The development of an arts council has been the subject of intense debate in Wilmington for nearly a decade now. Though Wilmington is considered an arts hub for Southeastern North Carolina, the city surprisingly does not have a consolidated way to find funding, help shape programs, support artists and connect our region’s artistic projects to one another.
In fact, of the 10 largest metropolitan areas in NC, Wilmington is the only one not to benefit from its own council. It wasn’t always like this. Founded in 1972, the Arts Council of the Lower Cape Fear eventually fizzled out in 2002 due to money woes after having lost city and county funding.
However, there’s currently an effort to move Wilmington toward getting another started. Earlier in the year, a local steering committee consisting of members Dan Brawley (director, Cucalorus Film Festival), Philip Gerard (writer and professor/chair of the Creative Writing Department, UNCW) and Rhonda Bellamy (founding member of Black Arts Alliance and actress) strongly proposed a sustainable Wilmington Arts Council to the city council at City Hall. The steering committee’s argument emphasized the economical benefits an arts council would provide for our community.
Brawley says he views an arts council as a necessary device to stay ahead against today’s economic turmoil. “A strong and creative cultural community is critical to being competitive in the 21st century,” Brawley says. “It’s not about pretty pictures and kids doing collages; it’s about [creating] jobs and economic development. I don’t know if that message has reached all the people it needs to reach.”
Gerard believes an arts council would carry huge potential for economic expansion in the area, too. “It’s really a focusing agency for all the activities related to arts, which are huge economic drivers for the community [as it] brings in a lot of tourists. A lot of [Wilmington’s] economy is based in tourism due to its cultural historic identity. All of that is wrapped up in an arts council.”
Brawley is confident that the pieces are all in place, but he says there first needs to be government action. The model is fairly straight-forward all across the country: Government support is proven to be the catalyst for the formation of art councils, then there needs to be business support from corporations and local businesses and, finally, individual support.
“We have these great institutions and facilities—yet, our artists are still waiting tables or moving to other cities [like] Raleigh because the opportunity for real professional development is lacking in Wilmington,” says Brawley. “That is something an arts council can identify and provide opportunities for artists to further their careers.“
Another forerunner of the movement is city councilwoman Laura Padgett. “We’re actually losing money by not having an arts council,” Padgett says. “There are programs that provide funding for art projects and artists, but we can’t get those if you don’t have an arts council. [There’s a need] that goes beyond grassroots support; we need private and local government support.”
Such support would haste the NC Arts Council to begin seeking an executive director and members to serve. Among the advocates of forming one, Padgett cites Mayor Bill Saffo, as well as the city council, saying he would be willing to fund an arts council given that the county also contributed funds. However, in March the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners rejected the proposal to fund the council at $50,000 per year for the next five years. Commissioner Ted Davis stated that, while they were not against an arts council, they were against the multi-year commitment.
To see if the claims of Padgett and the steering committee are valid, one doesn’t have to look far for a successful model. Just 50 miles northwest of Wilmington in its neighboring county Onslow is an arts council that has thrived for over 30 years. The Jacksonville Council of the Arts is a nonprofit organization that does everything from placing artists and writers in schools to hosting galleries. At the helm is Constance “Connie” Wenner, executive director of the Jacksonville Council for the Arts. Wenner’s personal advice for Wilmington’s steering committee is to get as much grassroots support as possible.
“I know Wilmington’s been working toward an arts council for a while now,” Connie says. “Unless you’re putting your own money in it, it’ll be nearly impossible to maintain without the community’s support. Either way, it will be difficult.”
Connie speaks from experience. For 13 years, she worked at the arts council as an unpaid assistant until she stepped up into the chair position after her mother and founder, Jean Wenner, retired in 2004.
The roots of Jacksonville’s council can be traced back to 1976 when the NC Arts Council called Jean who, at the time, was the president of the Onslow Art Society and asked her to host an interest meeting for an arts council. After a surprisingly successful turnout, the Jacksonville Council for the Arts was born. With no prior experience, Jean was suddenly the president. More so, with a mere $1,500 budget and 13-member volunteer board, she operated the organization from her home. She worked unpaid for five years until the city and county began to take notice of her work. The Arts in the Schools Program especially impressed them, as it integrated professional literary and performing artists into Onslow County schools.
The Jacksonville Council of the Arts did not move into their current location until 1984. It took eight years, but the small group of volunteers and their shoestring budget finally evolved. They moved to New Bridge Street across from City Hall, thanks to city and county funding.
As a Designated County Partner (DCP) of Onslow County, when the NC Arts Council distributes grants, Jacksonville’s DCP is required to give half to community groups. To put this in perspective, Connie says last week they granted $18,000 to 13 small community groups. If Wilmington eventually established an arts council, it would be the DCP for New Hanover County.
Since the original Wilmington Arts Council disintegrated in 2002, there has been a nine-year period in which several artistic groups of the arts have popped up in the community without the support of council. Connie says this could be cause for concern, as the county may see this as an embodiment of why Wilmington does not need a council for its arts scene to flourish.
“It’s important for the city and county to know that it is far cheaper for [them] to give a little bit of grant money than for them to do 100 percent of what an arts council does,” Connie says. “They have many responsibilities. The money they would give to a nonprofit whose sole purpose is bringing in the arts is far more lucrative [as opposed to] them taking on the role of an arts council and providing the artistic needs for an entire community.”
According to Connie, an arts council can only become as big as its surroundings, which means that even if a council attains grant money and support from the city and county, it would never be enough to pay the bills—there needs to be support from businesses and individuals in the community, too.
“I think people feel that if you’ve been in existence for 30-some-odd years, somebody is paying your bills,” Connie says. “But that is not the case. People say it takes a village to raise a child; it takes a town to raise an arts council.”