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An Arts Council in Wilmington: Is Now the Time?

By Michelle Bliss


03-11-11 – Several arts advocates in Wilmington have banded together to propose a local arts council. They're making a request to county commissioners on Monday for $50,000 per year, for five years. They've asked the same of city council. The state has already pledged money in support, but those dollars could disappear early next month if the group can't secure other funds.

WHQR's Michelle Bliss spoke with committee members and commissioners and has this story, which begins at the DREAMS Center for Arts Education in Wilmington.

Suzanne Palmer's Creative Movement class of 8, 9, and 10-year-olds meets every week at the DREAMS center, which is housed in an old Baptist church.

Palmer's students lunge and twirl and slide around, right in front the altar. Sometimes they dance among the red-cushioned pews.

DREAMS was founded 14 years ago to bring the arts to underprivileged children and their families. They served 690 kids last year.

Executive Director Tracy Wilkes, works within the maze of former church offices. She's a member of the arts council steering committee and says relying on disparate artists to patch the gap that an arts council would fill, is no longer enough.

"It needs to be a full-fledged advocacy and marketing effort. That's what Asheville has done. And, you know, we're sitting on a gold mine of opportunity here."

That opportunity includes a pledge of $25,000, renewable for up to three years, from the North Carolina Arts Council.

Philip Gerard is a state arts council board member and a WHQR commentator. He says the effort would be a new economic force in the community.

"The arts council is an extremely small buy-in, large dividend way to spur economic development and to spur the kind of economic development we want that raises the quality of life, even as it raises the tax base."

Back in the chapel, Palmer's dance class is performing another exercise one of their favorites called "Machine."

Tracy Wilkes likes to take breaks from her administrative duties to peek into classrooms where students are singing or sculpting or maybe just playing tag. She says that without an arts council, DREAMS is missing out on state and federal grants, which can go a long way.

"When I hear things like, 'Well, your community could be getting so many more grants and DREAMS could be one of the recipients, but you need an arts council,' I take it on a real personal level."

With budget shortfalls surmounting, some argue that now is not the time to commit public dollars to a new venture. County Commissioner Rick Catlin:

"It's my opinion that this year there will be city and county employees who have to go home and tell their families that they've lost their jobs due to the decisions that we're going to have to make And out of respect for those folks, I will have a very difficult time spending county money for an organization that, in my opinion, could get started on its own."

Catlin is a board member for the Bellamy Mansion Museum and the Wilmington Symphony Orchestra. Both organizations operate without local government funding and Catlin says the arts council should do the same.

"Even if times were good, I would encourage the arts council to do their best to be privately funded, at least locally."

Philip Gerard disagrees and says that a lack of public funding sunk the last two arts councils.

Now is not the time to shy away from long-term planning, he says, citing the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad's departure from Wilmington in 1960 when politicians and business leaders could have hunkered down to wait out the storm.

"They were much more visionary than that and braver than they. They built a new bridge to connect Brunswick County; they decided to put money into the university, knowing it would become a driver for the economy. It think this is similar time."

If the county doesn't provide funding, Gerard says he fears that the city won't, either. He says that's fair--we're all in this together.

But if that happens, it's unclear how soon community support and state funding will align once again.

Do you have insight or expertise on this topic? If so, we'd like to hear from you. Please email the WHQR News Team.