“There is a reason that art is in the world,” said Larry Elder while addressing a small group of young visual arts enthusiasts last week. “It can be life-changing. It has been for me.”
Larry Elder, owner of Charlotte’s Elder Gallery, was speaking to a group of millennials who had gathered at his gallery to learn about art through the Charlotte Millennial Art Program. An active, engaged supporter of the visual arts in the Carolinas, Larry is a man on a mission. His goal? To ensure Charlotte’s arts culture is a major part of the city’s identity. It’s a lofty goal, but one that the bright-eyed and impassioned owner of Elder Gallery believes is possible — and necessary.
To understand the scale of that vision, it’s important to consider Charlotte’s art culture today.
Lauded as an emerging Southern city, even the new Atlanta, Charlotte’s got a lot. It’s home to two of the nation's leading banks, four professional sports teams — including the Carolina Panthers and the Charlotte Hornets — plus NASCAR. Add to that list Carolinas Medical Center, which is the largest research hospital in the region, and you have the makings of a cosmopolitan capital.
Charlotte is in the process of refining its identity. Perk your ears around the Queen City and you’ll hear the buzz of future-focused energy. People here are aware that Charlotte is evolving, and are engaged in that transition; organizations like Charlotte Center City Partners and the Charlotte Agenda, a “user guide to Charlotte,” are proof.
The visual arts are part of this evolution. Home to a number of the state’s most respected and well-curated museums and galleries, art collectors and enthusiasts, Charlotte must decide to build and expand on this legacy.
Larry Elder may be just the catalyst Charlotte needs to ensure the arts are central to the city’s identity.
“I believe that the arts can improve a child’s academic success, teach empathy and compassion, act as a stabilizer for failing neighborhoods, and increase tourism for our city,” says Larry. “Art has proven to be life-altering, and in many cases, life-saving. As a society, we need to do all we can to promote the creative process.”
Until about 15 years ago, when the dot com bubble burst, Larry was involved in the corporate world and tech start-ups. During that seismic economic shift, he and his wife decided to pursue their passion and open a gallery.
Elder Gallery opened in November 2001 to a warm, generous art community. Over the last decade, it’s become a space cherished by art lovers, old and new.
When he talks about this journey, Larry smiles and his eyes glisten.
“I’ve been very fortunate in that I feel that I have been given a gift that has changed my life,” Larry says. “I naïvely entered the art business with hopes that I could create a business that would sustain itself, but most importantly, satisfy my craving to be surrounded by artistic people who create beautiful works of art.”
Larry believes he has the opportunity to “educate the public and to influence the way they look at art” — which he sees as essential to cultivating a strong creative community that defines the identity of Charlotte as a city and North Carolina as a state.
Larry Elder & Elder Gallery
When describing Charlotte’s art scene, Larry often uses the words “unappreciated” and “unsupported.”
Aside from scant press coverage of visual arts events and tumultuous public funding, Larry believes all too often even local arts supporters can become trapped in a cycle of visiting the same galleries and museums, and are unaware of the broader arts community.
“These [adjectives] may sound negative, but I believe they need to be considered as we look for ways to strengthen the art culture in our area,” says Larry. “We are rich in talent but poor in the way we support the artisans...Certainly we can do a better job in creating an environment in which the arts can help define who we are as a city and state.”
Larry is working toward this in three ways: through his gallery, an organization called Carolina’s Got Art! (CGA!), and the newly launched Charlotte Millennial Art Program.
Elder Gallery represents mostly American artists, with an emphasis on regional talent. Through this outlet, Larry provides a platform for emerging and established artists to access a larger market and a loyal clientele. Over the past fifteen years, he has become a trusted advisor and curator to local collectors. He’s shepherded many clients through the first phases of art collecting, guiding them through the process of exploring their taste and investing in art, even with limited budget.
Building on momentum from the gallery, Larry founded Carolina’s Got Art! — a juried art show designed to support and showcase North and South Carolina artists — in 2009.
Elder feels very strongly that there is an incredible wealth of talent in the region — and the success of CGA! proves he’s right. Each year, there are between 1,500 and 3,000 submissions, from which 100 to 120 are chosen. CGA! has become the third-largest juried art show in the nation. Last year, Elder added a ceramics show component “to celebrate our states’ ceramic heritage,” and presently, it’s the country’s largest juried ceramics show. CGA! has awarded more than $50,000 to local artists.
Millennials account for approximately 27 percent of Charlotte's population; the future of the city will be shaped by their activism and interest. Larry recognizes this and, in addition to his gallery and CGA!, is working to engage millennials in conversations about the visual arts through the Charlotte Millennial Art Program, which launched just last week.
Through salon-inspired discussion, Larry provides a welcoming space for young arts supporters to explore a world that can, at times, feel esoteric and even inaccessible.
Through direct, interpersonal connections, Larry welcomes discussions with both new and old enthusiasts, encouraging them to integrate the arts more deeply into their lives.
Selections from Michelle Ashworth's Collection
Larry has influenced Michelle Ashworth, a native Charlottean, established collector and active supporter of the arts, greatly.
Her journey to collecting began in her early thirties, with the help of another local gallery owner, Jerald Melberg. She’d fallen in love with a piece by German-American artist Wolf Kahn at a show at Melberg Gallery, and the two spent hours discussing the artist and exploring Kahn’s work.
Michelle and Larry met through mutual friends.
“I attended his early gallery shows — Makielski, Ernest Walker, and several Russian shows — and Larry spent a lot of time educating me on the artists he represented and in particular, the provenance and history of his artists’ work,” Michelle explains. She says Larry encouraged her to view art outside the box, broaden her taste, and, most importantly, to have an opinion.
“He and I have had countless one-on-one discussions in his gallery debating the merit or quality of a particular piece, as much as simply admiring a piece because I simply fell in love with it at first sight,” she said.
“As I worked with Larry in those early years,” Michelle added, “I became much more confident in my general appreciation for art, and even more confident in understanding what appeals to me, and what does not. For me, true inspiration comes from being well-educated on a particular artist, or an art genre, and balancing that with the feeling a particular piece may evoke from me.”
Today, a diverse art collection adorns her Myers Park apartment. Her collection includes a Ralph Turturro painting, several drawings by acclaimed Asheville-based artist Ben Long, and an Ernest Walker painting of a road in France. The oil painting, “Waiting in Line,” by celebrated Virginia artist Nora Houston, is her favorite.
“If my house were burning, I would run out the door with my cat under one arm, and my Nora Houston in the other,” says Michelle. “This particular piece is a dark abstract oil that shows people waiting in line for a confessional in church. It used to hang in my living room for about a decade, and for the last couple years it has hung across from to my bed. I look at it, and admire it, every day I wake up at home.”
Michelle has been involved in the Charlotte fine art scene for just shy of twenty years. She describes Charlotte’s art culture as evolving, somewhat restrained, yet lively and attentive.
“As Charlotte grows, attendance at gallery events and museums seems to be equally growing,” observes Michelle. “People are interested in the art scene, and interested in viewing, regardless of what they can afford to actually purchase. This is a great thing for our city.”
Michael Orell’s involvement in the arts has also been shaped by Larry — though his journey looks very different. They first met when discussing CGA!. Michael, a businessman and marketer, offered to help build a platform to accept online submissions and market the show. These days, Michael leads CGA!’s marketing initiatives. His collaboration with Larry encouraged him to build a personal collection.
Michael is, by his own admission, new to the arts and his taste as a collector is still developing. “Like many things — wine is a great example — you don't become good at determining quality out of the gate,” Michael explains. “You have to invest and learn over time. I think to many people, myself included, art is the most daunting of all subjects. It's seemingly so esoteric, personal, subjective...how can you even begin to understand it and get yourself to a point where you can start to collect?”
A businessman, Michael has a unique perspective on the importance of the arts in the Queen City. “Charlotte is full of folks like me, analytic types — the banks tend to attract us,” Michael said. “We are a great group of folks, but loaded with creativity, we tend not to be.”
That said, Michael believes deeply that the arts are central to developing an appealing, alluring city. “When we think of vibrant cities, what are the things that come to mind most often? It's likely not the businesses, which certainly have their place… So what makes one place more memorable than another? What's the metaphorical spice that separates this city's cultural buffet from the next?” asks Michael. “I'd argue the arts. I read once that the point of art is not to portray but to evoke, and the best cities evoke a feeling (Paris, New York) that is left long in the memory. When a city is permeated with art, it's my belief that it begins to bleed over into every aspect of city life. It's a snowball that just needs to be pushed, and it attracts people to it — and businesses, as well. A virtuous circle. A city cannot maintain its vibrancy without the arts.”
Selections from Michael Orell's collection
Larry has and continues to play a role in developing and establishing Charlotte’s arts community. While a vision of this size relies on everyone — from Charlotte’s residents to its lawmakers — individuals including Larry, and the people he mentors, are essential to strengthening and supporting the local creative community.
Larry says, “This may take awhile, but the rewards should be astounding.”