When I started covering the arts in the Triangle twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have predicted that the internet would now be the arena, not the annex, of cultural performance. So I doubt I can guess what 2040 will bring. 

But looking at the future is just an urgent way of looking at the present. When considering local art’s trajectory, it’s useful to consider Durham now, as the city weighs a proposal to invest $1.2 million in local artists. 

Artists here are used to doing things for themselves, and getting the city’s attention was no exception. Exasperated by years of privation and the loss of venues such as Manbites Dog and The Carrack, a group of local artists started showing up at city council work sessions in August, seeking to persuade the city, which earns tax revenue from the livability benefits they provide, to repay them in kind.

This full-court press was spearheaded by the novelist and playwright Monica Byrne. Bulldog Ensemble Theater members Akiva Fox and Marshall Botvinick became her most consistent collaborators, as each developed their own one-on-one relationships with council members. 

“I was just mad,” Byrne says. “I was getting increasingly frustrated at just watching all the independent venues and artists I most loved getting snuffed out, one by one, and the city not doing anything about it. The Carrack was sort of the tipping point.”

In October, at the suggestion of council member Jillian Johnson, Byrne, Fox, and Botvinick wrote a preliminary proposal. It initially included subsidizing space for artists—a nonstarter, as Mayor Steve Schewel thought those needs could best be met with private funding. But overall, the mayor is supportive. In November, he sent a letter to the Durham Cultural Advisory Board, asking it to evaluate the proposal by February so the council could decide whether to include it in next year’s budget. 

On December 20, a new version of the proposal landed in municipal inboxes. It would distribute $1.2 million to organizations and artists, with the Durham Arts Council handling about $800,000 in organizational grants—for operating costs and projects—and the Hayti Heritage Center handling about $400,000 in individual grants and fellowships. 

That bit about operating costs is key. At one recent council session, Carrack founder Laura Ritchie explained that the community gallery closed not because it lacked private support, but because it lacked consistent operational funding. While there are project-based state and city grants available to Durham artists, the only existing grants for operations are relatively paltry, and they come with requirements that staff-strapped organizations are hard-pressed to meet.   

The proposal resembles what Raleigh is already doing, but with one major difference. According to the local arts-advocacy group Art Ain’t Innocent, which helped shape the proposal’s emphasis on racial equity, history has proven that bias training, lottery systems, and good intentions aren’t enough to displace the white supremacy entrenched in the grant process. 

Because more than half of Durham’s residents are people of color who have been “disproportionately displaced and disadvantaged,” the proposal says, “we ask that the city find legal grounds and/or precedent to mandate that at least 50 percent of the new funding be awarded to artists of color.” 

The artists hope that Durham’s Equal Business Opportunity Program, which seeks to ameliorate imbalances of race and gender in the city’s contracting, can serve as a precedent to do something similar for artists. 

One arts-granting program isn’t a magic bullet, but it is representative of Durham’s commitment to the artists that fuel its development. As a thought experiment, let’s imagine ourselves standing before three branching paths. Where might each take us in twenty years?

In one, the council votes down the proposal entirely. Downtown is nothing but bars, restaurants, and condos. Other than local music, the arts consist of whatever is touring through DPAC and The Carolina Theatre, with chichi commercial galleries here and there. But otherwise, the independent artists who give the city its soul have all fled to somewhere like Rougemont to establish an arts outpost, briefly utopian before it, too, draws the attention of developers, and the whole process of gentrification and displacement begins again. 

In the second, Durham passes the proposal without the diversity measures. The city keeps its scrappy independent art scene; maybe it grows. But it’s still too white, too concentrated in the zones where artists who have the class privilege to create under adverse circumstances hang out.  

In the third possible future, Durham passes the proposal and cracks the diversity problem. The art scene becomes more vibrant and evenly distributed, from downtown to East Durham, than ever before. Artists of color, female artists, nonbinary and LGBTQ artists, and poor artists rise into leadership roles and unleash new organizations, new ideas, and new energies worthy of a progressive city. 

If Durham can’t do it, who can?

“The point is that art is not just treated as just a hobby,” Byrne says. “It is treated as the vital lifeblood of the city, and Javiera’s daughter, twenty years from now, can have a career as an artist in Durham, or whatever she wants.”

She’s referring to something council member Javiera Caballero said at the end of a work session on December 19. 

“I will be honest and say that when this first started, as a leader in the community, when we have so many needs, sometimes you’re a little bit like, really? Between affordable housing and public safety, how are we going to find capacity to do this well on top of it?” Caballero said. “My sister is an English professor who wanted to be a poet. My husband is an architect who wanted to be an artist. … I have a daughter who’s an incredible artist, and I would like her to have that opportunity, not to be denied that because there’s not funding and an adequate livelihood for her. So I really appreciate you all pushing me on my own thinking on this.”

By the time DCAB gives its recommendation to the city council in February, the proposal will have been refined through community feedback (email yours to dcab@durhamnc.gov). I don’t know about you, but I’m liking path number three an awful lot.

Correction: The Hayti Heritage Center will administer $400,000 in grants, not $40,000.

Contact arts and culture editor Brian Howe at bhowe@indyweek.com. Click here to read the rest of our 2040 predictions. 

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