Gov. Mike Easley’s election brought a change at the top of the state Department of Cultural Resources (DCR), which oversees a host of important institutions for the arts and humanities, including the N.C. Museum of Art, the state Arts Council, the N.C. Symphony, the State Library, the Division of Archives and History, and the N.C. Museum of History, in addition to many historic sites. After Secretary Betty Ray McCain, a close political ally of former Gov. Jim Hunt, stepped down, there was some speculation that Deputy Secretary Elizabeth F. Buford, a talented administrator who’s spent her career building the department, might be promoted. Instead, Easley chose Lisbeth C. “Libba” Evans, whose résumé lists business credentials and a lot of political experience but not much in the arts.
Evans earned an M.B.A. from Wake Forest University in 1978, and she’s worked in investment banking and in real estate, most recently as the owner of a real-estate consulting firm and majority shareholder in a pair of holding companies. She also started an e-business, since sold. She’s served on numerous boards, including the Winston-Salem Arts Council and the Penland School of Crafts. But it was her political experience that brought her to Raleigh: Since running unsuccessfully for Congress in 1994, she’s been chair of the state Democratic party and co-chair of the Women’s Campaign Fund; she’s also a “Friend of Mike” who backed Easley’s gubernatorial campaign from the start.
Her first hire: Judy Easley, former wife of one of Easley’s brothers. Easley’s title is assistant deputy secretary, and she’s assigned to work with arts boards and commissions around the state.
In an interview with The Independent, Evans said budget cuts will force arts groups to raise more money from private sources and make better use of technology to deliver services. Just four years ago, she noted, DCR’s budget was $99 million; in Easley’s proposed 2001-02 budget, it’s under $61 million. Evans thinks she can help with the tech portion of this equation: Her e-company started out as an arts database. She didn’t make any money that way–as many have discovered, it’s as tough selling art online as it is in a gallery–but it worked great selling Hanes and Bali underwear, “so we did it for Sara Lee [Corp.],” she said.
The Independent: Why did you want this job?
Evans: It’s the best job in state government. I didn’t particularly seek it. I was playing a lot of golf–but I really do like a fast pace. I worked hard for the governor, and I think they were looking for someone they knew.
How does your background prepare you for this job?
I’ve dabbled in the arts all my life. I think the governor picked me because I have lots of board background, I’m a self-starter, and someone he can trust. … I have some technological and business skills they thought wouldn’t be wasted here, and I do have a passion for the arts.
What changes are you making in the department?
Technology is a big one, and going back to a mission-based program based on art, history and libraries, and figuring out how to deliver to citizens cost-effectively. We are trying to do more cross-divisional discussions. Maybe a little more team playing. All our libraries in this state have good technology, but then we have arts organizations and historic sites that maybe don’t have what they need. We don’t run libraries but we give libraries the things that make them work, and want to do that for the other organizations. We want more synergism.
What things are you keeping the same?
The people here are wonderful. We hope we are going to continue to deliver the quality programs. We just hope it’ll be better and more professional. Unfortunately, with these budget cuts we may have to do away with some things. I’m trying to be a better advocate and communicate better with the budget people. We are most effective when we are doing things with new life. One of my jobs is to explain why we need to do project budgeting [for projects that span more than one budget cycle]. One of my things is to explain how we are different from some other state agencies. In 1998, the Department of Cultural Resources had a budget of $99 million. Now it is under $61 million in the current proposed budget. When you continue to cut like that you miss opportunities.
Your predecessor [McCain] was a very outgoing lady with a real talent for attracting friendly attention to DCR. What are you doing to maintain and enhance the public profile of the department?
Well, I’m not funny. My tendency is to convene more people around an issue. I may not be such a public figure. There’s a lot of talent here and I want those people to move the department forward.
DCR does not currently have a very diverse staff. Do you plan to change that, and if so, how?
We’re working hard on that–it is our number one priority. We can’t do anything right now, because of the hiring freeze. But there is a work plan in place for every division, and [Deputy Secretary] Betsy Buford gets the credit for this. It has to happen from the top, and you have to make it clear that diversity is what you expect. You need to hire folks who are not like you.
What major projects do you have planned for your tenure?
I want to make sure that all our archived art is shared around the state. We’ve got to be more efficient at sharing our treasures–and that’s something you can do with no money. … We’re working hard on the technology for every site. We’re going to have to look at alternative sources of funding. The good news there is that arts organizations in particular are already used to public/private partnerships. The ones that aren’t so skilled at that we are matching with those that are.
What do you believe the state’s role should be in siting art in public places?
I’m a big advocate of art in public places, but how it gets there–I don’t know the answer to that. With state-owned properties, we should be involved in how it gets there. There are all sorts of ways to get it there. Art belongs in public places, but how you pay for it, I’m not sure. I think public places should be encouraged to display art.
What kinds of art are you interested in personally?
I’m very interested in studio pottery. I love North Carolina artists: Bill Dunlap, Maude Gatewood, Ben Berns, Mark Hewitt. I’ve been involved with the Penland School for years.
What are your political ambitions?
I ran for Congress but I’m not interested in doing that again. But I’m smart enough to never say never again. There are no elective offices I’m looking at, but I’d like to encourage others to run.
What do you see yourself doing four years from now?
Gosh, I hope I’m alive and get to play golf again!