When “funky” meets development

Mar. 14, 2013 @ 07:51 PM

Panelists kicked around adjectives like “organic” and “funky,” and phrases like “street energy” during a discussion of the role of the arts in North Carolina’s economic development Thursday. The discussion was part of the one-day Triangle Arts Summit at the Center for Dramatic Art building at UNC.

Chris Beacham, senior program director of the North Carolina Arts Council, cited Durham’s downtown redevelopment as combining the qualities of being “funky and organic,”  while at the same time attracting businesses and entrepreneurs.

Panelist Jody McLeod, mayor of Clayton, told an audience of arts professionals and advocates to gear their message to their audience when building public-private partnerships. “Town government has a very analytical style,” meaning a preference for numbers and projections, McLeod said. Making the case for the importance of arts and the economy requires balance. “It doesn’t have to be all talk about organic and funky,” or all numbers, McLeod said.

Chapel Hill has a lot of organic arts-related elements that create “street energy” along Franklin Street and downtown, said panelist Meg McGurk, executive director of Downtown Chapel Hill. She cited Michael Brown’s murals, the town’s many music venues and the return of more musicians playing informally on the streets – all qualities her organization wants to build on.

Triangle ArtWorks and Arts North Carolina, both non-profit arts advocacy organizations, sponsored Thursday’s summit. Previous summits have been held in Hickory, Concord and Goldsboro. Arts North Carolina’s mission is statewide. Triangle Art Works’ mission is to provide “a new business-centric way of supporting the visual and performing arts and creative industries,” according to the organization’s website.

The summit is the latest manifestation of North Carolina’s quest to use the arts as an economic development tool. In 2012, the North Carolina Arts Council, which operates through the state’s Department of Cultural Resources, announced the SmART Initiative Task Force to encourage cities and towns in the state to ramp up their awareness of arts resources. The task force awarded $135,000 in initial grants to arts councils in Durham, Wilson, Greensboro, Winston-Salem and Burnsville.

The panelists spoke of the growth of the arts as an economic catalyst, and discussed how their towns or agencies are trying to create more arts and business ties. Beacham said the SmART Initiative is seeking to have more grant money to give to more towns. As examples of how some cities are using their grants, he mentioned Winston-Salem, which is seeking to connect its theater district to the rest of its downtown, and Durham, which also is seeking to connect different areas of downtown.

McLeod discussed the creation of the $8 million Clayton Center, built with public and private money. The center has arts space and government offices, was built by renovating a former elementary school, and is celebrating its 10th year in service.

“It’s been a very positive experience for us, because we had that buy-in from the community,” McLeod said.

In addition to the Clayton Center, last year the town had its first artist in residence program. The next major arts project is a $35,000 public art project along the Neuse River, to be called “Transformation Trail,” he said. McLeod stressed the importance of government taking the lead in arts-business advocacy, and bringing business and other community members to the table.

McGurk stressed the importance of communication through social networking, and constantly reaching out to potential partners. McGurk called the FRANK Gallery, built with a small arts business loan, “our diamond in the 100 block” of Franklin Street. LAUNCH-Chapel Hill, an incubator for start-up companies, has 17 ventures, and her organization wants to work with local businesses to keep and attract these creative types of jobs.

“It is baby steps,” said Beth Yerxa, executive director of Triangle ArtWorks, who moderated the panel discussion. “The towns that I see that are doing it successfully, they started with one successful project,” then brought in more stakeholders and built on the initial success, she said.