Don’t think of it as art. Think of it as college basketball.

Around 60 years ago, nobody cared much about college hoops in the Triangle. Football was king. But N.C. State’s football program couldn’t match the powerhouses at UNC and Duke (!), and the school decided it would make its name in basketball.

As explained to me by our sports columnist, Barry Jacobs (the author of Golden Glory: The First 50 years of the ACC), State lured Indiana high school coach Everett Case, and nothing was the same. Case wasn’t just a great coach, he was a showman and motivator. His teams dominated the region for a decade, shaming UNC into reaching to New York for coach Frank McGuire and Duke into hiring a Case assistant, Dick Bubas. And once the ball was rolling, there was no stopping it.

The point is: Basketball didn’t always rule on tobacco road. But focusing on a fledgling interest–through support for talented people who, in turn, brought in other great talents–created momentum. Fans became knowledgeable critics who appreciated great work when they saw it.

So what’s that got to do with this year’s Indies, our Triangle Arts Awards? It explains why the graphic artists at Designbox, the Paperhand puppeteers, the Collage dance troupe, John Lambert’s online classical music forum, the Women’s Voices Chorus, the musicians of pulseoptional, poets Patrick Herron and Ken Rumble, and the Durham School of the Arts’ production of The Laramie Project are so important. They are teaching us to appreciate great work. All they ask is that we show our support.

But somewhere since the bottom-up creation of our basketball culture, we’ve forgotten how to do that. Prodded by misinterpretations of Richard Florida’s idea of the creative class, we’ve decided we can make the arts our next economic engine by building $31 million theaters and letting artists stay downtown a little while, just until they give the area some cachet and investors can turn over $300,000 condos.

Instead, we should think small–the way Case valued quickness and skill. Rather than pumping millions into speculative venues, we should be asking the artists what they need, helping them with grants, affordable housing and small business loans. That way, artists will thrive and the community will profit, not just from the young professionals attracted by a vibrant arts scene, but from the joy we gain from their work. Let that happen and, like the transition from Woollen to the Dean Dome and Reynolds to RBC, the venues will follow. And if we do it right, there’ll always be the intimacy of a Cameron.