Desperate times brought them together: Blindsided by $665,000 in proposed cuts for arts funding in Gov. Mike Easley’s initial 2003-2004 budget–and what would have been a total 42 percent cut in funding for the North Carolina Arts Council since Easley took office–artists and concerned citizens across the state organized in 2003 and became politically active to an unprecedented degree.

As word of the proposed cuts spread, a series of previously-scheduled regional NCAC information meetings in spring 2003 were abruptly joined by separate seminars in activism for beginners, sponsored by the then fledgling arts advocacy group Arts North Carolina. These impromptu caucuses gathered the strength of numbers, and refined a message to send to the Governor and the State Legislature.

Which is how “No disproportionate cuts” became the subject of thousands of e-mails, letters, phone calls and personal visits to the Governor’s office, the Department of Cultural Resources and legislators during the first half of 2003. Indeed, the flood of communiques caused Cultural Resources Secretary Libba Evans’ computer to crash on more than one occasion.

Arts N.C. coordinated the campaign, and kept activists aware of crucial dates in the budgeting process through e-mail-based “Calls to Action.” The group’s first major public demonstration was at Arts Day, a statewide meeting for arts educators and advocates to visit their senators and representatives at the General Assembly and make the case for arts funding.

Activism continued after Arts Day. And activism worked: The proposed budget cuts were all but zeroed out. Including one-time allocations, arts funding in North Carolina actually increased last year by $377,000.

Of course, the state’s economic future remained in doubt at the end of last summer. And the second year of Easley’s proposed budget still contained over $400,000 in cuts for the arts in fiscal 2004-2005.

But then spring 2004 brought word of a budgetary surplus. This month, the governor’s Executive Budget Summary for 2004-2005 recommended restoring funding from previously proposed cuts in the NCAC’s grants programs and additional funding for the Museum of Art.

Then the day before Arts Day 2004, the NCAC released the results of an independent economic impact study on North Carolina nonprofit arts groups. Conducted by Appalachian State University’s business school, it revealed, among other things, that one in every eight North Carolinians is an active arts supporter, member or volunteer–and that the nonprofit creative sector alone has a yearly economic impact of $723 million in North Carolina.

That number does not include the economic contributions of commercial arts, education, film, crafts or individual artists–all of which have been or will be considered in separate studies. Preliminary numbers already in from those quarters suggest a total yearly creative industry economic impact measured in the billions.

Combined, these developments put quite a different spin on Arts Day 2004. Two hundred twenty arts supporters gathered over breakfast in the Legislative Building on May 11 to express thanks for achievements already realized and to focus on goals ahead. This year, 70 legislators were included in that number.

“I’ve been to this several years,” C. Jane Johnson of Catawba’s Key Players said, “and I felt that the attitude was so much more upbeat this year.” Deborah Mintz, executive director for the Arts Council of Cumberland County, concurred: “It’s thrilling how far we’ve come in one year’s time. A year ago we were facing huge cuts, and people were telling us that because the economy was so bad there was no hope. What we all said was that there’s hope until the buttons are pushed.”

“I do feel that we’re reaching more people,” observed Noel Grady-Smith, a dance teacher at Mineral Springs Middle A+ Academy, and a member of USA Today’s 2002-2003 All-American Teacher Team. “And the less strident our message, the more willing I think our participants are to listen.

“We in the arts have always had this lean, mean kind of demeanor,” she continued, “and it’s been interesting to see people very graciously accepting progress instead of feeling as though we’re scrambling up a hill. Even if we feel that way internally, our demeanor now seems very secure. I find that quite different from even five years ago. The instructions then were literally to go and beg.”

Without doubt, the orders are different now. Outgoing Arts N.C. president David zum Brunnen put it bluntly the night before, at an advocacy workshop for new members: “The day of the ‘arts as victim’ is gone.” Both this year and last, arts leaders have capitalized on data emphasizing the fundamental contributions of the arts in education, community building and particularly economic development. Activists underlined research last year that indicated a 24-to-1 dividend to the community for every state dollar invested in nonprofit arts grants.

It’s a message that seems to have considerable traction in the Legislature. “The vast majority of the legislators and the leadership–if not all of the leadership–gets it,” says zum Brunnen, after morning meetings with leaders on the crucial Appropriations Committee. “They get the message that we’ve delivered over the past few years, and they see we’re delivering it more effectively.

“Last year, a lot of folks were saying, ‘Don’t know, don’t know; you have our support and we’ll do our best, but we need to keep hearing from you during the whole process,’” zum Brunnen continues. “Every conversation I had this morning was encouraging and basically assured support. This year, it’s like ‘We know the message and it’s quite clear what you’re telling us, and we acknowledge the validity of it.’”

Terry Milner, executive director of the North Carolina Theater Conference, concurs. “People are getting the message that without a ‘cultural soul’ in your community, you’re not going to have economic development. Without a reason to be here other than a job, people are not going to stay here and grow a community and feel a sense of belonging. They’re just not going to do it.”

Among the tables at breakfast there’s talk of what was narrowly avoided. Executive director Noelle Scott of the Cabarrus County Arts Council says that some of an already small handful of groups in her county “would have failed” if grassroots grants had not been restored last year. “They’ve done a fabulous job of building their boards and their membership, bringing in lecturers and demonstrations that they couldn’t afford otherwise. If that money had not been there, those major groups might not be here today.”

“Without a doubt, siphoning off $600,000 out of the grassroots arts programs would have shut down many small-county and low-wealth-county art councils,” Milner says, “which would have ended school programs and community-based programs for after-school art activities in those counties. There’s no question the state would have been poorer with out them.”

Last year’s restored support “allowed us to reach out and extend education-based programs into the schools, beyond just the people who could pay for it by purchasing a ticket,” said Bruce LaRowe, executive director for Children’s Theatre of Charlotte.

Others note the distance left to go. “In 2000 we had almost twice the grassroots money that we have today to provide funding for arts programs in the county,” observes Mintz. Jennifer Czechlewski, development director for Wilmington’s Thalian Hall, agrees. “We were able to bring Carlota Santana down in 2000 for master classes with 25 students of Hispanic descent from Pender County. We haven’t been able to implement those types of programs since then because we don’t have the funding available to us.”

One of the activists’ immediate goals is to restore arts funding to the levels in 2000, when the state devoted $1.00 per person to funding the NCAC. Last year’s funding level–after restorations–was 63 cents per capita.

Activists talk of the varying roles the arts fill. Cabarrus County Arts Council has been working with various municipalities in the wake of the Pillow-Tex closing in Kannapolis to improve the image of the entire area. According to Scott, it’s “a big part of what we do.” Donna Bost Heins, executive director for Playmakers Repertory Company, looks at retirement communities that dot the countryside when observing, “Those people are choosing us because of the quality of life that is here.” Carrboro ArtsCenter’s Jon Wilner wants to connect arts to the curriculum in public schools.

Small wonder LaRowe concludes, “We think we’ve got a great message in service to the citizens of North Carolina.”

“There was a totally different tone to things this year,” notes Mary Regan, executive director of the NCAC. “Some legislators I saw afterwards said they noticed it was so different–because the arts people were thanking them for what they did the year before.”

“The field has matured a lot in the last couple of years, advocacy-wise,” she continues. “With such a challenge, more arts people got actively involved, and they got experience talking to legislators, making their points and focusing on what the best message is. They got experience last year, and it showed this year.”

At this writing, the General Government combined committees of the state legislature are charged with cutting $7 million from the Governor’s recommendations. Since the full body wants to adjourn by July, deliberations will accelerate over the next few weeks.

One thing seems reasonably certain: the arts community will keep an eagle eye on things until the final gavel. Why? The cue is in the motto of Arts N.C., on their website at : “Live Expectantly. Be Prepared. Take Action.” EndBlock