Last March, as concerns about COVID-19 began to mount, former INDY arts and culture editor Brian Howe spoke to dozens of artists and musicians as they faced the first wave of cancellations. 

“When an artist loses a gig,” Howe wrote, “the effects ripple out beyond the artist.”

As we round the corner to a full year of life in a pandemic, the seriousness of those effects have come into focus.

The arts have always been hugely generative in North Carolina: In the Triangle alone, according to a study by the Americans for the Arts, the arts have previously accounted for more than 31,000 full-time jobs and nearly $850 million in annual economic activity. Charles Phaneuf, president of the United Arts Council of Raleigh and Wake County, says that since the pandemic the unemployment rate in the artistic sector is 36 percent, and many artists have lost more than half of their income.

“We’re one year into this and we’re not sure how much further we have to go,” Phaneuf says. 

On Thursday, March 11, the United Arts Council of Raleigh and Wake County, alongside The Chatham Arts Council, the Durham Arts Council, and the Orange County Arts Commission, are hosting the fundraising event “Big Night In for the Arts.” The event, a partnership with WRAL-TV, will be broadcast live at 7 p.m. with closed captioning. 

Programming includes acts like root duo Mandolin Orange and the saxophonist Branford Marsalis (who recently scored Netflix’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), and ACM and CMT award-winning country music artist Scott McCreery. 

“Our local arts communities need support now more than ever. This pandemic has been challenging in so many ways,” singer, dancer and actress Ariana DeBose said in a press release. “Millions of people have suffered, entire industries have been brought to their knees with no relief in sight. In times of trouble, people turn to the arts. Now is the time for us to show up for each other in a radical way.”

The money raised from the event—which has more than 70 corporate sponsors—will go toward arts programming, artist and arts relief, and initiatives for equity in the arts. 

“The arts are what helps us to heal and the arts are going to help us recover in a lot of ways. Not just economically—obviously, the arts are a big draw for the entire Triangle—but just emotionally,” says Sherry DeVries, executive director of the Durham Arts Council. “The arts are how people connect with each other and how they can express everything, from something joyful to something extremely painful.”

While there was a wave of public support for the arts around this time last year, the “need for ongoing funding,” DeVries emphasizes, is critical if we want the Triangle’s arts community to not only survive this period, but reemerge and rebuild on the other side of the pandemic. 

Organizers of the event are optimistic that the evening’s virtual performances will bring people together to watch and communities together to rally support. A virtual preview party will kick off at 6:30 p.m., which can be streamed on YouTube and Facebook, followed by the performances, which can be streamed on WRAL-TV, through or the WRAL app.

“The response has been tremendous,” Phaneuf says, “so who knows what doors this will open for the arts in the future!” 

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