A recent blog post explained how Orange County is an under-cover arts mecca. How, in almost every category in which you can gauge the significance of the arts in a community, Orange County ranked higher than our neighbors in Wake and Durham counties. We even rank higher than the mighty Asheville in terms of art resources available to our residents, the annual salaries of our working artists, and the success of our arts organizations. Obviously, a lot of these artists and art resources are located in Chapel Hill, having the highest population within the county. But another reason for the thriving arts scene of Chapel Hill can be credited to the priority placed on incorporating the arts into Chapel Hill’s economy and planning; Meg McGurk and the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership (CHDP) are no exception.
I recently attended the an annual meeting of the CHDP. I had already met, and instantly liked, its director, Meg McGurk. Her energy and enthusiasm for her job is felt in everything she says and does. The annual meeting was no exception. Meg’s excitement over the construction cranes and blocked lanes of traffic throughout Downtown Chapel Hill (growth!) definitely offered an alternate view of what most of us consider a major annoyance in our daily lives. But in addition to her giddiness over improved sidewalks and the number of people on Franklin Street wearing hard hats, something else excites Meg: the arts.
A big part of most arts administrators job is convincing the “powers that be” that the arts are valuable, that they are an enormous economic driver and positively benefit virtually every part of our lives. But Meg needs no convincing. She gets it. This is one reason why I instantly liked her. It’s also why, five years ago after she was named Executive Director of CHDP, she made the decision to take ownership of 2nd Friday ArtWalk. At the time, the event was all but nonexistent, having dwindled down to about three venues. Over the last five years, it has grown to an average of 18 venues each month, as many as 28 venues during peak months. Unlike the town that I recently moved here from, the restaurateurs and shop owners aren’t reliant on ArtWalk for business, but regardless, Meg sees the importance in feeding the artistic environment of Chapel Hill. She gets that the arts are critical to making a community a good place to live, work and play. I was in awe during my first experience at 2nd Friday ArtWalk, watching the streets full of people, the galleries and shops crammed full, and musicians (there was even a guy hauling around an organ) busking on the street. Coming from the rural northeast corner of our state, THIS was what an ArtWalk was supposed to look like.
But 2nd Friday ArtWalk is just one project of CHDP. With a staff of three (yes, three), they host 42 annual events, most of which involve the arts in some way. Movies Under the Stars, holiday concerts, pop-up markets, live theater, the list goes on. They incorporate the arts in every way they can, from place-making projects, to wayfinding signage to an upcoming alley beautification project.
As Meg explained during the annual meeting, CHDP is constantly taking on new projects, serving as the fiscal agent for events and projects throughout the year. One such project, Shimmer: The Art of Light, began last year as a collaborative project between Chapel Hill and Carrboro. For one night only, venues showcased illuminated art installations from more than 20 artists. This year, the Town of Chapel Hill has taken on the coordination of the event, which is coming up next Friday, February 10th. As the website states, attendees can expect to see the streets of Chapel Hill/Carrboro turned into a de facto art gallery, with installations and projections located at more than 20 venues. Learn more at shimmerevent.com.
I think Shimmer is symbolic of a bright future for Chapel Hill under the leadership of CHDP, and I am excited to see what the future holds. And as the Arts Commission looks at its future direction and how to best serve the arts community, I know Meg and CHDP will play a major role, continuing to foster the arts and making Orange County a thriving arts destination.