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Brian Cromwell Takes the Helm on Blumenthal’s Board of Trustees

New York Native Understands the Value of Culture to a Community

by Adam Rhew
When Brian Cromwell drove into Charlotte as a young law school graduate in January 1996, he didn’t have a job or know anyone in the city. In fact, he’d barely heard about it.
“I grew up in a small town up north. You may have heard of it: New York City,” he recalls with a laugh. “When you grow up in New York, you think it’s the center of the world.”
But as he set out into the world as a new attorney, eager to plant his roots somewhere, he found opportunity in the Queen City. “I drove right down Trade and Tryon, and I looked around and I said, ‘Yep. This is where I want to be.’”
"As Charlotte grew, I grew with it."
Brian Cromwell
Board chairman, Blumenthal Performing Arts
Blumenthal board of trustees chairman Brian Cromwell.
Now 25 years later, Cromwell looks out the windows of a newly constructed skyscraper in uptown and considers his journey from that first drive down Tryon Street. “It was a much, much, much different city,” he says. “As Charlotte grew, I grew with it.”
Cromwell, a partner with Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein LLP, is the new chairman of the Blumenthal Performing Arts board of trustees. His story is like that of so many Charlotteans – one that is rooted in family and community.
Getting settled in the city, though, was a challenge.
“When I first arrived,” Cromwell says, “it was very hard to meet people. It was very insular. You had to know someone to know someone.”
But Cromwell, a first-generation American to Trinidadian parents, wasn’t one to shy away from hard work. “My father came to the United States basically with the shirt on his back and a pregnant wife,” he says. “My mother is one of the toughest, hard-working, kindest people you’ll ever meet. The two of them guided my whole life. Everything I am and everything I will be is thanks to both of them.”
Blumenthal board of trustees chairman Brian Cromwell, left, with former board chair Jeff Hay.
Cromwell took the bar exam in February of 1996, but couldn’t get his foot in the door at any of the law firms he courted. “People were like, ‘Fordham? What’s that? All we know is Duke, UNC, Wake Forest,’” Cromwell says with a laugh. He found a job as an assistant district attorney in Mecklenburg County, where he served for three years before moving on to the United States Attorney’s office.
“I took to it like a duck to water. I loved being in front of a judge, in front of a jury.”
When his wife became pregnant with the couple’s first child, Cromwell decided it was time to move into the private sector. As his career progressed, he found new ways to serve – first through a seat on the board of what was then known as United Family Services and, later, through a seat on the Charlotte Symphony’s board.
“I’d seen TV and movies and they’re great. But a live performance just doesn’t compare.”
Brian Cromwell
“I grew up in New York going to Broadway all the time, but when I came to Charlotte, I didn’t spend a lot of time doing cultural things. I was just trying to keep my head above water raising a young family.”
But those early, formative years going to Broadway shows had a lasting effect on him. Cromwell remembers his first show – Frank Langella as Dracula – and how live theater resonated. “I was blown away. I couldn’t believe how powerful his voice was and how much emotion a human being could have in a live performance,” Cromwell says, his gifts as a storyteller on full display. “I’d seen TV and movies and they’re great. But a live performance just doesn’t compare.”
It is that experience – the sense of community, the surprise and delight that happen when the lights go down and the curtain drops – that so many people have missed during the last year. “That live experience is going to bring people back into the real world. There’s only so much Netflix people can watch. People are ready. We just want to make sure it’s done safely.”
Blumenthal President and CEO Tom Gabbard, left, with Brian Cromwell.
As board chair, Cromwell is particularly focused on the successful, and safe, relaunch of Blumenthal programming – including the Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit experience and the return of the PNC Broadway Lights series.
“Safety is absolutely the most important thing,” he says. "I don’t ever want someone to come to a performance and say, ‘Yeah, they didn’t really care about me; they just care about making money.’ Safety is absolutely paramount.”
But as Charlotte reopens and returns to normalcy, Cromwell also understands the important role creative outlets play in setting a tone of hope, resilience and inspiration. “Arts can change people.”
Arts can change cities, too. When theaters were closed due to the pandemic, the lights weren’t just dimmed inside the venues. Patrons weren’t enjoying pre-show dinners, they weren’t walking arm-in-arm to grab a nightcap. Returning that liveliness to uptown is essential, Cromwell says.
“If you don’t have a very strong performing arts group, people are going to say, ‘No, I’m going to go somewhere else.’”
Brian Cromwell
“There are businesses who will bring their headquarters here, but they won’t bring them here if there’s nothing to do,” he adds, noting the important economic development role cultural institutions play in a place such as Charlotte. “If you don’t have a very strong performing arts group, people are going to say, ‘No, I’m going to go somewhere else.’”
There is another role the arts can play in cities, Cromwell emphasizes – one that was on display last year as America grappled with racism, inequity and injustice. Artists and cultural organizations have an important voice in the calls for a more just society.
“The arts community stepped forward and said, ‘We are not going to take this,’” Cromwell says. “There was a sea of change I think that continues on to this day. We have a long way to go, but we made a huge leap in 2020.” ◼

Brian Cromwell Interview

Go deeper with exerpts from the interview with Brian Cromwell, Blumenthal's new board of trustees chair.