Armando Bellmas remembers the exact moment when he realized that Charlotte might not be as lacking in culture as people say.
It was during a visit to the McColl Center for Art + Innovation, an open house to mark the beginning of a new residency season, when he watched then-artist-in-residence de’Angelo Dia lead what Bellmas now only remembers as a “very bizarre performance” involving a group of guys and wrestling masks.
“I saw it and I thought, maybe Charlotte’s not such a bad place,” Bellmas recalls.
Nine years later, Bellmas is working behind the scenes at the McColl Center as vice president of marketing and operations, and this year he’ll be helping roll out a number of events as the museum celebrates 20 years in existence.
That celebration begins in earnest on Thursday, Jan. 24, with the year’s first Open House at McColl. The event will introduce attendees to the new winter/spring artists-in-residence, but also feature an exhibit of new work from alumnus of the residency program including surviving work from 1999 alumnus Marcus Schubert’s Burning Church series, which helped christen the former church in its inaugural year.
In the lead up to Thursday night’s Open House, we spoke with Bellmas about the new batch of residents, celebrating 20 years in Charlotte and the McColl Center’s legacy.
Queen City Nerve: How are you feeling about where McColl stands in Charlotte’s art scene now leading into your 20th year?
Armando Bellmas: That’s a heavy one right off the bat. Twenty years of anything is a long time. For us, the impact is not so much about what we’ve done as an organization, it’s more about what the artists that have been through here have done for their own careers, for their own communities and for creativity and art in general because of their time here.
We’ve always advocated for artists to do whatever they want to do while they’re here. We don’t set parameters on them, we don’t say, “You have to produce this much work,” or “You have to do this much stuff while you’re here.” We basically say, “Here’s your studio, here’s some money, go for it.” Whatever they do is what they do while they’re here.
Artists can come here and play Fortnite the whole time if they want to, but that’s not the best use of their time, honestly. Nobody does, fortunately, but the thing is that they can come in and they can try out new ideas, they can take risks, they can do a bunch of things that they would not normally have the time to do. For us, that’s the legacy, is giving the artists the time to do whatever they want so they can advance their practice and be better at what they do.
I’ve noticed that, at least recently, the organization is very purposeful about showcasing alumni artists almost as much as current artists-in-residence. It seems like a family affair; like once you’re inside, the residency never ends. Why is that important to you?
It’s funny, when you mentioned family it was like, yeah, you’re right. It’s kind of like a family because there’s people that you love, there’s people that you have a hard time with, there’s crazy uncles that you have at dinnertime, or special occasions, and there’s a little bit of dysfunction, and there’s a lot of love, and there’s gatherings and stuff like that. So that’s an interesting way to put it now that I think about it.
Because we’re all about artists and helping them out, having them come back is a big part of it. About a year ago we opened up an alumni artists’ lounge where alumni who are local or if they come from out of town, we give them a space for them to hold meetings, to meet prospective collectors, to meet with other artists, to just have a place to hang out — kind of like what you would do at a coffee shop, but instead you get to come back to McColl Center and hang out here.
Also, just last year to celebrate 20 years, we started doing a series of alumni exhibitions of new work, so what have you done since your residency at McColl Center? We invited a lot of artists back to be part of this exhibition. What we ended up finding out is that there was so much good stuff happening that we didn’t nearly have enough room within the exhibition itself, so we said, “Alright, we’ve got all these extra walls on the second and third floors, why don’t we bring in some other alumni and see if they have new work that they can put up on those walls, too?”
So this new works alumni exhibition series kind of started spilling out into other walls because people just have so much great work. So reaching out to alumni and staying in touch with alumni and keeping tabs on what they’re up to is a big part of it, too.
You mentioned you started doing things to honor that anniversary in 2018. When exactly does the McColl Center turn 20?
Our official birthday is September 16, 1999. So September 16  is when we’ll actually be 20 years old, exactly. But 20 is a good opportunity to celebrate for a whole year, so we’ll be celebrating all year. We’re starting off in April, we’re having our big 20th anniversary gala party and we’re doing a big festival the next day on [April] 6th, so there’s a lot of stuff that’s leading up to a year’s worth of celebrating. But we just at the beginning of the year rolled out our big plan for the year and a nice little 20-years logo, and just a bunch of different cool things to start emphasizing the fact that, “Hey, we’re 20, we’ve been doing this a long time.”
The thing about it with the McColl Center is that people know about us, but a lot of people don’t really know about us or what we do. You know that church on the corner, and you’ve driven by it a hundred times, so it’s also a year to get reacquainted with Charlotte and the area and just be like, “Hey look, we’re still here. Hey look, we’re still doing this great work,” and, “Hey look, we’ve had over 400 artists come through here in the past 20 years and we’ve got another 20-plus years ahead of us, so come on by, check it out, meet an artist, get creative, and do all that stuff.”
What does it mean for you to bring back parts of the original Burning Church Series?
It’s cool because I get to connect with the start of the organization. I haven’t been here long enough to remember this, but this place is like a phoenix. It burned down in the ’80s and it sat empty for the longest time. All old-school Charlotte folks remember driving by and seeing the old burnt-out church. And for me to think about the Burning Church Series is super cool — the idea of a place rising from these ashes, this fire, to me is really cool.
And for it to have lasted as long as it has is even more cool, because arts organizations sometimes are hanging by a thread financially and organizationally, but for us, we’ve had some ups and downs over the past 20 years, but right now we’re finally back on the upswing; the artists are better than ever, we’ve got a great staff, the organization is healthy. It feels really good to know that this is going to keep going beyond these 20 years. So for me it’s kind of like the Burning Church and the 20th anniversary is a way to connect to the beginning, since I wasn’t here.
Tell me about this new, incoming group of artists-in-residence.
We’ve got six, and it’s a good bunch. We have our first artist-in-residence who’s a musician, his name is Michael Harrison, he is a contemporary classical composer and piano player and he’s pretty fabulous. Carmella Jarvi, who is a local glass artist and painter, is doing her second residency. Also doing his second residency is Chris Watts. He’s from Charlotte, did a residency in 2010, has been to Yale for school, New York is where he lives now and he’s back for the winter and spring. Chris Watts is amazing. He’s pretty much a rock star here in town.
The other artists that we have here are Antoine Williams, who’s been in residence, he’s got an extended residency, so he’s been in since May of last year; Tom Stanley, who is also curating the new work series, he’s also an artist-in-residence through the end of April; and then an artist, her name is Esperanza Cortés from New York City, she’s of Colombian descent, and she does these really fantastic sculptures made of old discarded materials and assembly, and it’s just really cool work.
It’s a good bunch, and that’s one of the most exciting things for me. I was actually talking to Esperanza this morning, she was like, “I’ve noticed a lot of stuff about Charlotte and you guys have been talking a lot about the housing situation here,” and she asked, “How much can you say if you’re an out-of-towner? How much can you just jump into the conversation because I’m a little hesitant,” and I was like, “No, jump into the conversation, give us that outside perspective, let us know what you think, let us know how they do it elsewhere, and bring that experience into Charlotte,” because that’s what we do. We bring folks in to bring their experiences into our community, and for our community to impact their experience, so that when they leave, Charlotte is more than just a stop on their residency tours, it’s a place where they actually made a difference and made a connection.
So that’s what I always love about residency seasons, and this time around we’ve got three Charlotteans and three New Yorkers, so it’s a good blend.
What can folks expect at the Open House on Thursday?
Open House is always a lot of fun. We’ll have a live DJ, we’ll have beer and wine, all the artists will have their studios open, so you can come in, you can meet each artist, you can look at their work, you can talk to them if you want to, you don’t have to talk to them. There’s also a bunch of new work on all of the walls. There will be artwork from alumni, there will be that Burning Church exhibition, and there will also be two performances.
One artist who’s in the exhibition, Kevin Hogan, is doing a big drawing performance on one of our walls throughout the course of the evening, and another alumni artist, de’Angelo Dia, is doing a performance called Cheat Code, and basically what it is, it addresses culture and how video game culture and popular culture impacts how folks interact in the community in a black perspective. It’s really funny because I haven’t thought of these games in a while, but he had mentioned some of the segments from the performance, one is influenced by Contra, the Nintendo game, and Mike Tyson’s Punch Out!! So it’s cool, because I remember playing Punch Out!! a bunch and it was just so pixelated. I hadn’t thought about that in a while, but using those cultural tools to do this Cheat Code performance, I’m not sure what to expect from that.
One of my earliest memories of McColl Center was from when de’Angelo was in residence in 2010, he did a performance with a bunch of guys dressed up in wrestling masks. It was this really bizarre performance that I had never seen before in Charlotte, and I saw it and I thought, “Maybe Charlotte’s not such a bad place.” Well, he’s still here, he’s still doing his thing, so he’ll be doing that at the open house tomorrow.
So yeah, it’s free, and it’s usually a really good time, with a lot of great folks.
The Open House at McColl goes from 6-9 p.m. on Jan. 24 at the McColl Center for Art + Innovation, 721 N. Tryon St.