It’s a few moments before noon on Arts Day 2010, and Courtyard 1200, a spacious, bright interior lobby in one corner of the state Legislative Building on Jones Street, is a beehive of activity. The mood is upbeat as dozens of arts activists come and go, snagging a box lunch and a chair at one of the tables among the marble benches and greenery that surround a small pool in the center. They chat about meetings they’ve had this morning with lawmakers, or meetings they’re off to in a moment.

But these self-styled advocates aren’t professional lobbyists or seasoned party functionaries accustomed to working the building’s three-story maze of gray corridors, tiny offices and open spacesthemselves a metaphor for the maze of public opinion and political possibility.

One of the women serving sandwiches is Michelle Pearson, a local choreographer whom the U.S. State Department is shortly sending to South Africa. She’ll help medical workers there create public presentations to combat the practice of female mutilation still commonplace in the country’s villages. The couple in the corner is a husband-and-wife songwriting duo from outside Charlotte who are establishing themselves as independent music artists. A fourth, Feather Phillips, is executive director of a folk art school and crafts gallery in a small town on the coast.

Near them, a local stage artist and director of development describes how not a big deal it was to join their colleagues to meet, for three to five minutes, with their representatives, senators or legislative assistants. “At first I thought I was going to have to give some sort of presentation,” says Emily Ranii of her first-time experience, “until I realized we were all going to be there, and all I had to do was talk about the one thing that mattered to me most.”

Many of the 310 participants have had only minimal activism training”Activism 101,” Karen Wells calls it. Over the past decade, she’s conducted hundreds of such introductions to the hands-on democratic process as executive director of Arts North Carolina, the sponsor of these annual events.

“It’s probably taken us a good 25 years to understand how to tell our story,” says award-winning activist and former Arts Council chair Margaret “Tog ” Newman, “and to understand the structure required to tell the story. Now we are smart enough to know that if we don’t speak with one voice, nobody can hear. The reason there are over 300 people [at Arts Day] this year is because we have finally understood that the numbers make a difference and that the message makes a difference.”

And as a result, she and her colleagues have largely turned around the story of arts development, funding and its public image in North Carolina. One measure of their success is in the numbers from the National Association of State Arts Agencies: North Carolina Arts Council funding has grown, on average, nearly 7 percent annually since 2001, when it formed out of several advocacy organizations. Compare that to the rest of the nation during the same period, where, on average, there was an annual decline of more than 4 percent, with even worse funding cuts in the other Southern states.

Those differences in funding have grown markedly more dramatic since the start of the recession in 2007. Though the rate of reduced funding has actually decreased across the country as a whole, the rest of the South has seen an average cut of more than 50 percent in arts council funding over the past three years.

Meanwhile, in North Carolina, cutsand funding increasesduring the recession have resulted in an average net gain of nearly 6 percent. And state funds are going not only to established groups in major cities but also are helping to jumpstart economically disadvantaged communities.

There are other factors in the arts community’s increasing political influence in Raleigh. “Creativity, Inc,” the 2010 Institute for Emerging Issues forum sponsored by the N.C. State University-based think tank, was devoted solely to issues involving creativity in commerce and education. A report from the forum, “New Thinking, New Jobs,” termed creative thinking “the world’s most valued commodity” and drew on research indicating that “right brain” skills, including creativity, problem solving, communication and collaboration, are now the most sought-after skills by top employers.

Employers are taking note. What N.C. Arts Council Research Director Ardath Weaver called “the creative industry” has generated 293,000 jobs across the state5.5 percent of the total workforce. It currently generates $41.4 billion (“with a ‘b,’” Weaver stresses) in goods and services each yeara little under 6 percent of the state’s total production output.

According to N.C. Department of Commerce figures, those jobs pay an average of $59,200 per year, well above the $36,700 average for state workers. Within the last year, the number of creative jobs increased faster in North Carolina than the number of similar jobs in the U.S. Moreover, an analysis of job loss shows that creative occupations shed jobs at about half the rate of all occupations, and that these jobs are proving “particularly sticky” in the rural areas that have been particularly hit by the economic downturn.

The “New Thinking, New Jobs” report concludes, “If North Carolina is to remain competitive in this new economic era, our 21st century job strategy must focus on creativity, imagination and invention.”

It’s a note a number of speakers return to repeatedly during the Arts Day forums this year. “Creativity means business,” Cultural Resources Secretary Linda Carlisle intoned at the start of her remarks. She later observed that although a number of the state’s industries have long since outsourced their manufacturing, “they’re not outsourcing the design and creativity.” At one point she puts it bluntly. “Let’s face it. The only way we’re going to get out of this economic mess we’re in is to create our way out.”

N.C. Commerce Secretary Keith Crisco is quoted in forum handouts as calling the arts “the fiber of economic development.”

So state funds aren’t just underwriting theater companies and galleries anymore. Margaret Collins, director for Creative Enterprises and the Arts at the Piedmont Triad Partnership, a 12-county consortium, notes that they’re supporting the creation of a world-class center for architectural and interactive design in the center of the state. Feather Phillips, with the Pocosin Folk Arts School, points to a coastal program training metalsmiths who could find jobs in an economically disadvantaged community.

At one time there was no arts activism. “Thirty to 40 years ago, if you were talking about arts most legislators would have thought of the art museum and the symphony, and that’s about it,” says lobbyist Franklin Freeman, whose four-decade career in the Legislature includes positions on the staff of two former governors.

“Back in the old days, arts days were simply to amass bodies and attach names with faces. It was sort of like city council meetings: ‘Everybody who’s here because of this issue, stand up!’” notes Wake County arts activist Mark Tulbert. “But it moved from just being bodies in a room to crafting and adapting a particular message that has continued to evolve as we’ve gotten closer to this day.”

It’s not the kind of outcome that might have been predicted, given the setback Arts North Carolina was handed shortly after its formation in 2001. Without warning, then-governor Mike Easley proposed a total of 47 percent in budget cuts to the arts in North Carolina. Former North Carolina Theatre Conference President David zum Brunnen still recalls the conflicted early responses at a Greensboro meeting after the cuts had been announced. “There was such a reticence by many to stand up and be heard. There had been a mind-setand you still occasionally run into it nowthat ‘I won’t make that much of a difference if I speak up, and I really shouldn’t speak up at all because I might do myself more harm than good.’

“Well, we were being told by certain folks to sit down, shut up and mind our P’s and Q’s,” zum Brunnen continues. “But we encouraged people to stand up and be heard. You see the result.”

“The response from the industry was, ‘We’ve had enough,’” Karen Wells remembers. “And once our core group got that immediate success to what was a terrible situation, there was no stopping. It really gave us a kick start. And every year after that, we started seeing increases and developing deeper relationships with legislators and each other.”

A drive to quantify what was believed to be intangiblelabor hours and full-time employment positions, student retention and contributions to tax revenue, among other metricswas born out of a realization that funding appeals based on aesthetics had left the arts vulnerable to shifts in mood and opinion.

The arts council and other statewide and national advocacy groups commissioned a series of independent research projects to document the economic, social and academic impact of the arts over the decade.

“Our facts and data are stronger,” notes Robert Bush, executive director of the Arts and Science Council of Charlotte-Mecklenburg. “We have more information about the economic impact of the arts, the jobs that are related to arts funding, and more information about the critical role of the arts in education. Since our information is better, that makes it easier when you come to the Legislature to ask for their support.”

State legislators agree. “They’ve shown hard evidence about the economic benefits,” notes state Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, D-Orange.

“The arts are now perceived in a different manner,” says Sen. Bob Atwater, a Democrat representing parts of Durham and Chatham counties. “You can have the numbers (of people), and be present in Raleigh, and advocate for your position. But those studies enable them to come in and talk about the economic impact of arts, across the board, across the whole state of North Carolina. That kind of grassroots argument makes sense immediately to a legislator, rather than someone coming and asking for money with no idea how much will generate revenue or whether that money multiplies itself in the economy or not.”

The new arts activists “have taken the arts to a different level” in the Legislature, according to state Rep. Becky Carney, D-Mecklenberg. “They’ve brought people to the table that may not have been there before.”

Nine years later, Arts NC’s membership has grown to 450 organizations and individual members. But its sphere of influence is significantly greater. Where 1,500 people received e-mail updates from the group in 2003, its advocacy listserv now is distributed to 18,000. A Facebook page that launched in January with regular legislative updates from Raleigh and links to thought-provoking articles from regional and national arts blogs, newspapers and advocacy groups has 3,100 “friends.” Regular features on the page are the group’s signature “Call to Action” posts, made when constituent voices are needed at crucial junctures in legislative or budgetary matters.

“We’re certainly much more sophisticated now,” notes zum Brunnen. “We’ve changed a perception about the arts. Far and above, the majority of legislators have always been supportive of the arts; I really believe that. Now I think we know that they’re our friends and that they need us as much as we need them. It’s changed the kind of conversations we have. We inform them, because we’re better informed about our contributions to the community.”

Additional research by intern Jessie Ammons.