Art by Jane Cheek; Brooch and earrings, by Bongsang Cho and Rings and bracelet by Hsiang-Ting Yen. All artists are studio artists at Artspace.

“I’m settling in,” says Carly Jones. “It’s been a whirlwind, for sure. I’m learning how to be at the helm of an entire organization.”

The day before our phone conversation, the African American Cultural Festival presented Jones with its “Trailblazer in the Arts” award, and just three weeks prior, Artspace, one of the largest open-floor studio spaces for artists in the country, announced that it was naming Jones as its new chief executive officer.

Launched in 1986, the same year its new CEO was born, the Raleigh arts organization defines itself as a visual arts center that inspires positive community impact through art with access to working artist studios, exhibitions, and art education classes.

Over the phone, as we celebrate her most recent accomplishments with lots of laughter and high-pitched Black girl “OMGs,” Jones shares that she’d attended camp at Artspace, as a child, which makes this “full circle” milestone of hers even more special.

“Any arts institution has an obligation to their community to be in conversation with the community about what is happening in the world and what is happening around us. The arts are a powerful tool for conversation. It brings people together and makes sure voices that we don’t always hear are heard,” she says, the passion in her voice evident as she discusses the role of the arts and what she thinks the relationship between an arts organization and its community should look like and accomplish.

As a performing artist and seasoned arts administrator, the Raleigh native knows a thing or two, too.

“The fact that Artspace is in the middle of one of the fastest-growing areas in the country, we have an obligation to make a home for artists of all backgrounds during this time of growth,” Jones says. “There’s just so much potential for community collaboration and artist support. I want to do professional development workshops for artists. I want Artspace to be this buzzing hub of activity in the middle of our city where artists can collaborate and be supported and create.”

Born to an educator and a judge, Jones was an outspoken, energetic kid. An only child until she was eight, she was the natural center of attention. Her love for singing started early on. Like most kids, the nearest hairbrush was her faux mic for the many shows she staged for her mom and aunts.

The social aspect of her parents’ careers allowed her to mature fast and gave her the skill set to navigate a room full of adults. It also inspired her to seek out career paths that would offer opportunities to connect with people.

“Being raised by two public servants, I was always taught that success is not how much money you make,” she says. “Success is what you give back to your community. It’s how are you making this world a better place through your God-given talents? What are you doing to be able to make a difference?”

After realizing that she liked playing the role of a lawyer rather than being an actual lawyer, Jones pursued music as an undergrad at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, double majoring in vocal performance and Black music history, with a minor in arts administration.

“I remember telling my mentor [and] professor, Dr. Tammy Kernodle, ‘I wish there was a way that I could combine my love of public service with music and the arts, but I don’t know what that would look like,’” says Jones. “That was right when my university first started their minor in arts administration.”

Like most industries, arts administration is overwhelmingly white. According to The New York Times, when looking at upper-level leadership positions and board members, people of color are significantly underrepresented. The field also has built a reputation for having leaders who are not artists, and Jones is adamant about changing that.

“We need good arts administrators to work in funding, to work in granting organizations, to work at the helm of organizations, and it really helps, I think, for arts administrators to also be artists,” she says. “When you are an artist of any kind, you have an uncommon, burning desire to do what you do. Only other artists understand that passion.”

The passion Jones has when it comes to advocating for artists can be seen in her long list of accomplishments: she has previously served as music director and senior programs manager at the North Carolina Arts Council. During her tenure, she broadened the categories of Council fellowships to make the opportunities more inclusive. This resulted in the first songwriting fellowship recipient being a hip-hop artist.

Collaborating with the African American Heritage Commission and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Jones worked on the Nina Simone Childhood Home project where she curated events to raise awareness and funds to sustain the preservation. She also helped curate and roll out the campaign for Come Hear NC, a digital and in-person celebration of our state’s music. She was also the mastermind behind the governor’s mansion’s “Music at the Mansion” series.

“I brought in different musicians from all over the state, and I made sure that they were from different demographics and music genres,” she says. “I wanted to also make sure that we did not just have concerts in the governor’s mansion. I wanted to make sure that the audience was filled with people from the artists [and] music performers community. It was truly the people’s house.”

In 2019, she helped North Carolina hip-hop legends Phonte and rapper Pooh get their two-part documentary Homecoming and The Listening funded, produced, and published.

At the start of the pandemic, Jones along with her co-worker Sandra Davidson produced a virtual music festival, “Under One Roof,” which raised money for North Carolina artists. In response to the pandemic, viewers were encouraged to donate to the North Carolina Arts Foundation, a nonprofit established in 2013 to promote the growth and sustainability of the N.C. Arts Council.

“I’m excited to build upon an already strong infrastructure and create something that will bring artists and community members together to collaborate, create, and help our creative community in Raleigh,” Jones says of the future of Artspace. “I’m most excited about being able to create a hub for artists from all backgrounds—Black artists, Brown artists, artists with disabilities. I want to make sure that there is a permanent place here in this city, which is one of the fastest-growing areas in the country. I want to expand the reach beyond the city. I’m talking a lot about the city but our space has the potential to have statewide, regional, and national reach. And I plan on moving that forward.”

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