Editor’s note: This story was updated on Sept. 13 to reflect a correction on the size of the VAPA Center and its website.

Take a look or walk around Charlotte these days, and you can’t help but notice the area’s budding artist community. Massive murals and open-air entertainment events seem to be popping up everywhere. 

Given the current state of the pandemic, you may find yourself asking: just where are all these folks rehearsing, storing supplies or holding their event planning meetings? 

There’s no question about the impact of the COVID-19 crisis, and how it has forced many spaces to shut their doors or limit occupancy and availability. But, there might just be a silver lining around this cloud that could produce quite a rainbow. 

If you’re a Charlotte area artist looking for a cool uptown space to showcase your art or hold a creative workshop or event, you might want to consider the Visual And Performing Arts (VAPA) Center. 

For those who have called Charlotte home for more than two decades, the VAPA Center is the old government building that was once a Sears & Roebuck department store. In like fashion, the building — also most recently known by many as the Hal Marshall building — has been repurposed once again. Located at 700 North Tryon Street and the corner of East 11th Street, the sprawling brick building (over 150,000 square feet) takes up much of the block and will provide performance and office space for many artists, arts organizations and local institutions like the Sheriff’s Department. 

So why the new focus?  Because necessity is the mother of invention and innovation.

 And, like most innovations, someone saw new and exciting possibilities for something others thought of as old and obsolete. For a clearer understanding of the project’s birth, mission and goals, qnotes explored the topic with artist and VAPA Center Project Manager, Arthur Rogers, Jr. 

In the wake of impending changes at Spirit Square, Rogers explained there was an urgent need to find space for local and visiting artists. 

Rogers said the county came together with culturally-minded partners that included the McColl Center for Arts and Innovation to try and work out a remedy for artists that would be displaced. They put out a call to about 26 arts organizations to see who would be interested in being part of the project. 

He and his wife were part of that group and Rogers readily stepped up when he was informed that someone from one of the 26 arts entities would be tasked with managing the building. “So we decided to form a collective, and that’s how VAPA was born,” Rogers recalls.

He enthusiastically confirmed another important factor: the McColl Center, located across the street from the Hal Marshall building, was a founding group member and the McColl Center’s President and CEO, Alli Celebron-Brown, was the organizer and point person for the project. 

With the inspiration of involving and engaging the public directly in the arts, the group of artists joined in unison earlier this year to form the independent Visual and Performing Arts organization, which is quickly progressing towards becoming a 501c3 (nonprofit organization). Coming together across a spectrum of various arts disciplines, they are diligently working together with Mecklenburg County to convert the 1949 building into a mecca for arts and live entertainment.  

Among those artists is John C. Quillin, Founding Artistic Director of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Charlotte. In speaking with qnotes, he expressed his enthusiasm for the project, his gratitude for Alli Celebron-Brown’s assistance and his admiration of Project and Property Manager, Arthur Rogers, Jr.

According to Quillin, his group is the only choral group and only LGBTQ group thus far with immediate plans to take up occupancy in the building, which they hope to call home in mid-September. He went on to say how relieved he’ll be to finally have one central location for performance that will also be able to house the group’s props, music and equipment — currently stored in multiple locations across town. He’s particularly excited about working in an environment that houses multiple creative organizations. “When you’re in close proximity to people, you talk, connect and look for ways to be and work together. It never fails that you come up with something wonderful and unique. 

“It’s really invigorating to witness who has signed up and taken occupancy,” Quillin continues, “An incredibly diverse group of people from all across the Charlotte area.” Among those occupants joining the Gay Men’s Choir are the Charlotte Comedy Theater, Charlotte’s Off Broadway, BLKMRKCLT, 9.18.9 Studio Gallery and Jazz Arts Charlotte. With other groups and independent artists, they will all be able to make use of the VAPA Center’s five galleries, multiple theaters, rehearsal space, practice space and art studios. 

While Quillin and others are delighted to be a part of the project, concerns are already growing over the county’s decision to make the effort a short-term project. 

“The building is expected to be sold in three to five years,” says Quillin, “[But] I hope that after a demonstrated demand — the county will go, ‘we’ll just leave it as it is,’ because they’ve seen that it benefits the community.”  

Rogers echoed Quillin’s sentiments in wanting to see longevity for the project because he feels it’s something the Charlotte community deserves and needs. He also invited the community to tour the building free of charge in hope of gaining additional support and creating project awareness. 

The VAPA Center has the capacity to offer so much to so many — a fact Rogers, Quillin and other local artists hope the county will recognize and consider before putting the building up for sale. Individuals and groups already on the occupancy list have begun to make plans for the building’s clean up, as it’s been vacant and used for storage for an extended period of time. 

They are also beginning to think about and plan indoor and outside events and activities for the fall. Educating artists and members of the community is part of the mission, so classes, seminars and programs will be made available throughout the year. 

Make no mistake — the VAPA Center is truly a multi-purpose space. Those interested in participating on any level, whether teaching a class or offering a program, should visit VAPAcenter.com to book space and learn more about the plethora of offerings.

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