Above: Richard Withem, Charles Easley and  Ron Crider. Photo Credit: Art Institute of Charlotte

It’s not uncommon to see LGBT people involved in art. We are, after all, a creative bunch. Take just a quick glance at the art world: in every genre, we’re there. And, you can’t really have a good art school without some gays, can you?

Ron Crider, Charles Easley and Richard Withem have each worked with the Art Institute (AI) of Charlotte or at other AI locations for several years. Each chairs a particular program area, having worked their way up from faculty. In all, four of the school’s seven programs find these three gay men at their helm. Crider heads up the school’s fashion marketing and management program. Easley chairs the digital filmmaking and video production program. Withem leads two: graphic design and web design.

The Art Institutes, a system of more than 45 arts schools nationwide, specializes in several focus areas ranging from fashion and culinary arts to advertising and TV and film media. The Charlotte school was founded in 1973 as the American Business & Fashion Institute; in 1999, it joined AI and changed its name. It now has about 1,200 enrolled students each year.

The three program chairs each say AI is unique in its almost singular focus on career and success.

“The number one difference between our school and traditional four-year campuses is that we have a much more blended program of theory plus practicum; by that I mean we have a much more hands-on approach to learning,” says Crider. “Graduates from our programs leave with a portfolio that evidences they actually know how to create industry-standard material.”

Witham agrees that AI has a unique difference with traditional colleges.

“We are an arts school,” he says. “That’s our demographic. That’s our people. That’s our faculty. It’s about the fine and applied arts. We’re all like-minded people; you’re not going to find a cheerleader or a football team here. If you do find an Arts Institute with a sports team, you let me know.”

Like Crider, Easley thinks AI’s nature is specifically beneficial to students.

“We don’t have a liberal arts education,” he explains. “We’re specifically career-based, in that students who come here will learn specific skill sets

that will hopefully help them have a seamless transition from being a student to a being a professional.”

Easley, Crider and Withem all say they’ve experienced a culture of welcoming and affirmation at AI. That celebration of diversity also makes AI special, they say.

“We celebrate diversity of all kinds and I prefer not to boil it down to just the LGBT community,” Crider says. “We have a diverse group of professors, staff, faculty and students. I think that reflects the spirit of the creative world which sees things through multiple lenses and not just a single lens.”

The school’s welcoming culture has always been a constant, but Withem and Easley say they’ve seen progressive change in their time there.

“It’s been an evolution,” Easley says. “I think we and other people have been able to begin to shift and create a culture of not only being inclusive, but being open in terms of your life and lifestyle and partners, which was something that was kind of ironic that you were an arts school, but maybe were not as progressive.”

“Six years ago when I got here it was welcoming, but people would ask, ‘Are you married?” and I’d look at them and say, ‘No,’” Withem recounts. “The three of us have done a better job in terms of educating the general public.”

Easley add, “What’s wonderful is that it’s not only changed the culture for faculty and staff, it’s also created a kind of openness and willingness for students to again step into their own and walk in their own truth.”

AI’s career-minded focus for students means that faculty like Crider, Easley and Withem are constantly pushing community involvement to their students, though in a city like Charlotte that can be easier said than done. The art scene here, they say, is lacking some of the unique features that make other cities’ arts communities more vibrant and dynamic.

Withem says the city lacks an all-important street culture. In return, the city loses out on the collective creativity it might otherwise experience. Easley, a former board member for the now-defunct OutCharlotte LGBT arts and cultural festival, says the local art scene has always felt corporate and mainstream.

“On paper it all looks good, but when you begin to dig down it all comes down to accessibility,” Easley says. “To me that’s when a city has truly embraced its commitment to art, when it’s politics and culture aren’t just about those who are Uptown and who live and work in that environment. It’s when you can be a student at Garinger and grow up on the eastside in a marginalized community and feel that not only am I a part of this culture and contributing to it but that I also have access to it.”

That mix of art, culture and politics is reflected in the movement for LGBT equality, the three men say. Crider, in particular, feels as though social affirmation and dynamic creativity go hand-in-hand.

“I do think they are directly correlated; cities that offer a lot of artistic freedom tend to be cities most accepting of LGBT people,” Crider says. “The community tends to gravitate toward centers where they do feel an ability and freedom to express themselves as out and proud people. A lot of artists and creative people fall into that category.”

Easley says Charlotte’s local arts scene and the level of acceptance for LGBT people will continue to shift and change, especially as the city continues to experience an influx of new residents moving from the northeast or the west coast. Withem agrees and says those newcomers are bringing more open ideas that are becoming a part of a new city-wide culture.

“There are so many people here from everywhere else,” he says. “Major corporations are bringing people in from large metropolitan areas who have a different take on the issues. It’s not unusual for people to come in and ask, ‘Are you gay?’ or ‘Do you have a partner?’ or ‘When can I meet him?’”

Crider, too, already sees much positive groundwork already laid. Equality and vibrancy are here, he says. Like the best of all grassroots movements, it’s starting at the bottom and growing its way to the top.

“I think of all the cities I’ve visited, Charlotte at its core is a very accepting city,” he says. “It’s just Charlotte’s governing powers are the ones who aren’t quite as accepting.”

Crider adds, “This place has seen huge changes. We’re just at the cusp and we’re not even beginning to understand how much better Charlotte can be as we become more open to different ideas and more people move here from different parts of the world. All that makes Charlotte a great place.” : :

Matt Comer

Matt Comer previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015 and as a staff writer afterward in 2016.

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