Karen Wells vividly remembers March 5, 2003, as life altering. That day, Gov. Easley cut $665,000 in support to the North Carolina Arts Council’s grant program that is the lifeblood for arts in the state. “It was a life transforming moment,” said Wells, the director of ARTS North Carolina. “It became suddenly clear to me that the message of the NCAC–what the arts bring to communities–had not been clearly communicated to the Governor. We had become ‘faceless.’ It was the blinding flash of the obvious. Something had to be done.”
What amounted to a 12.8 percent cut in the Arts Council’s competitive and grassroots grants program for 2003-2004 would have devastated the arts community, which relies on state disbursements to NCAC for general support or specific project funding. The cut would have precipitated the demise of smaller arts groups that were already struggling to stay afloat. Since Easley had taken office, there had already been significant slashes to arts funding. If this cut were to pass, funding for the arts would have suffered a 42 percent total decrease over the past three years. “It was,” Wells recalls, “unfair and potentially disastrous.”
The governor’s action was unexpected, Wells says, but in hindsight there had been warning signs. “North Carolina has had a healthy legacy of government leadership in developing the arts. Through the 1970s and ’80s it was phenomenal. I can’t say we rested on our laurels, but we had failed to respond to a series of blows that began with the politicizing of the arts in the early 1990s.” Natural disasters also drained government coffers, as did legal actions. Easley was looking to mitigate an $800,000 deficit and the arts were undefended prey. “We needed a quick and effective course of action, a shotgun approach to educating the legislators, and then a narrowing of our strategy to get those cuts restored.”
ARTS NC was then a fledgling advocacy organization. But within days Wells had “shotgunned” its 300 members and nearly 850 arts organizations in over 90 counties with an urgent “Call to Action.” ARTS NC’s Board President David zum Brunnen, lobbyist Keith Martin and 24 members moved quickly to involve key people in the fight. Word rapidly spread that the governor’s cuts to the Arts Council were disproportionate to other Department of Cultural Resources agencies that had not suffered cuts.
An unprecedented campaign to restore arts funding kicked off at Arts Day 2003, a statewide meeting for arts educators and advocates. Informal caucuses gathered momentum. Wells told her constituents, “We remain absolutely steadfast in our conviction that if the arts industry unites in this message, if we are articulate and impassioned in our communications, then we can successfully change the recommendation of the governor’s budget. But we must know the facts and be willing to accept the role of activist for the next nine months.” The key, she later said, was to keep the message “urgent but not hopeless.”
Wells is a handsome woman with ash blond hair and clear blue eyes. She came to ARTS NC from the N.C. Arts Council, where for five years she served as Performance Arts Director. Previously she had worked for the Arts Council of Wilson. She understands how essential the arts are to the well-being of communities. “Art transforms individuals and whole communities,” she says. “It changes economies, changes the educational experience, changes the whole civic life.”
But while she was educating the bureaucracy, she also got a quick education on how government works. “I am a theater person,” she laughs. “Thank God for improvisation.”
The legislature and other elected officials were bombarded with some 1,000 emails with the arts advocates’ message: “No disproportionate cuts to the arts.” That demand and hundreds of personal stories about the local impact of the arts reached the governor’s office. One week before the new budget was scheduled for passage, the cuts to the arts were restored. In fact, the total arts funding in North Carolina for fiscal year 2003-2004 actually increased by $377,000.
“ARTS NC proved that a board, [a] diverse coalition that sticks together can come out stronger, even in the face of adversity,” observes Gita Gulati-Partee, president of OpenSource Leadership Strategies and a former program director at the N.C. Center for NonProfits.
Taking her cue from the traumatic events of 2003, Wells has initiated the state’s first awareness campaign to promote the indispensable role of the arts in North Carolina’s economy, education and civic health. The collaborative effort involves about 12 organizations representing a range of arts disciplines, among them the North Carolina Arts Council, Dance Alliance, Symphony, Writer’s Network, Poetry Society and Folk Lore Society. ARTS NC’s website (
www.artsnc.org) is continuously updated with legislative news that could potentially threaten the arts. Even a newly proposed House bill to require children to participate in at least 150 minutes of physical education per week could jeopardize the time allotted to the arts in schools and precipitate program cuts, notes Wells.
“North Carolinians are fortunate to have Arts North Carolina hard at work for them to make the arts in our communities vibrant, our citizens productive and our economy strong, ” says Mary Regan, Executive Director of the North Carolina Arts Council.
ARTS Day is now a yearly advocacy event, providing training and networking for activists who come from across the state. There is little doubt that the arts community will remain vigilant. As ARTS NC outgoing president David zum Brunnen observes, “The day of the ‘arts as victim’ is gone.”