Hang the art, says New Hanover County

Story and photo by Lois Carol Wheatley

New Hanover County Commissioners heard testimony during their debate surrounding public funding for an arts council. They heard that Wilmington is home to more than 150 arts organizations and more than 3,000 "creative industry workers." They heard that every dollar invested in the arts generates $14 in increased revenues, and that a well-funded arts council attracts millions in grants, corporate funding and private support.

Those are just the numbers, which say nothing of the aesthetic and cultural stimulation such an investment could bring to a community.

The commissioners heard all of this and soundly defeated the measure. New Hanover County remains the largest county in the state with no arts council. In fact, of the 100 North Carolina counties, less than ten have no arts council. Pender and Brunswick counties, to the north and to the west, don't have New Hanover's population density but do have arts councils.

Fortunately for local artists, this is a region that fosters a flow of creative juices that cannot be stymied by politicians. The beach beckons to painters and photographers, and the downtown historic district reeks of old world charm. The film industry has attracted a certain element - from actors, costumers and set designers to film, lighting and sound enthusiasts - and private concerns have leaped into the breach, creating those aforementioned 150 arts organizations.

As a prime example, it's a consortium of private companies that collaborates on the monthly Fourth Fridays Art Walk through the downtown district.

Public opinion is divided on the arts council proposition, with the owners of a prominent Wilmington art gallery staunchly supporting the actions of the county commissioners. "I don't see how you can go in front of elected officials and ask them for money that you don't know what you're going to do with," said David Leadman of Walls Fine Art Gallery.

His wife, Nancy Marshall, concurs. "They asked the county commissioners for $50,000 a year for five years. What are you going to do with it? Well, we don't know. Okay, so you're going to get this for matching funds. What it says here that you're setting aside $97,000 a year for salary, so you've just spent all the county money and all your matching funds on salary. What are you doing? We don't really know."

The couple was on the board of directors of the Lower Cape Fear Arts Council when it closed its doors in 2002, and that's the episode that gives rise to their current bouts of skepticism.

"We voted to give our president the right to shut it down," she said. "When we were on the board they had drifted and been invisible for a long time while spending $80,000 a year on salaries. And I don't think the job of an arts council is to provide two salaried positions."

At the conclusion of that debacle, doubts lingered that basic needs could be served in the absence of any sort of centralized arts organization. In particular, the community needed a cultural calendar, a web site that could be accessed freely by artists, the media and the public. Creative Wilmington briefly met this need but it too has met a fate similar to the arts council. One former board member is still trying to preserve a calendar and a sort of database of local talent online.

The couple suspects that a newly re-established arts council might not be up to tackling the big-picture challenges that have brought down the prior efforts.

"The problem is we have no center of culture in this community," said Leadman. "The cultural place in Charleston is a five-block area and that's where everything is." He points out that the Cameron Art Museum is in a remote corner of Wilmington, and several of the leading galleries are interspersed throughout the region. Even more to the point, Charleston promotes itself as a cultural destination.

"There are 78 art galleries in Charleston," he said. "It's because of the four million tourists walking the streets that is not necessarily beach tourism. The City of Charleston's population could never support 78 art galleries."

"Tourism in Wilmington is the beach and golf tournaments," Marshall added.

They would like to see a well-formulated plan putting a new arts council in a position to facilitate the creation of "estuaries," little feeder streams where new talent can enter the waters and find its way into the mainstream. "Where are the estuaries?" said Leadman.

"My point is, first of all, there would be not much art in museums if nobody supported the artist while he was alive. In the old days if you weren't royalty or the church there was no art being produced. They're the only ones that had the money."

"And then in the late 1800s and early 1900s it was the robber baron industrialists, the steel magnates that did all the collecting," said Marshall. "That provided all the art for the National Gallery in Washington, plus all the funding for those museums."

The sad fact is that when an artist can't make a living in the place he calls home, he tends to leave for greener pastures, taking off in search of that estuary. Nobody wants to see that happen to Wilmington's raw talent, and everybody has various thoughts on how to prevent it.

"If you're going to do a calendar and have it be a free service organized and run through the arts council, you're serving the artist because you're still looking for participation in advance," said Leadman. "They would have to market that not to the artist but to the community."

They believe some of the past failures were the result of great communication with artists, painters and photographers, but maybe not so much with attracting attention from the outside world at large.

"You have to be connected to somebody buying the tickets, going to the plays and concerts, and that was the connection that Creative Wilmington didn't have," said Marshall. "I think there were two businessmen on the board and the rest were all nonprofits. And they didn't understand the commerce aspect, or how to keep the artists interested in paying their $25 a year."

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Terms: Art In Wilmington

Art In Wilmington

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