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Bank taking over FleetBoston invests heavily in the arts

Next to the Bank of America's headquarters in Charlotte, N. C., stands the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center. Its features include the 2,100-seat Belk Theater, the 434-seat Booth Playhouse, the 150-seat Studio Theater -- as well as a security service, heating and air conditioning systems, and a loading dock that it shares with the bank building next door.

Who paid for those items -- and, by the way, built the building? The bank did.

"It really represents their commitment to the arts here," says Tom Gabbard, the Blumenthal's president. "They've understood that the arts were an integral piece to revitalize downtown as well as making it an attractive place to live and work."

With Bank of America poised to take over FleetBoston, arts spending in Charlotte becomes a significant story for Boston arts groups. And, people on the North Carolina arts scene say, it's generally a story with a happy ending.

Bank of America has been "a real driving force behind the arts really coming front and center in the state, and particularly in Charlotte," says Mary Regan, executive director of the North Carolina Arts Council, based in Raleigh. "It's just offered the most incredible leadership -- not just funding and resources, a lot of human resources, but just really understanding the importance of the arts."

It's in large part because of the bank's leadership, Regan and others say, that Charlotte regularly leads the nation in per capita arts spending. The city, with a population of about 540,000, runs the nation's most successful united arts campaign -- a sort of United Way for arts donations, run through the Charlotte Arts & Science Council, that raised more than $10 million in fiscal 2003. Charlotte also tops the list for arts giving in the workplace, with gifts totaling $7.7 million in fiscal 2002, according to the Washington-based nonprofit group Americans for the Arts.

"There's usually a friendly rivalry" between Bank of America and its chief local competitor, Wachovia, to raise the most money for the council, says Richard Maschal, visual arts and architecture writer for The Charlotte Observer. Bank of America executives often head the fund drive, Maschal says, and CEO Ken Lewis has also led a fund drive for a new children's theater and library. "They're a very arts-minded institution."

The commitment comes from the top, arts leaders say -- from Lewis and, before him, from former CEO Hugh McColl, who moved the bank's headquarters to Charlotte after merging Bank of America with his own NationsBank. Since retiring, McColl has opened an art gallery; many bank executives have served on local arts boards, and the current chief financial officer, Jim Hance, chairs the Blumenthal's board.

But support for the arts, they say, is also just part of what makes Charlotte Charlotte.

"Within Charlotte, to be part of the corporate community, there really is an expectation that you're going to support education, the school systems, human services, the arts," says Phil Kline, executive director of the Mint Museums.

Kline notes that in 1999 the bank donated a building to be used for the Mint Museum of Craft + Design. The bank also paid for renovations.

"They're a model for being wonderful corporate citizens," Kline says. And while he says that may be especially true in Charlotte -- "obviously, this is their headquarters, so maybe there's more down here" -- he doesn't think it's unique.

"My understanding," Kline says, "is that wherever they are, they are good corporate citizens."

Louise Kennedy can be reached at kennedy@globe.com.

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