Note: Lead photo by Alex Tribble Photography.
On November 2, the Saturday before my city voted down a sales-tax hike that would’ve benefited artists, and a month or so before my city agreed to give a billionaire public money for a soccer team, I was on my way home from photographing an event when I was rear-ended on Interstate 77. My Mustang GT spun around and into the cable barricades before flipping over and on its roof, with me inside.
The owner of the other car was charged with DWI and reckless driving. She’d been going in excess of 90 miles an hour when she hit me.
Upside-down, I could still see the road. I unbuckled my seatbelt and crawled through the driver’s window. After some time passed — I don’t really remember how much — an ambulance took me to the hospital. While in the grass on the shoulder, I remember asking a witness for my camera bag, which I hoped was still in the car.
In the hospital, I couldn’t contact my family and friends because my phone was missing. I’m a man in my mid-40s, and I was alone. I thought of my children, life contributions, and my mother, who recently passed.
I spent several hours in the emergency room experiencing every emotion. Immense gratitude. Absolute anger. Everything in between. My frustration was not just for the material component (I loved that car) but existing in the void of a total loss, and not quite knowing how to recover.
Today, I still don’t have complete use of both of my hands. I’m typing this with one finger. For a self-employed artist, this is devastating. If I can’t work, I can’t eat.
I was home three days after the accident on November 5, the Tuesday when the sales-tax referendum failed. The quarter-cent increase would’ve raised about $50 million in new revenue for Mecklenburg County each year — and about $22.5 million of that would’ve gone to the arts.
I read the stories and comments online, many of which made light of the arts and artists — and by extension, my broken-up self.
I’ve been making photographs in Charlotte for six years. My work from the 2016 Keith Lamont Scott protests figured prominently in K(no)w Justice, K(no)w Peace, the long-running exhibit at the Levine Museum of the New South. And one of my biggest projects, Welcome to Brookhill, documenting life in an often-overlooked neighborhood on South Tryon Street, has been a featured exhibit at the Gantt Center since September 2018. Just last month, Charlotte native and Grammy winner Anthony Hamilton wore a Welcome to Brookhill T-shirt to the BET Soul Train Awards.
I say all that not to brag, but to make my point: I’m arguably one of the more successful artists in the city, and still I struggle to see how I can make a living doing this forever.
A creative spends countless hours on a piece or project, only to be compensated a small percentage of what the work is worth — which, honestly, is no different from a wage worker earning a corporation and shareholders far more then they’re compensated for. You’d think a majority of people would be empathetic to that, but that’s not how capitalism works.
If someone is employed at a full-time job, they are in many cases entitled to benefits. But most entrepreneurs and small businesspeople like me don’t have a guild or means of obtaining medical and health insurance through employers.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking of my colleagues who have helped to transform the look and feel of this city. As a professional photographer and one who has benefited from much of what Charlotte has to offer, I feel it’s my responsibility to ensure that other artists with less social capital are invited to the table.
But if I — someone who last year was lucky enough to be named a Charlottean of the Year by Charlotte magazine — am left questioning my value in a community where I’ve given so much, my fellow creatives undoubtedly share similar concerns.
I still trust that a majority of this county believes we need more publicly funded resources for arts, but that they didn’t trust the way the sales tax would’ve been spent. I can understand that.
But we absolutely need to build the infrastructure so artists who do work can continue making our community beautiful and more interesting.
In Charlotte, you need to have an annual salary of about $40,000 to avoid being cost-burdened in a two-bedroom apartment. How can we retain the best creative talent if they can’t afford to live here?
I’m sure some people will read this and ask: Why not just get a “real job” instead of pursuing your passion? Well, because art to many is more than just a hobby. It’s a career. And in order for a city to have a meaningful supply of quality art, it needs professional artists.
Still, artists are always asked to accept less for more work, to make things out of the goodness of their hearts instead of the betterment of their bank accounts.
And yes, it’s even more difficult for people of color. Since 2008, less than 3 percent of the art acquisitions at top institutions in this country were from African-American artists.
We have financial institutions in Charlotte with entire divisions dedicated to art curation and collections. Clearly creativity is an important commodity. Can we work as a community to achieve equity in compensation, representation on boards, and decision-making among artists in our city? Because together I think we can.
During my residency at the Gantt Museum in 2018-2019 I experienced the greatest personal gains in my career. Because of their generous support I was able to grow as an artist and professional. So yes, I was absolutely in favor of publicly funding the arts on the November ballot, even if I wasn’t crazy about how the failed referendum came to be. I hope we’ll come back with another, ironed-out plan soon.
I attended every community meeting about the referendum I could, in local venues and city council. And still I wondered, if it passed, would I benefit from the increased resources? And if so, who wouldn’t? It felt selfish and wrong to want it.
Then I had the accident. I’ve been unable to work for almost a month. To add to the complications, the driver was uninsured. I’ve retained an attorney to help me walk into the unknown. After my hands are back in shape, the recovery is mostly about finances and transportation. And because I’ve lived most of my life under the assumption that I’m one missed paycheck away from disaster, my anxiety is through the roof right now. The physical pieces, although slow, have been easier to heal.
Of course I’ve wondered if I can keep doing this work, and keep doing it here. I know many of my fellow creatives feel the exact same way. And if we quit or leave, what does our city lose? I guess that depends on how you look at it, and how you determine value.
I gave a talk a couple of weeks ago, and after I spoke the event’s host showed a short slide presentation. In one frame he showed a photo taken by Charles Moore in 1963; it depicted a scene from Birmingham, Alabama, that spring, with a police K-9 biting the pants of a black man.
The photo ran in Life Magazine. The next year, Andy Warhol used it as the basis for a painting series called “Race Riot.” When the painting sold for $62.9 million in 2014, some news stories didn’t even mention Moore’s name.
People continue to be astonished when they hear that a work of art has sold for a large sum of money, perhaps because they believe that art serves no necessary function.
Art is not utilitarian, nor does it seem to be linked to any essential activity, nor was it deemed worthy of public dollars in this business-based city I call home, but isn’t it funny that art is used as influence all around us, and that it’s one of the few things in this world that’s consistently described as priceless?
Alvin Jacobs is a photographer and image activist in Charlotte. He is the Gantt Center’s 2018-19 Artist In Residence. For more of his work, visit his website, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.