Everybody knows that Asheville is an arts mecca for North Carolina. But after you read this post, you’ll realize you can save yourself a three hour drive; if you’re a resident of Orange County and a fan of the arts, you’re already sitting on a goldmine. First a disclaimer: I love Asheville. Having grown up in the mountains of Roanoke, VA, Asheville was always like the cooler, older cousin. Just like Roanoke, it was beautifully situated along the Blue Ridge Parkway and full of the music, art, and craft traditions one associates with Appalachia. But unlike Roanoke back when I was growing up and then starting my professional career, Asheville really had it going on. They seemed to know WHO they were and how to harness that local tradition into something greater. There’s a bunch of theories as to how this happened, but the bottom line is that they have been a poster child for how to make the arts work for your community. Showcase the arts, and people will come. So will good restaurants, breweries, and all the other amenities that go hand-in-hand with a thriving arts scene.
Several weeks ago I was invited to present to the Orange County Assembly of Governments, an annual meeting of nearly 50 elected officials within the towns of Orange County (no pressure, right?). I wanted to let them know about the areas of the arts that the Arts Commission is going to be working to strengthen in coming months. But first, I wanted to provide a snapshot of the arts community as it stands right now, or, as of 2014, which was the most recent data available through Americans for the Arts. AFTA is the national arts advocacy organization that does nation-wide studies to determine how the arts fit into our local communities. I put together a report based on the four primary “arts indicators” that AFTA uses to gauge the strength of the arts in a given community. The indicators include citizen participation in the arts, the arts resources available to your citizens, the role of the arts in the overall business climate, and how the arts define the local character of your community.
I compared Orange County to our neighbors in Wake and Durham counties, as well as Buncombe County, home of the arts mecca of Asheville. I also compared us to the National Average. Everything is measured per capita to keep comparisons relative. I suspected this report would provide some data to back up what I already knew, which was that the arts in Orange County are thriving. I didn’t realize just how much of an artsy hub we’re residing in here in the OC. Just consider the following:
- Of 46 arts indicators used in the report, Orange County leads in 38 categories compared to Durham and Wake. We lead Buncombe County in 36 of the 46 markers.
- The percentage of working artists per capita is twice that of Wake County, 50% higher than Durham and four times the national average. This is one marker that we are basically tied with Asheville on; both of our communities have an abnormally large number of working artists. However, unlike Buncombe, our artists make significantly more money on an annual basis.
- Orange County has more arts and culture organizations per capita than Wake, Durham or Buncombe counties, 177 to be exact. With this many organizations, you’d worry that maybe the market is over-saturated and as a result, these organizations are struggling to stay afloat. But this isn’t the case either. Our arts and culture organizations actually generate more money on an annual basis than their counterparts in other counties, AND spend more on cultural programming for the community.
So what does this mean? It means that Orange County is one of the most arts-rich, culturally wealthy communities in the state, maybe even the country. Unlike Asheville, we haven’t quite figured out how to harness this potential yet, but that is what the Arts Commission is going to be working on in the near future. Together with our partners in the county, we will figure out the way to bring the arts to the forefront of our own community. We will make the arts a focal point and as much of a destination in Orange County as sports, history, and food.
Now that you’ve read this post, I’m sure you’re like I was after putting this data together—ready to go climb a mountain, er…hill, and yell to the world, “TAKE THAT, ASHEVILLE!” But there’s a more pragmatic (and sane) way you can help us rally for OC arts – support our local organizations. If you’re reading this, you probably already know the far-reaching benefits the arts have. You know the billions ($699 to be exact) of dollars arts patrons spend on peripheral things like gas, dining out and shopping. You know that students with access to the arts (regardless of socioeconomic status) have lower drop-out rates and better standardized test scores. You know that the arts lead to more civic engagement and lower crime and poverty rates. But the bottom line is that the vast majority of the organizations making the arts happen are nonprofit. That means they are completely reliant on YOU (yes, YOU) to help them serve our community. They need our financial support most of all, by way of an end-of-year, tax-deductible gift, or an annual membership, or simply by purchasing tickets to their shows or items in their galleries this holiday season.
If you can’t swing some dollars their way, that’s okay too. Time is money and they ALL require the hard work of volunteers. Don’t be afraid to offer your help, no matter what your skills are. Are you a people person? I bet FRANK would love to have you help visitors in their gallery. Are you a planner? The Hillsborough Arts Council could use your help with the many events they host each year. Are you a carpenter or artist? How about helping with set design with Playmakers or Orange County Players? Do you prefer more behind-the-scenes work? There’s a need for everything from administrative help to cleaning at our local organizations. Just ask.
No matter what, do something. Between your support, and the work that the Arts Commission will be doing to harness the arts in our community, the sky is the limit. Between our work and your’s, we will soon be our own arts mecca—one that was here all along.