Last week I participated in ArtsDay in Raleigh, an annual convening of arts leaders across the state coordinated by our state arts advocacy group, Arts North Carolina. The point of ArtsDay, which is technically two days, is to bring arts advocates up to speed on governmental issues currently facing the arts across the state. The first day offers a schedule of presenters educating the crowd on topics ranging from policy and budget to tips on effectively communicating with legislators. The second day allows you to put your advocacy skills to work as you, together with other arts leaders from your county, meet with your local legislators. At the helm of the whole shebang is the dynamic Karen Wells, director of ArtsNC and arts advocate extraordinaire.
Our first presenter was Anita Brown-Graham, Professor of Public Law and Government at UNC-Chapel Hill. Initially she offered some stats that I was already more or less aware of. N.C. is the ninth most populous state in the county. The Triangle is blowing up. (Fun/scary fact: Raleigh sees enough new residents every day to fill a kindergarten classroom.) People are flocking to our state for its economy, culture and natural resources. But this growth is not state-wide by any stretch, and this is where her information shocked me. 40% of North Carolina’s workforce currently works in 1 of 5 counties, out of 100 across the state. While extraordinary growth is happening in the Triangle, Charlotte and Wilmington areas, 31 rural counties are expected to see a decrease in population by 2035. In fact, 53 of our 100 counties are expected to have fewer working age adults by 2035 than in 2017.
I recently moved to the Triangle from one of these rural communities. Pasquotank County is located in the northeast corner of the state, in the part of the state I like to call “no man’s land,” or, “on the way to the Outer Banks.” Don’t get me wrong – in my five years in Elizabeth City, I formed a strong attachment to the little town and gained a new appreciation for the assets that can be found in a rural southern community. But it really is the forgotten step-child of the state. It’s impoverished beyond belief. My husband worked for a regional food bank, a member of Feeding America, who does a nation-wide “food insecurity” assessment every year. A quarter of children in northeast NC are food insecure and nearly 20% of the overall population faces hunger each year. In a state that ranks 41st in the nation in teacher pay, the northeast is the bottom of an already lean barrel. 63% of the children in Elizabeth City-Pasquotank County Public Schools are part of the Free and Reduced Lunch program, with several schools having 100% of their student body enrolled. Industry is pretty much non-existent and agriculture is king.
However, other than bodies of water and cotton fields, there is one other thing you can find in abundance in northeast NC—artists. I could never figure out the reason for this when I was the director of Arts of the Albemarle, the regional visual and performing arts center and arts council. I think it’s partially the serene coastal surroundings that encourages artistic expression through the visual arts. Or maybe it was a lack of other things to do; without movie theaters, ballparks, and shopping malls, folks have to find other ways of entertaining themselves, especially in the winter when it’s too cold to head over to the beach. But the best explanation that I found was that it was a community that fostered creativity. Everyone was either a painter, a singer, a musician, an actor, a writer, or a combination of all. When everyone you know is freely expressing their creativity, the idea of putting yourself out there isn’t nearly as intimidating as it might be in other communities.
During my five years in northeast NC I discovered many other examples of communities like Elizabeth City, such as Columbia, which houses Pocosin Arts, a world-class studio and lodge for artists and traditional crafters. Or Little Washington, the home to Arts of the Pamlico and the historic Turnage Theatre, with giant artist-painted crabs on every street corner. Little towns like this exist all over our state and country, and while they may not have industry, they have the arts, and they are figuring out how to make them work for their community.
Let me offer a couple examples of the magic that happens when arts and investment collide to turn around a community—Kinston and Wilson. Many people are now familiar with Kinston thanks to Vivian Howard and her A Chef’s Life PBS fame. But the turn-around of the once tobacco mill town started with Stephen Hill, a born and raised Kinston native. A successful business man, Hill began the revitalization of Kinston with the start of Mother Earth Brewing.
Then he bought blocks of dilapidated mill houses and, with the help of the North Carolina Arts Council’s smART Initiative (smART Kinston), turned them into a district of candy-colored affordable artist studio/housing surrounded by a white picket fence. The North Carolina Arts Council made Kinston the hub of the multi-county African American Music Trail, showcasing Kinston’s once thriving jazz scene of the 1960’s. Famed artist Thomas Sayre was hired to create a giant Stonehenge-like earthcasting project representing the sides of old tobacco barns. Old motels are being retrofitted and boutique hotels are popping up. In short, Kinston’s got it going on.
Another “depressed tobacco town turned arts hub” is Wilson. Besides their thriving arts council housed in the historic BB&T bank, Wilson also received grants from NCAC smART Initiative and the National Endowment for the Arts, helping them turn the enormous kinetic creations of artist Vollis Simpson into a new Whirligig Park. It was estimated that the park would generate $50M in private investment after it opened. But guess what? It has already generated over $20M in private investment in the area surrounding the park, and it’s not even set to open until this fall.
There’s even a success story in my former home of Elizabeth City, where the small town raised almost $4M to turn a run-down department store and vaudeville theater into a world-class arts center that could hold its own with most any other arts facility of its size that I’ve seen. (It also features an awesome piece of functional art by Thomas Sayre). Arts of the Albemarle hasn’t been without its struggles, but because so many people played a role in making the center a reality, they are invested in its success. It is the hub of cultural arts for the area, generating hundreds of thousands in ancillary revenue for a struggling Downtown Elizabeth City when offering performances, workshops and events. It serves as a literal stage for the local talent to shine, and shine it does. I could never get over the sheer number of fantastic performers that resided in the community. The older generation is raising up the next generation, resulting in a nationally recognized children’s theater program whose alumni are now attending the best art schools in the country. I told several of our graduates upon their departure to not forget us when they were famous, because I don’t think it’s at all out of the question for them to one day “make it big” and return home to become Elizabeth City’s Stephen Hill, bringing the fostering/investment pattern full circle.
So you’re probably thinking, “that’s great, but what about the towns that don’t have a Stephen Hill or a Vollis Simpson or an Arts of the Albemarle?” That’s where the North Carolina Arts Council comes in. One of the most important items being discussed at ArtsDay was the proposed $3.6M increase to the NCAC Grassroots Arts Program. If passed, this increase will bring, at minimum, $30k of additional funding into all 100 counties, allowing the 34 all-volunteer arts councils to hire an employee to serve the arts community. As ArtsNC’s Karen Wells explained repeatedly, with every $1 in state funding, NCAC partners are able to leverage an additional $17 in revenue for their communities. So, at minimum, rural NC counties would be able to pump at least $510,000 into their local communities through arts-related programs. That additional $17 comes from admissions/sales tax, sponsorships, meals/gas/baby-sitters, tourism dollars, etc… Not only that, but rural counties would have an employee dedicated to promoting the arts, finding the Vollis Simpson’s of their communities, as well as the Stephen Hill’s, and figuring out ways to use their unique cultural assets to generate economic growth.
In addition, proposed increases would enhance the State Arts Resource Program, allowing N.C.’s arts treasures like Penland School or our own ArtsCenter to expand their offerings into the rural communities in need of arts programming. The increased budget would also allow the addition of programming for veterans as well as an expansion of the smART Initiative, allowing the addition of 10-15 more communities to the program.
Most likely if you’re reading this, you are a resident of the Triangle where we are fortunate to have arts resources literally around every corner. But to truly grow as a state (as well as combat some…ahem…recent negative press), we need to support the arts in all communities because they are what make us uniquely North Carolina. Or in the words of ArtsDay presenter and Charlotte’s Arts and Science Council director, Robert Bush, “the original maker’s state.” In keeping with the theme of ArtsDay 2017, we need to strive for “Arts for All” and help our neighbors find their story and figure out how to make it work for their community.
So here’s how you can help: CONTACT YOUR LEGISLATORS. As their constituent, they rely on your vote and will listen to you. Tell them to approve the funding increases in the proposed budget. Head over to ArtsNC’s website where they give you step-by-step instructions, including a letter template you can customize and email.
We cannot move forward if we leave our neighbors behind. The potential of our rural communities, if provided this funding, is unlimited. Let’s move beyond individual communities and serve as a state-wide model for how the arts can drive tourism, create identity and strengthen the economy. Let’s make “Arts for All” a reality by telling our legislators that we want this for our state, once and for all.