Astrology aficionados require but a cursory glance at the data. When one reviews the planets within the three astrological charts that comprise the founding of both Charlotte and Mecklenburg County in the late-18th century, a pattern sharply emerges: Capricorn trines (90 degree) Taurus — or in unusually clear layman’s terms, Charlotte rules (Capricorn) banking (Taurus).
Those familiar with the Queen City’s history and reputation know how that’s played out, but it’s not just finance that’s at the top of Charlotte’s astrological charts — and we use the plural “charts” for reasons to be explained below. Taurus also symbolizes a strong aptitude for the arts. So why has Charlotte gone so far toward one of its fates written in the stars more than 200 years ago but struggled with the other?
Let’s take a deeper look.
Mecklenburg County’s and Charlotte’s respective natal horoscopes
Because three events comprise the founding of Charlotte, the city’s astrological analysis requires three different charts. Is this normal? No. Normally, somebody shows up — Henry Hudson lands in Battery Park, William Penn lands at Penn’s Landing — and the astrologer runs the corresponding date, time and place into an astrology chart. Usually, just one chart is required.
Perhaps such information will one day be available about Charlotte. For now, however, this is how Charlotte was born.
The North Carolina colonial legislature officially founded Mecklenburg County on Dec. 11, 1762 (“Founding”) to honor Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg, Germany — the recent fair bride of King George III of England — and simultaneously asserted that the Founding would commence on Feb. 1, 1763 (“Commencement”). After considerable surveying work plotted the grid for the city, Charlotte became officially incorporated on Dec. 7, 1768 (“Incorporation”).
The elegance among these three astrological charts connotes the hand of a court astrologer: Retrograde Jupiter at 1 degrees Taurus conjunct the North Node in late Aries at the Aries/Taurus cusp during the Founding conjunct Direct Motion Jupiter at 3 degrees Taurus during the Commencement trines (90 degree) the North Node at 4 degrees Capricorn during the Incorporation.
Favorable placements of latter-day astronomical discoveries, Uranus and Pluto, among others, which embellish these three charts — but also invariably complicate their integration. For clarity’s sake, the three separate charts in question represent three concurrent trines of Capricorn and Taurus, listed numerically below:
• Pluto at 1 degrees Capricorn trines Retrograde Jupiter at 1 degrees Taurus conjunct the North Node in very late Aries at the Aries/Taurus cusp during the Founding;
• Pluto at 3 degrees Capricorn conjunct Urania at 4 degrees Capricorn trines Direct Motion Jupiter resides at 3 degrees Taurus during the Commencement;
• Elatus at 3 degrees Capricorn conjunct the North Node resides at 4 degrees Capricorn trines Retrograde Uranus at 4 degrees Taurus during the Incorporation.
Bottom line? Again, Charlotte rules (Capricorn) banking (Taurus) — among other things that Taurus rules, including art. By that measure, Charlotte should also rule art (among other things). And yet, the city’s not known for its art scene. In fact, the local arts have struggled especially hard in recent years.
So what gives? Will we ever see the renaissance of arts appreciation that appears to be in the stars for the Queen City, and why hasn’t it come yet?
The rise and fall of NoDa as an arts district
Local painter Cheryl Johnson moved to Charlotte from San Francisco as an unemployed artist in 1983. Johnson, who currently lives in Plaza Midwood, found no specific home for the arts within the city limits. Within the next few years, she would witness the rise of NoDa as the city’s first arts district.
“In the late 1970s, NoDa didn’t exist as the neighborhood it is today,” Johnson recalled. “It was just called North Charlotte back then — a strip of vacant and mostly dilapidated textile mills, along with some low-income housing.”
In 1985, painter Ruth Lyons and sculptor Paul Sires established the NoDa Arts District by buying the Lowder Building and opening the Center of the Earth Gallery. They slowly began reimagining the neighborhood around them.
“Charlotte Art League and other full-time galleries established themselves on NoDa’s outskirts,” Johnson said, “but Center of the Earth was carved out in a building next to the fire house near the [North] Davidson-[East] 36th [streets] intersection.”
The gallery became the neighborhood’s nucleus.
“When it first started, it was a bohemian scene,” recalled Jerald Melberg, owner and patriarch of his eponymous Cotswold gallery.
The transition began a process that has occurred in far too many neighborhoods around the country: struggling artists move into an affordable area, and when that area becomes naturally beautified by the presence of said artists, it becomes hip to hang out there, then to live there, after which developers set their sights on the location, capitalizing on the “cool” vibes so hard that they eventually price out everything that made it cool in the first place.
Over the span of about three decades, this process played out in NoDa. The gallery scene did not survive.
“It has become gentrified and all the galleries are gone,” Melberg said.
Lyons and Sires closed the Center of the Earth Gallery in 2010. Some galleries moved to South End, where Hidell Brooks now represents Lyons. Others shuttered for good.
The rise of NoDa as a Charlotte gallery district demonstrates a contemporary formula (encapsulated, astrologically, as Pluto opposite the North Node between 4 and 7 degrees Scorpio and Taurus, respectively, from December 1985 to February 1986) of using art to induce an increase in real estate value.
While property values rose all around it, NoDa produced little, if any, artwork that accrued significantly in value. The neighborhood produced no powerful Charlotte art galleries with significant enough secondary market artwork to underwrite annual excursions to nationally known art fairs like those held in Miami in December each year. With developers doing what they do, the artists could not maintain their own creation.
City planning and population density
During my first trip to Charlotte in the spring of 2019, it surprised me how much land sporting large-scale historic buildings surrounded the EpiCentre, which opened in 2008 with the goal of becoming a hub for Queen City nightlife. The complex also serves as the center of the roughly 12-by-12-street grid that makes up Charlotte’s “Uptown.”
Particularly striking to me upon my visit was the scale of the Little Rock African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, straddling the southeast border of Uptown’s boundary in the First Ward — not the building itself but its enormous parking lot.
This confused me. No such free parking lot exists anywhere near where Henry Hudson founded New York City near Battery Park. In Philadelphia, while copious parking exists for all public events hosted along Penn’s Landing on the western banks of the Delaware River, the location of William Penn’s original arrival, expect no public parking lots anywhere 15 blocks west to Philadelphia City Hall. There are many in Uptown, and much closer to Center City than the Little Rock lot that first grabbed my attention.
Let’s go back and take a deeper look at the two 17th-century colonies I mentioned in the previous paragraph: New York (Sept. 2, 1609; [Julian]; 5 p.m. LMT) and Philadelphia (Nov. 7, 1682; [Gregorian]; 1:08 p.m. LMT; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania). Dutch West India Company employee Willem van Hulst designed the New Amsterdam grid, ending at Wall Street across the width of lower Manhattan, soon after the New Netherland arrived at port at Battery Park in May 1624. Surveyor Thomas Holme, at Penn’s behest, drew the Philadelphia street grid, which extends to the site of current day Philadelphia City Hall, in 1687.
From the onset, New York’s and Philadelphia’s designers defined and limited land use so as to create population density. To this day, no such population density has manifested in Charlotte.
The railroad comes to town
Charlotte did not become a banking powerhouse — or, in fact, anything — immediately. Even after the founding of the Charlotte Mint in 1835 following the discovery of gold on the Barringer Farm in nearby Stanly County, Charlotte’s population in 1850 barely exceeded 1,000 people.
The most significant event that helped bring about Charlotte’s population expansion in the 19th century did not involve banking, but did bring about its eventual rise: The launch of the Charlotte and South Carolina Railroad on March 23, 1852. A powerhouse of outer planets through the Aries/Taurus cusp and early Taurus from 29 Aries to 5 degrees Taurus (Pluto, Uranus, Saturn, Deucalion and the Moon) and early Capricorn at 3 Capricorn (Chiron) built muscle on Charlotte’s latent capacity for capitalist infrastructure.
Thereafter, the Commercial National Bank, fourth-generation predecessor to Bank of America, commenced business in Charlotte on February 18, 1874.
Seven years later, a Jupiter-Saturn conjunction occurred at 1 to 2 degrees Taurus on April 18, 1881 at 1:38 P.M. Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). The 1881 Jupiter-Saturn conjunction empowered hegemony for all entities with planets at 1 to 2 degrees in earth signs, including Charlotte, for the subsequent 20 years. God turned a switch in the factory, the farmers planted and harvested cotton, transacted business with the bank and hauled cotton to the railroad.
Concurrently, civil engineer D. A. Tompkins, experimenting with cotton mills, induced the spin-off of Charlotte’s textile industry from Charlotte’s cotton industry in about 1889. The Pegram-Wadsworth Land Company plotted out a mill town for textile industry laborers in North Charlotte, precursor to NoDa, circa 1907. From there, Charlotte boomed.
U.S. banking before Charlotte — New York and Philadelphia
Both New York and Philadelphia became bigger dots on the world map at the end of the Revolutionary War. Philadelphia’s population stood at 20,000 in 1775, while New York’s population of 26,000 in 1776 more than doubled to 60,000 in 1800. All growth occurred within the same land masses designed by New York’s van Hulst and Philadelphia’s Holme decades earlier.
After Founding Fathers Robert Morris and Alexander Hamilton founded the first U.S. central banks, both in Philadelphia in 1781 and in 1791, banking began to proliferate. Hamilton established The Bank of New York in 1784. Philadelphia merchant trader Stephen Girard bought all remaining assets of the First Bank of the United States to found The Girard Bank in 1811. Finally, the 24 original members founded the New York Stock Exchange by signing the Buttonwood Agreement on May 17, 1792. New York City had developed a financial instrument promoting speculation.
Astrologically, while Philadelphia’s Natal Horoscope contained no planets in Taurus, New York’s Natal Horoscope in its second house of money contained Retrograde Pluto between 2 and 3 degrees Taurus — a genius for accruing wealth not only via banking, but, in fact, by transforming banking.
Not yet manifest, harmonious astrological aspects between NYC and CLT, another nascent, burgeoning American metropolis, made a banking partnership seem almost inevitable.
Like a gold pen on a silver platter
In Northeast Bancorp, Inc. v. Board of Governors of Federal Reserve in 1985, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that the first regional interstate bank compact founded between Massachusetts and Connecticut in 1982 and 1983, which allowed mergers between banks from these two states, was legally valid. Concurrently, about 10 Southern states were developing their own version of the New England agreement called the Southeastern Regional Banking Compact. Even the enormously confident North Carolina National Bank’s (NCNB) Hugh McColl knew that victory was a long shot.
McColl lamented, “I guess I had the worst day of my life on my 50th birthday, June 18, 1985.” It was that day that McColl woke up to discover that rival John G. Medlin Jr. had merged Wachovia with First Atlanta Corporation.
“I was out in the cold, and our company was out in the cold,” McColl said. He lacked the capital to compete. He needed a power play.
McColl’s opportunity arrived on March 16, 1988, when Texas’ largest bank, First Republic Bank Corp. of Dallas, announced (as Uranus conjunct Saturn from 1 to 2 degrees Capricorn trined Jupiter at 1 to 2 degrees Taurus during the Jupiter Return of Mecklenburg County’s Founding) that it sought FDIC bankruptcy protection. It was like a gold pen on a silver platter for McColl and Charlotte’s future as a banking hub.
Summarizing NCNB’s and First Republic’s merger into NationsBank, Sun Sentinel reporter Lane Kelley wrote, “The First Republic purchase will double NCNB’s size — from $28.6 billion in assets to about $54 billion — making it the eighth largest U.S. bank and the largest in the Southeast.”
McColl was winning.
“The Charlotte Portfolio”
No sweeping fact about art history, or the history of the relationship between New York City’s financial sector and art history, exists for Charlotte to emulate. But Charlotte can, as a first step, develop itself as a city with an aesthetic by studying early 19th-century Philadelphia.
While Philadelphia at that time only had 20,000 residents, those early-19th-century Philadelphians oozed sophistication to a degree that the 19,000 early-20th-century Charlotteans could not fathom – but which many of the 730,000 early-21st-century Charlotteans seemingly crave with all the talk of becoming a “world-class city.”
Quaker Philadelphians manufacture one product better than any other city in the country, including their rivals, the Puritanical Bostonians: history. In early pre-Revolutionary War Philadelphia, among a crowded field of portrait painters, stood the giant of the Colonial era, Benjamin West, who, with his deft brushstroke, created history.
Charlotte should start right here: Fund contemporary artists to create an oeuvre of masterpieces about Charlotte’s history, “The Charlotte Portfolio,” designed for the secondary market from the beginning.
West’s portraits and historical paintings of America, Quebec and Britain, including “The Death of General Wolfe,” the most important painting in the history of Canada; “Robert Monckton,” a portrait of the major British military officer and American colonial official; “Treaty of Penn with Indians;” and “Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky,” link Philadelphia, America, the indigenous American, Britain, Quebec and Canada, not yet in existence, politically, psychologically and spiritually in myriad complexities that confound natural prejudices.
Within “The Charlotte Portfolio,” the wise, moneyed Charlottean patron intends, as a structured investment, that painters in “the West model” — highly capable portrait painters with a flair for painting history as history happened — paint important Charlotte historical events for the secondary market.
Significant history exists that is strictly Charlotte’s – including, arguably, the gold rush at the Barringer farm circa 1825. A painter in “the West model” could paint “Tragedy Precedes Victory,” in both Atlanta and Charlotte, depicting NCNB’s McColl learning of the Wachovia-First Atlanta merger on his 50th birthday in 1985, to link Charlotte to the South. A painter in “the West model” could also paint “The Hunter Evangelist,” depicting McColl addressing Merrill Lynch’s Banker’s Conference at New York City’s St. Regis Hotel in 1995, to link Charlotte to the North.
The financial instrument of “The Charlotte Portfolio” can create art that eschews the intellectual detachment of modern abstraction while cultivating engagement in civic history that underlies opera. There is no shortage of artists in the international art world who could take on this mission — but the key is to induce these artists as mentors to the talented, diverse visual artists in Charlotte to ascend to the necessary level of artistic mastery.
I recently discussed Charlotte art galleries’ ongoing dearth of representation at the Miami art fairs with Sarah Grace Jones and Lillian Harris, native Charlotteans who represent the Miles McEnery Gallery in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. I asserted that Jerald Melberg Gallery’s perennial attendance at Art Miami constituted Charlotte’s sole representation before Jones countered that her former employer, SOCO Gallery, had attended Art Untitled in both 2016 and 2017.
I consulted Google Maps. In Charlotte, Jerald Melberg Gallery in Cotswold to SOCO Gallery in Myers Park represented a seven-minute drive of 2.8 miles along Providence Road. In Manhattan, Paul Kasmin Gallery on West 27th Street to Friedrich Petzel on West 18th Street in Chelsea represented an 11-minute walk of one-half mile along 10th Avenue in Manhattan. Each cross-street between 10th and 11th Avenue represents .2 miles that require three minutes walking. Skipping 23rd Street, this represents 1.9 miles total.
I counted five galleries between Jerald Melberg Gallery and SOCO Gallery along Providence Road. I regularly, on and off, attend 50-57 galleries in Chelsea. Looking back, in all my years traveling and attending art galleries, the Jerald Melberg Gallery is the only gallery I recall which had direct, immediate access to a large parking lot. Ahhh, anti-density in Charlotte.
Melberg, a straightforward businessman, will answer when his name is called, and will then speak his peace because one called it. I introduced myself and I asserted that I was writing an article about how Charlotte’s astrology bespeaks an aptitude not only for banking, but also, for art.
“Astrology,” Mr. Melberg stated wistfully. “That stuff is more than silly.”
Melberg spoke forthrightly thereafter.
“A couple of times a year, each of the galleries do get together, and we do sit down and talk about what we’re up to,” Melberg informed me. “Charlotte does not have a specific locale where galleries are assigned. There is no Charlotte Art Dealership Association. There is a lot of difference in the philosophies that they represent.”
I interpreted this statement in veiled Marxist terms, based upon economic interests, well-defined or otherwise. Melberg waived that idea off.
“Any city like Charlotte — Minneapolis, Dallas, Phoenix — is going to have somewhat of an art scene,” Mr. Melberg observed. “I think it’s just a fact of growing. I have more interest in long-term representation of a specific group of artists that have a significant secondary market presence.
“Light rail would not bring people to me,” Mr. Melberg concluded. “The type of client I expect is one who pulls up in their BMW or Lexus, buys artwork, then puts it in their car and leaves.”
Charlotte art galleries, now and tomorrow
Nothing prepared me for when I attended the Miami art fairs for the first time in 2015. I had attended art galleries in SoHo, the Upper East Side, Chelsea, TriBeCa and the Lower East Side for 29 years in New York City. Although I only attended two art fairs, which represent galleries in cities around the world — Art Basel and Art Miami — I saw more quality artwork there than I had since the heyday of art museums in the ’80s and early ’90s. The artwork from both shows perpetually dazzled me.
I have no doubts that Melberg’s ideal client fits snugly into Melberg’s business model. Still, I harbor significant doubts as to how his ideal client fits into how an ideal urban arts district — let alone Charlotte’s arts district — should be.
All three cities to which Melberg compared Charlotte, including two major gas guzzler cities — Minneapolis, Dallas and Phoenix — all have light rail. Such light rail can deliver pedestrians to an arts district for an art crawl any night of the week.
But, in light of what happened to NoDa — and in light of the fact that what happened in NoDa was destined to happen — skeptics must honor that Melberg represents economics that will not go away.
New York City, like Charlotte, has placements in their astrological charts that favor banking and art. But it took 190 years for banking to manifest in New York City, and 335 years for New York City to become the capital of the art world, after various European Surrealists escaped Nazi-held Paris to inform and to energize Jackson Pollock, Willem deKooning, Arshille Gorky and all the New York City Abstract Expressionists. Progress does not occur overnight.
I would expect a gentleman and a patriarch like Melberg to assert that, when all Charlotte galleries meet to coordinate and discuss a variety of art- and civic-related issues, he joins them. Melberg is not bereft of civic responsibility; he honors his duty to the city of Charlotte.
Then again, Melberg does not need another Charlotte gallery, or a collective of Charlotte galleries, to participate in these art fairs.
A moneyed art district leads to artists such as Eric Fischl, David Salle, George Condo, Julio Larraz and Robert Longo. A popular art district leads to artists such as Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Jean-Michael Basquiat and Kenny Scharf. In New York City, back in the day, this was called “Uptown/Downtown.”
Charlotte needs both. Once Charlotte establishes both, however, that does not promise success; both must endure. The spirit of McColl then emerges, patient and alert, gun poised. The Hunter Evangelist awaits his opportunity.
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