Prior to serving as director of the Orange County Arts Commission, I was the director of an arts center near the Outer Banks. Northeast NC is the “forgotten child” of our state; poverty is rampant, many schools are operating with 100% of their student body on the Free and Reduced Lunch program, and like someone recently said to me, “those who could get up and go have got up and left.” Yet, we had a killer arts center. It was a former Vaudeville Theater set to be demolished. The community raised $4M to turn it into a beautiful visual and performing arts center, which is now the lifeblood of a struggling downtown.
Fast forward to August 2016 when I arrived in Orange County, I had heard it was a progressive, supposedly very wealthy county and home to many artists, all factors that typically bode well when you work in the arts. I was moving from one of the poorest parts of our state, which was home to an incredible facility for the arts, to one of the wealthiest and most progressive counties in the state, so naturally I was expecting fantastic art places everywhere. I was also reminiscing of my college days as a student at Elon in the late 90’s, when we’d travel to Chapel Hill for a live music fix, or to experience a “real” college town.
I was happy to see many of the live music staples like Cat’s Cradle, Local 506, and The Cave were still around. But beyond a good selection of late-night live music venues, something was missing. Where were the artist studios? Other than the ArtsCenter, where did people take classes in the visual or performing arts? Where were the local community theater spots? Wasn’t there a maker space somewhere? And particularly in Chapel Hill, I wondered where the galleries were.
Perplexed, I immediately dived head first into what would become two years of information gathering and listening to figure out what was going on and how the arts commission could help. Our data proved the rumors were true – Orange County is home to tons of artists, but most of these artists exhibit their work, perform, and rent studio space in Durham, Raleigh, or even Chatham and Alamance Counties. Why? Because the infrastructure necessary for them to make a living is simply not present in Orange County.
Secondly, we quickly realized something else very obvious. UNC dominates much of Orange County, and this is no different when it comes to the arts. Don’t get me wrong – UNC’s arts entities serve a very important role; they provide world-class arts experiences for arts consumers in Orange County and beyond. But here’s the thing – “the arts” goes beyond just consumerism. Being able to enjoy the offerings of UNC does not mean we have a healthy arts ecosystem. Carolina Performing Arts’ ability to present Alvin Ailey at Memorial Hall, or Ackland’s most recent Rembrandt acquisition doesn’t necessarily mean creatives are thriving in Orange County. It means we’re extremely lucky, dare I say spoiled, to live near a university with incredible arts offerings.
(UPDATE: My lack of acknowledgement of our UNC arts partners’ impact on our local community is a glaring omission from this piece. There are countless programs that involve and impact our community, but here are just a few of my personal favorites you should know about:
- Playmaker’s Playmakers Mobile, which takes classic Shakespeare productions directly into the community, making them accessible through community centers, schools, and other community gathering spots.
- The Stone Center’s Communiversity Youth Program, a free afterschool program that pairs elementary students with UNC students to assist with homework, as well as participate in a broad range of traditional and culinary arts activities.
- Ackland Art Museum’s newly developed Local Advisory Board, of which I am a member, created with the sole purpose of tapping into local minds to discover new ways to engage and support the community. Also, admission to Ackland is always free, and that’s a big deal.
- Current Artspace + Studio: There’s a reason Carolina Performing Arts placed this facility on Franklin Street and not on campus – so it can serve as multi-disciplinary space in the community, for the community.
- Kathryn Wagner: Ok, this is a person and not a program. But UNC Arts Everywhere’s new associate director clearly takes her title very literary. She has big plans to extend the reach of UNC arts into the community, and in the six months she’s been on board, she’s partnered with the town and county on all sorts of projects (most recently, our summer residency program for local artists at 109 E. Franklin St.).
I should also note that these organizations are major employers of arts professionals and creative minds of all types- Ackland and Playmakers alone employ 64 permanent staff and many, many, more contractors. So mea culpa UNC; in pointing out how our community takes your performances, programs and exhibits for granted, I took for granted everything else you do.)
To have a truly vibrant arts economy, our artist-residents, the people who make our community somewhere we actually want to live, need to be supported and successful. They need to be able to live affordably, they need space to create their work, and they need to be able to make a living by having space to sell their work or perform. They also need places to learn to advance their craft, or to teach others. At the center of this ecosystem is a strong Local Arts Agency or arts council. When these services are not offered, artists take their money and talent elsewhere.
This broken arts ecosystem impacts more than our artists. Often, “the arts” get stereotyped as the territory of the elitist or wealthy. These people certainly benefit from the arts, but so does everyone else. The arts – music, art, dance, literature – are the tie that binds our communities. The need for self-expression is as basic as our need for food and water, which is why the arts have been a part of humankind since before there was even a word to define it. They are found in every community regardless of race, age, or socio-economic status.
Access to the arts is life-changing. Studies show children who have arts access are less likely to drop out of school and have better standardized test scores than those who don’t. The arts are now in the top four therapies used to treat the mental and physical injuries of war among our veterans. Cities with a higher concentration of arts access have lower poverty rates, more social cohesion, and higher child welfare. I can personally attest to the impact arts access has on people’s lives, having witnessed children born in poverty go on to attend college to pursue the arts on full scholarships, or a local veteran who credits his discovery of dance to lifting him out of a post-war suicidal depression. When accessible arts experiences are not present, the entire community suffers.
The arts also make good economic sense. Often, economic developers talk about “bringing industry in.” I propose capitalizing on what we already have – our artists. Let’s give them the space and resources to make their magic and then watch what happens. As is, our nonprofit arts sector in Orange County generates $130M each year in our local economy and contributes $5.7M towards our local government (in Chapel Hill, 81% of this revenue comes from UNC). Imagine how much this could grow with even a small investment toward increased community arts space.
Like most issues and needs spanning the breadth of a community, addressing the shortage of arts space is complex. However, I think the data show that an investment of time, effort, and resources in trying to bridge the gaps we have in Orange County will be one that pays for itself. We must work together – artists, local government, businesses, and the community at large – to first understand the value of prioritizing support for the arts in our county and then to enact the changes necessary to make that prioritization a reality. It’s time to put action behind our words, and the OCAC hopes to begin this process in the upcoming fiscal year. In the end, we all want our community to be the most vibrant and livable place it can be. The arts are an integral part of making that happen and we should all be committed to supporting the artisans, performers, and creators who are the heart and soul of this place we call home.
Director, Orange County Arts Commission
To learn more about the issues facing our creative community, and the OCAC’s plan to address them, check out our recent report, Setting the Stage: Assessing and Prioritizing the Arts for the Creative Future of Orange County, NC.