, in this building.”

Firebird by Niki de Saint Phalle
Firebird, by Niki de Saint Phalle, at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art © Cody Hughes; Courtesy of Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority

A cultural destination

You can easily spend your whole time in Charlotte exploring its emerging independent art scene, but you would miss out on the diverse array of established entertainment options that make the Queen City one of the leading cultural destinations in the United States. Here are some of our favorites:

A Wealth of Museums

Charlotte boasts an exciting variety of museums and theaters – all within walking distance of each other. In the heart of Uptown, the Levine Center for the Arts is one of the Queen City’s major cultural hubs. Contained within two city blocks, the Mint MuseumBechtler Museum of Modern Art, and Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts+Culture have something to appeal to every taste.

The Mint Museum has one of the largest and most diverse collections of American, European and contemporary art in the United States. The Mint also promotes regular exhibits of globally-influential artists – which, in early 2022, included the works of iconic fashion designer, Anna Sui.

Once you have paused to take the obligatory selfie with the firebird statue outside, the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art greets you with a collection of works by the most influential mid-century artists, including Calder, Giacometti, Le Corbusier, Picasso, and Warhol.

The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts+Culture celebrates African and African-American culture with evocative exhibitions and collections that showcase both emerging and established artists, many of whom live in Charlotte and the southeastern United States.

For the young and young-at-heart, Discovery Place Science mixes interactive science- and nature-related activities with a revolving program of exhibitions that have included the Apollo space program and the world-renowned Dead Sea Scrolls. Don’t miss the opportunity to relax on a bed of nails before you leave.

The entrance of the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center © Nolichuckyjake / Shutterstock

Performing Arts

Centered around Charlotte’s main north-south thoroughfare, Tryon Street, the six Uptown venues managed by Blumenthal Performing Arts host more than 1,000 annual events – from Broadway to ballet, concerts to comedy, and pretty much everything in between.

As its headline attraction, the Charlotte Symphony season runs from September to May, and includes classical music performances, rock and pop interpretations, and the occasional homage to famous movie scores.

Beyond the concert hall, the symphony experience can be found in a variety of other locations – some ensembles even play to patrons at the NoDa Brewing Company. The “post-season” highlight is the Summer Pops concert series, which runs from early June and culminates with stirring music and fireworks on July 4th.

The Charlotte Symphony also provides the soundtrack for the Charlotte Ballet and Opera Carolina, whose companies of predominantly local, professional dancers and singers are joined by internationally recognized choreographers and artists to present some of the world’s most famous works.

Headlining what could be called the “Off Tryon” scene, the Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte features innovative, contemporary, and occasionally controversial productions. Its 33rd season in 2022 features three different plays between February and June.

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