County Board Chair Parks Helms (NC)

County Arts Leadership
2000

When Parks Helms was first elected Chairman of the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners in 1992, county funding to the Arts & Science Council (ASC) stood at $1.285 million annually.  This year, after eight years of his leadership on the Commission, ASC was granted $3.052 million to support cultural organizations, arts education, and community-based cultural programs.

ASC has experienced 137 percent funding growth during the eight years of Parks Helms' chairmanship.

Parks Helms has served as the County Commission's representative on ASC's board for seven years.  He has been instrumental in the success of advocacy efforts, and in strengthening and supporting ASC's relationship with Charlotte-Mecklenburg's county-funded school system.  He has championed arts education as ASC's highest funding priority, raised public awareness of the cultural education efforts of ASC and its affiliates, and solidified a funding partnership with the school system.

A participant in the 1992 and 1998 Cultural Planning processes, Helms' input has helped guide the role of the arts in Charlotte through facilities development and long term planning.

The keystone of Parks Helms leadership in the arts is the story of his response in a crisis.  In 1996, Charlotte Repertory Theatre presented Angels in America, unleashing a storm of public controversy. Reactions included violent anti-homosexuality, enforcement of the North Carolina's anti-nudity law, and protests of public funding for the arts. In the 1997 funding cycle, 4 Republican Commissioners were joined by one Democrat in voting to de-fund the Arts & Science Council, rescinding $2.5 million in annual funding to cultural organizations.  The "Gang of Five" made their motives clear.  While calling publicly for "community morality" and defining the family as, "a husband, wife and possible offspring", their rhetoric also included statements such as, "If I had my way, I'd shove (homosexuals) off the face of the earth."  ASC refused to accept "community standards" for funding that were defined by this rhetoric of hatred and censorship.

During the crisis, Parks proposed and negotiated a compromise that allowed for the continuation of funding to cultural education programs of ASC affiliates.  Publicly and privately, he hammered out an agreement that allowed more than $1 million in county funding to go to ASC affiliates through the newly created Cultural Education Collaborative and the North Carolina Blumenthal Performing Arts Center. Parks Helms' leadership in crisis allowed ASC affiliates to weather the funding crisis without major cuts to programs or severe budget deficits.

Throughout the crisis, Parks was a champion for inclusivity, tolerance, freedom of expression, and public funding of the arts.  On April 1, 1997, the night of the vote to de-fund ASC, it was clear that the vote was determined before the hearing began.  He opened the floor to the vote by saying, "This is a sad day in this community.  Please forgive for what we are about to do."  But he also vowed not to be defeated.  When the Gang of Five reunited to vote him out of the Chairmanship (on the grounds that he supported a gay candidate), he said, "April 1 was the beginning of a series of ugly, mean-spirited debates that culminated tonight.  I will not let this defeat me or the causes and people I care about.  I am more committed than ever to run, and win, and change make-up of this board.

Parks Helms was triumphant in his quest for change in the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners.  After campaigning tirelessly for himself and others on a platform of civility and diversity, the 1998 election created a Commission of 7 pro-arts Democrats, 1 pro-arts Republican, and only 1 remaining member of Gang of Five.  His colleagues promptly restored his Chairmanship.

Since the 1998 election, Parks Helms has led the County Commission in overturning the resolution against ASC and reinstating ASC funding.

Under his leadership, the new Commission voted to increase ASC funding by $500,000 to support a county-wide grant program for community-based cultural programs.

A solid pro-acts leader before the funding crisis, Parks Helms has emerged as a symbol of what Charlotte can become and the role of the arts in that evolution.  He is widely credited and thanked by business leaders, arts supporters, and voters for his leadership.