Reimagined: PCA finds new direction under Gram Slaton

Since leaving town in the ’70s, Charlottesville native Gram Slaton has fostered a solid track record heading up arts organizations around the country. He returned in January to lead the Piedmont Council for the Arts. Photo: Martin Kyle Since leaving town in the ’70s, Charlottesville native Gram Slaton has fostered a solid track record heading up arts organizations around the country. He returned in January to lead the Piedmont Council for the Arts. Photo: Martin Kyle

I take broken things and fix them,” explained Gram Slaton. This conjures images of fixer-upper houses or rusted-out bikes, but he’s not a repairman in the traditional sense. In fact, one of the main things that Slaton fixes are non-profit organizations. And as the new executive director of Piedmont Council for the Arts (PCA), he is eager to reimagine and repair the local arts council.

Repairing things comes naturally to Slaton, who grew up in Charlottesville. Like PCA, he recently found himself in need of reinvention. After nine years as the executive director of the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen, Colorado, his gut told him it was time to move on, and he listened. Moving back home in late 2014, Slaton took the helm at PCA in January. Now, when he’s not redefining the future of PCA, you’ll probably find him renovating the kitchen in his childhood home, where he now lives.

He fondly remembers late-night concerts on the Corner at venues such as The Mineshaft and The West Virginian, a music club in the basement of what is still The Virginian. But, he can’t forget Charlottesville’s problems in the 1970s, including rampant racism and drugs. After the latter claimed his brother, Slaton decided to break from his past and move to Ohio to attend Denison University. “In 1977, I changed my name and moved far, far from home,” said Slaton, who adopted his first name from musician Gram Parsons.

Two years after Slaton’s departure, PCA was founded in 1979 by a group of community members and evolved over the ensuing decades. Far away, Slaton grew his expertise as an arts administrator, honing his skills at a variety of non-profits and launching a handful of arts festivals along the way. Understanding the city’s past and returning to Virginia, he was stunned by the transformation of Charlottesville since his youth. “I saw a tidal change,” he said.

Slaton considers the arts to be one of three growth industries here, alongside UVA and entrepreneurship. He’s also discovered that, “there’s been a hunger for PCA to do something.” Topping his to-do list is the task of strengthening the relationship between PCA and local government. He’s keen to fix public funding procedures for arts non-profits, saying that it’s currently, “not serving the arts community well, or the city.” Reworking this funding system would help improve the entire community. “The arts community spends its money where it lives, where it works,” said Slaton.

PCA’s Arts & Economic Prosperity study demonstrated that the local arts sector generates more than $114 million in annual economic activity, accounting for $31.2 million in household income. That’s not too shabby for a city of Charlottesville’s size, and with careful reinvestment the local arts sector can be grown further—but it’s largely up to PCA to take the lead in this effort.

Indeed, this growth was the impetus for PCA’s 2013 Create Charlottesville/Albemarle cultural planning process, but the creation of the plan itself exceeded the tiny non-profit’s capacity and implementation of the plan’s strategies still remains mostly out of reach for the same reason. Slaton sees a surplus of local arts resources. “Everything could fold together so nicely, but we’re not doing it,” he said.

The cultural plan also raised a question that Slaton grapples with: Does Charlottesville need an attention-grabbing arts council, a behind-the-scenes arts council, or, really, any arts council at all? In response, Slaton gives himself two years to prove the worth—and mettle—of PCA. “The clock is ticking,” he joked. For now, he’s focused on the need for the organization’s internal growth, if only to avoid “constantly losing all institutional knowledge” through staff turnover. Indeed, between 2010 and 2014, the organization had 10 individuals cycle through its three part-time, paid staff positions.

The issue of retaining creative talent isn’t limited to PCA, however. In fact, Slaton launched a new PCA initiative, the 2030 Board, to address it. The idea is simple enough: gather 20 to 30 people in their 20s and 30s and mentor them to be ideal board members by the year 2030. Slaton hopes this will help retain young talent in the region. The Charlottesville area already provides young creatives with a comfortable launching spot, but launch they must if they hope to find abundant professional opportunities and affordable housing. With the 2030 Board’s input, he hopes PCA can be more responsive in providing appropriate support and advocacy to this demographic. “I don’t want to see 20- and 30somethings discouraged to the point of giving up,” said Slaton.

To this last point, he speaks from experience. Slaton is also a playwright, who was awarded fellowships and residencies for his playwriting. However, it’s a calling that he largely abandoned in the 1990s, when he realized the difficulty involved in making a living as an artist. He opted to reimagine himself as an arts administrator instead. Now, Charlottesville must wait to see if this same penchant for reinvention can change the future for PCA.

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