Durham is in the process of uniting its cultural offerings and audiences into a master plan. What this will mean for the artists who live and work in Durham is an open question, as is the role of art in the larger context of culture.

City and county government has enlisted the Durham Arts Council to coordinate the plan, which is being prepared by Massachusetts-based consultants Wolf, Keens & Company, a private firm which has produced similar plans for dozens of other cities around the United States. A 62-member steering committee composed of political, business and cultural leaders is overseeing the process.

Using revenue from an occupancy tax enacted by the North Carolina legislature in 2001, county government has set aside $200,000 to fund the Durham Cultural Master Plan, along with $500,000 to implement it, starting in April, 2004.

What exactly will be implemented is not yet clear. Since planning began in March, there have been five on-site public forums and some 200 interviews. Consultants have visited Durham’s high schools, museums, the Hayti Heritage Center and Ringside. Culture, under their rubric, includes everything including historic preservation, parks, libraries and churches. The plan is also not limited to the artistic life of downtown Durham, as countywide meetings have attempted to draw input on the needs of specific neighborhoods.

But with the definition of culture so broad, what will the tangible results of this master plan be?

Charlotte”s history could be indicative.

The Queen City has had three master plans so far, the last two of which were prepared by Wolf, Keens. “All three of those plans have really driven the development of the cultural community here, and they each addressed very different things,” says Robert Bush, vice president of planning for the Arts & Sciences Council of Charlotte. At the time of the first plan in 1976, Charlotte had very limited public cultural offerings. “At that point there was no science center, no performing arts center, no urban artist colony, and no African American cultural center.” The 1991 plan by Wolf, Keens made it possible to build them, Bush says, and to go from funding 11 organizations to 28.

In the simplest terms, plans mean more money, because they allow arts organizations to focus their fundraising efforts on specific aspects that citizens have asked for. “We are now the second largest arts council in the United States,” Bush says proudly, “and we are the largest united arts fund in the U.S. We were not in 1991. The plans have been critical to our development.”

Margaret DeMott has seen massive changes in Durham’s cultural life in the 20 years she’s been at the Durham Arts Council. As director of artist services, she’s one of the coordinators of the planning process. She says the desire for a plan has been brewing for a long time, especially with other master plans in the works for downtown Durham, parks and recreation, and the Triangle Transit Authority.

“I think the impetus came from a realization that the community was changing rapidly, and it needed this larger vision of what it was changing into,” DeMott says. “We have this influx of talented and creative people who are all coming to live in one of the greatest communities in the country. So where are we going with all that energy?”

Paying close attention to these issues is critical to maintaining a high quality of cultural life, DeMott says. “Frankly one of the earmarks of a community that has its act together is that it has a cultural master plan. It essentially says, this is important, and it’s important enough that we went out and made a plan and a strategy for pursuing it.

“We need to be sure that we are taking care of the cultural community,” DeMott adds, “not just because the cultural community is a good thing in itself, but because it’s a really important ingredient for the entire growth of the community.”

Culture is good for community, but is that the same thing as saying that the community is good for the culture?

At a site visit last month at the Museum of Life and Science, Kate Dobbs Ariail, director of the nonprofit Liberty Arts organization, and Linda Belans, director of cultural services for Duke University Medical Center, were sitting next to each other when they discovered they shared a feeling of trepidation about the orientation of the planning.

“We were both beginning to feel as if the artist was getting lost in the discussion. The artist was becoming a vehicle for economic development that then became the tail wagging the dog,” Belans says. “I also got a little concerned that art as a challenging form was also getting lost. That everything should be pleasant. It was beginning to feel like, we have all these artists and we’ll tell them what we need.”

Ariail is particularly concerned about the difficult choices that come along with any public funding. “It’s become very easy for people to toss around the word ‘art’ or ‘arts,’ without making the critical distinction between creative activity and art-making,” she says. “It’s always going to be a hard choice. Where do public funds go? Do they go to provide some level of creative activity and artistic exposure to as many people as possible to the exclusion of the most evolved art forms that, maybe because they are difficult, don’t attract as many viewers? It’s a tough one. But if you don’t support art at the very highest level, then everything below that is degraded.”

So Belans and Ariail asked Wolf, Keens and the Arts Council if they could host an official meeting on the master plan to address those issues. They met last Tuesday in the Arts Council’s main gallery. About a dozen people attended: a playwright, a dancer, a librarian, a video producer, a visual artist and others who, in that way creative people do, wear multiple hats.

Lynette Turner, a consultant working with Wolf, Keens, also attended. When asked how input on Durham’s plan differs from others she’s worked on, she said, “Unlike a lot of the communities we work in where there’s not enough product, that’s not a problem here.”

The evening’s atmosphere was proof that art is already happening in Durham. The bright voices of the Triangle Gay Men’s Chorus echoed through the hallways, while outside a huge crowd struggled to park near the Carolina Theater for a concert. Not far away, Ninth Street was overflowing with people who had come to have their books signed by former President Jimmy Carter at the Regulator Bookshop.

Frank Hyman, a professional gardener and former Durham City councilman, said he was glad to see the county undertaking such a broadly democratic planning process. “There’s always a master plan,” he says. “Whoever writes the checks writes the master plan.”

Belans and Ariail asked people to think of language that could be used to talk to policymakers about why art is important. Ecological metaphors seemed to suit the group’s concerns: Artists are a keystone species in the cultural ecology; they may be few, but without them, the rest of the community falls apart. Another metaphor borrowed from economics: Art has a multiplier effect; when artists see other artists producing work somewhere, they’re inspired to produce work there too.

While it’s hard to imagine while looking at the empty storefronts of downtown Durham today, there was a lot of concern about gentrification, and that what is now a charmingly industrial place could become crowded and slick. The arts will make downtown Durham attractive, but if it becomes too attractive, the artists won’t be able to afford to live here anymore.

And so the master plan of the artists themselves becomes: How do we keep a piece of the pie after we’ve made it?

The discussion continues. Belans and Ariail say they’re even more convinced of the importance of the process, and they hope more people will attend future meetings. “You know what’s really beautiful about this?” Belans asks. “The whole concept of the cultural master plan and the way people respond to it does exactly what art does: It tells you about you.” EndBlock