In 2019, Meredith Connelly’s LIGHTS installation became part of the U.S. National Whitewater Center’s (USNWC) winter programming lineup, and walking through this half-mile trail of illuminated art after a spin around the ice skating rink quickly became an annual tradition for many.
The Whitewater Center received praise for supporting local arts by hiring Charlotte-based Connelly and her team to design, fabricate and install the program. For its 2022 winter display, however, the establishment has garnered the opposite after announcing an iteration of the temporary, site-specific exhibit that will not include any input or participation from Connelly or her team.
Following a post from Connelly announcing that she would not be a part of the exhibition this year, creatives and other confused Charlotteans reached out to the Whitewater Center on social media only to find their comments deleted within a few hours, leading many to believe that USNWC had something to hide.
The launch of LIGHTS
According to Connelly, she pitched the concept for LIGHTS to USNWC leadership in 2018 after they had been previously approached by a corporate illuminated festival. Connelly suggested that a team of local artists create a unique program that was customized to the natural landscape and community focus of the Whitewater Center.
After a few meetings, USNWC accepted the proposal and hired Connelly to create the installation that is now known as LIGHTS.
She built the program from the ground up, quite literally, starting by GPS-tracking the trail, identifying ideal installation sites, and designing pieces specifically for each one.
Connelly and her team of 18 local creatives built and installed more than 400 sculptural components to create a whimsical, glowing immersive art experience that was integrated into the Whitewater Center’s 2019 winter programming.
When it opened, the program was an instant hit and has since been featured on many local news outlets as one of the top “things to do” during the holiday season.
“What I loved most about LIGHTS was the response it received from the community,” Connelly told Queen City Nerve. “I will never forget the feeling I had when I saw a line of people waiting to go into the woods and adventure in a beautiful natural environment with the art.”
After the success of the 2019 program, USNWC contracted Connelly and her team to create new iterations of LIGHTS for the next two years. In 2021, however, USNWC canceled the installation two days before they were scheduled to start work.
This cancellation left Connelly and the artists who were relying on income from this project without work. Several team members had quit their other jobs to work on the project and some had paid for classes they planned to take while working on the LIGHTS installation.
Connelly said the cancellation came after a disagreement with USNWC regarding their proposed use of site-specific mushroom components designed for the LIGHTS trail in and around the expanded ice rink.
“I explained that the ice rink would be a new project because it is not part of the LIGHTS trail, and would therefore require separate compensation for design, materials, time, and labor,” said Connelly. “They verbally agreed that this would not be an issue.”
When she requested artist credit for the additional components for the ice rink, however, her request was denied.
“Their leaders said, ‘Those are Whitewater mushrooms,’” Connelly recalled.
Before the cancellation, USNWC leadership also told Connelly they wanted their own team to install LIGHTS.
“When he shared that, I felt deeply worried and concerned because we never discussed that they would install the installation components in-house or that the components would be appropriated and used to create additional designs without my involvement,” Connelly said. “I never would have willingly or knowingly agreed to that.”
Connelly said the person she was dealing with asked her to trust him, but she expressed that she didn’t feel comfortable putting her life’s work in someone else’s hands to recreate.
“I agreed to design and install temporary and site-specific works of art that would occur over a specific three-month period of time and that the installed components would be placed in very specific and intentional spaces that I identified and installed to engage with the natural environment, time, and light,” she explained.
Months after Connelly and her team were let go, she was tagged in an Instagram post that featured pieces of the “Mushrooms” and “Crystals” components of LIGHTS at the finish line of one of the Whitewater Center’s races.
These pieces were part of a larger sum, and artistically meant as temporary and site-specific installations, according to Connelly. She was not notified ahead of time that her pieces were going to be used in this way.
“USNWC technically owns the objects they bought, such as unique mushroom and crystal forms designed for their installations. However, these objects were never intended to be used outside of the commissioned installations,” said Connelly. “They were not intended to be reinstalled or used in someone else’s design. I didn’t agree to that. The only way I thought they would ever be reinstalled was through my own artistic practice and with compensation.”
She also had safety concerns about the reuse of the installation components.
According to Connelly, the components were not treated or stored properly and could have incurred structural damage.
“My storage plan was clearly communicated and necessary to uphold the structural integrity and lifespan of the components,” said Connelly. “These fragile objects were left installed for months after the project closed, exposed to harsh weather conditions, and dropped to the ground from heights that resulted in a negative impact on the structures.”
According to Connelly, her attorney sent USNWC a letter about these concerns. USNWC did not reply.
“There seems to have been a fundamental misunderstanding as to the character of the commission,” said Connelly’s attorney, Katherine de Vos Devine, in a separate statement to Queen City Nerve. “A site-specific, nature-inspired installation is not an amateur light display. Meredith’s work is, like nature itself, temporal and evanescent. Each version of LIGHTS was a unique artwork, not a pack of reusable Christmas lights from Lowe’s.”
This year’s installation
Connelly learned that USNWC planned to bring the exhibition back in 2022 without her involvement when they reached out to a casting company that she works with and attempted to buy more of the mushroom and crystal components from past LIGHTS programs.
Connelly also alleged that there were images of her work included on the Whitewater Center website when they initially announced the 2022 program. These images have since been removed.
The Whitewater Center has a history of questionable treatment of their independent contractors, as demonstrated by a group of yoga teachers who called for more equitable monetary payments in 2021. Their practices have come to light again in their dealings with Connelly and her creative team.
When Queen City Nerve reached out to the Whitewater Center for comment about the LIGHTS installation and their work with Connelly, a spokesperson asserted that “Meredith Connelly is no longer a Whitewater employee.”
“The [LIGHTS] program is meant to evolve and change over time to refresh the sensory experience and create new installations,” a statement from USNWC brand director Jesse Hyde read. “All previous and current ‘Lights’ assets, installations, designs, and components were underwritten, produced, and are owned in perpetuity by Whitewater.”
According to Hyde, the 2022 LIGHTS installation “will feature an original program with more than 50 new installations that represent the Whitewater story and will guide visitors through our mission as a not-for-profit organization … Our activities, events, and programming change and evolve continuously to keep the experiences compelling for our guests.”
When asked about whether the Whitewater Center will continue to employ local artists and creators in the installation, Hyde responded that “Whitewater is proud to employ more than 1,000 employees annually and engage a range of designers, engineers, contractors, and other professionals from the Charlotte community that have created and delivered our activities and experiences for the past 16 years.”
None of these creatives are credited on the Whitewater Center website at the time this article was written.
The broader issue
When local artist and creative business owner Amy Herman heard Connelly was not being engaged for this year’s LIGHTS exhibition, she was one of several people who reached out on Instagram asking for answers only to find her comment was later deleted without a response.
“The events that are unfolding between USNWC and Meredith Connelly are unfortunately par for the course in Charlotte and beyond,” Herman said. “Creative work is almost never appropriately valued.”
“In addition, it is even more disheartening to see artists and creatives pushed out of projects that they spearheaded when it is perceived that their expertise is no longer needed,” she added. “What USNWC is missing is that art without the artist is a hollow shell of the original.”
“When things like this happen, it reduces the work of the artists to decor, when in reality it’s the physical representation of an artist’s concept, skill, and efforts,” said local artist Renee Cloud.
Cloud was one of the only commenters who received a response rather than a removal when she asked for clarification about this year’s LIGHTS program on the USNWC Instagram page. The USNWC Instagram account replied that they were creating a brand new program produced by in-house designers. However, there was no response when Cloud followed up and asked whether the center would install prior components of LIGHTS without Connelly’s permission.
Even after the end of her relationship with the Whitewater Center, Connelly describes her time working on the LIGHTS installations with passion and gratitude. She sees the experience as an opportunity for all parties to grow.
“A lot of beautiful, joyful, and amazing things came before the relationship evaporated,” she said. “I remain humbled and grateful to have created LIGHTS and to keep moving forward with new opportunities.”
“It is critically important that USNWC activates its premises year-round to fulfill its mission. After all, they are preserving land and providing jobs within the community. Their mission is deeply significant to me,” Connelly said.
“I hold out hope that this circumstance is an overarching and added branch of alchemic healing through the art that will support the Whitewater Center valuing artists more intentionally, should they choose to pursue it. I hope that the center will awaken to the expectations held in our community and do the work necessary to grow in a healthy and genuine way.”