Like many of us, Charlotte is Creative founders Tim Miner and Matt Olin were off to a great start at the beginning of 2020. With nearly 400 attendees at Creative Mornings meetings, a scheduled broadcast of the Queen City Quiz Show with WFAE and several events on the calendar, it was shaping up to be a great year.
Then, COVID-19 hit, and all of that was cancelled within a matter of 48 hours.
But as creatives, this is what they do. This is what they’ve always done.
Tim and Matt started the Charlotte chapter of Creative Mornings in 2015 as a passion project with the goal of changing the narrative around Charlotte as a creative city. Five years later, amidst a global pandemic, Charlotte’s creatives have never been more necessary.
From the start, the two have focused on bringing the creative community together, from muralists and musicians to copywriters and coders, in a non-transactional way. Relationships, with creatives, city leaders and business owners alike have always been the center of their mission.
“We felt like there were a lot of creatives in Charlotte that were unsung and not listened to and no one gave them the time of day,” Tim says. “We had the time and the energy. We didn’t know what the end point would be, but we wanted to give that time and energy to them.”
To fill the needs of the community, Tim and Matt developed Queen City Quiz Show, a trivia game show about Charlotte’s past and present; The Biscuit, a publication dedicated to telling Charlotte creatives’ stories; and the Helpful Unfettered Gift (HUG) micro-grant program, a $250 grant given to creatives to help start their projects. Tim and Matt decided to form a nonprofit organization, Charlotte is Creative, to contain all of the projects they managed, including Creative Mornings.
Additionally, Tim and Matt provide consultation services for businesses hoping to bring more creativity into their programs. They also do what they call “matchmaking,” in which they connect the creatives and small business owners they’ve met with bigger, larger corporations to work on projects.
Things were getting even busier in 2020, and the two were scheduled to MC three live events in March and planned to broadcast Queen City Quiz Show on WFAE. When the pandemic hit, all those plans abruptly came to a halt.
With backgrounds in live theater performance, theater production and crisis communications, Tim and Matt spent the majority of their careers waiting for the next shoe to drop. COVID-19 was no different.
After 48 hours of strategizing, they got to work.
“We chose to not look at this as a temporary situation,” Tim says. “It felt like nothing, including live events, was ever really going to be the same on the other side of this, whether it was a month or nine months. So, we thought, ‘Let’s reinvent everything.’”
As a result, programs were moved online and optimized for digital consumption. Tim and Matt also committed to come out of the pandemic knowing more people than they did going in and started a five-minute interview series with creatives around the city.
In the process, Tim and Matt found that creatives were searching for someone to tell their stories. So they decided to publish three or four stories a week in The Biscuit instead of the publication’s usual weekly publishing schedule.
They also found a need among creatives for grant money to get projects off the ground. HUG was already established, and the program grew exponentially as a result of the pandemic because of its accessibility and low risk factor.
“We know that $250 isn’t enough to put someone out of their financial woes, but it might be enough to push an idea forward over a small obstacle,” Tim says. “It also allows us to take a chance on somebody and the application is only six questions. When we look at applications, we’re looking for the passion and the idea, not the answers being worded a specific way.”
That $250 is the first investment many creatives receive toward a project, and it can help them with everything from boosting a post on Facebook to paying for a website or buying supplies. A few years ago, a Charlotte art teacher received a HUG for an exhibit called “Airing Out the Dirty Laundry.” Now, that exhibit is at the Mint Museum.
Local leaders and businesses have also seen value in these grants during the pandemic. NoDa Brewing, for example, recently committed to donating one HUG a month for the next year. At the same time, other business owners have approached Charlotte is Creative to bring more creatives and creative experiences to their companies, realizing they cannot approach things the way they did before the pandemic. Tim and Matt have also encouraged creatives to learn skills like marketing and budgeting from business owners to better prepare themselves for the other side of the pandemic.
And, when the civil rights movement took hold in Charlotte and across the country, they used their relationships and connections with city leaders and officials to help organize the Black Lives Matter mural in Uptown Charlotte.
“Alongside the pandemic storyline is the modern civil rights movement storyline,” Matt says. “With all of this energy laying on top of each other, there’s tons of opportunity for creativity to lead the way, pierce through the darkness or get people to wake up, to smile or to think and care more.”
Both the pandemic and the modern civil rights movement have highlighted the need to place higher value on creatives and their work, as well as the need to prepare and protect creatives when the next financial blip occurs. That’s the next phase of Tim and Matt’s mission for the creative community.
Currently, they are having conversations with local leaders to identify the cracks in the current system that are working against creatives, including how they are paid. Matt is also working on finding a way to provide affordable health insurance to the creative community. These conversations, they say, never happened before COVID.
“This exchange of social capital — this is exactly what the creative community of Charlotte needs,” Matt says. “We’re trying to be a part of leading the way on all of those things on a number of levels.”
Tim says they’re not blind to the harsh realities of the pandemic, but he sees the advantages creatives hold during times of crises.
“It’s an opportunity for creatives to show their worth,” Tim says. “Creatives are used to doing a lot with a little. They’re very resilient and scrappy, but they thrive on chaos. They love innovating, and so this is just another set of obstacles to figure out and go around.”
Matt agrees: Chaos fuels and energizes creatives. He believes this is the perfect time for the creative community to roll up their sleeves, get to work and shine.
“Creatives are infamous for making $5 look like $500,” Matt says. “On the other side of this, when we start to change the perception of creatives and what they’re worth, imagine what they could do if we gave them $500. We’re really trying to change that game.”