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Arts Council Executive Director sees cultural landscape as key economic driver

When many people think of the arts, they think of creative geniuses, bohemian characters – perhaps even flightiness or fluff.

Few would characterize the arts as a key growth factor for a municipality.  But national, state, and local statistics point to the fact that a thriving arts community often means a bustling local economy. 

WHQR’s Rachel Lewis Hilburn sat down with Rhonda Bellamy, Executive Director of the Arts Council of Wilmington and New Hanover County, to find out what’s on the horizon for Wilmington’s cultural community -- and how Bellamy plans to turn the arts into an economic driver.

“It already is an economic driver.  And what I’m trying to do is to position the Arts Council to be the one voice that continually drives home the message that arts equals dollars.” 

Bellamy cites a recent economic study conducted by Americans for the Arts.  It shows that arts organizations in New Hanover County support nearly 800 jobs, spend about 21 million dollars, and contribute more than two million in state and local taxes. 

“This is not chump change.  This is serious business.  And we have to find a way to coalesce all of that so that that worth is translated into economic opportunities for the community.” 

In addition to dollars flowing directly through arts-related businesses, there’s also an indirect fiscal impact.  Bellamy says companies are drawn to communities that can offer a robust cultural scene. 

“We already have the natural beauty of the beach and the river.  We need to capitalize on the natural talent.”

Several attempts to create an arts council – or a council-like organization – have had varying degrees of success.  At least two of those now-defunct groups – Creative Wilmington and the Greater Wilmington Arts and Cultural Alliance – or GWACA – passed along what was left in their coffers to the new Arts Council.  So what will the Arts Council do with that money – and what will it do for local artists? 

“Arts Councils vary from place to place – depending on the needs of the artist and arts community… but here in Wilmington, we need an umbrella organization to coalesce all of the 150 arts organizations and 3,000 creative industry workers that we have in this area.” 

Without an arts council, says Bellamy, the area loses out on state and national dollars that go to other communities. 

“Because we are not at the table.  We don’t have one entity that’s at the table advocating for the entire arts community.”   Getting the Council up and running effectively is Bellamy’s first order of business. 

“And to do that, there are a number of benchmarks I’ll be meeting:  the development of a board, keeping the office staffed, fundraising, creating the marketing plan… these are some very tangible things that are going to happen over the next six to twelve months.” 

And that agenda is eminently achievable, says Bellamy. 

“What do you think is going to be the biggest challenge facing you in terms of getting all of this underway?  Not moving fast enough.  Not moving fast enough.  The process has to play out.  And I’m not a frivolous person.  Everything is measured.  But let’s move it on.  Let’s do it.  You know.” 

Rachel hosts and produces CoastLine, an award-winning hourlong conversation featuring artists, humanitarians, scholars, and innovators in North Carolina. The show airs Wednesdays at noon and Sundays at 2 pm on 91.3 FM WHQR Public Media. It's also available as a podcast; just search CoastLine WHQR. You can reach her at rachellh@whqr.org.