Raleigh arts group works to cope with growth

By Todd Cohen

RALEIGH, N.C. — On August 16, representatives of 145 public schools in Wake County and 30 in Johnston County attended a “booking fair” at Wakefield High School in Raleigh to observe and select artists to teach in their schools for the current school year.

The school representatives, typically a cultural arts representative from the PTA or an arts teacher, made the rounds of 85 trade booths featuring hundreds of artists or their representatives, and observed presentations that artists made on stages in the school auditorium and dance studio.

In a departure from previous years, when school representatives at the trade fair lugged heavy three-ring binders filled with single pages for each artist, this year most of them carried iPads or other electronic devices they could use to learn about the artists by visiting a new online directory created by United Arts Council of Raleigh and Wake County.

United Arts Council, which runs the annual fair, is looking for ways to make the arts more accessible throughout the county by supporting artists in the schools and arts programming, and serving as an advocate and clearinghouse for the arts, says Eleanor Oakley, the organization’s president and CEO.

Formed in 1989 through the merger of the Wake County Arts Council and the Capital Area Arts Foundation, the organization operates with an annual budget of $1.2 million and a staff of four people working full-time and two working part-time.

It generates 25 percent of its funds through contributions from individuals and corporations, nearly 40 percent from the state and Wake County, and the remainder through income from programs it provides for the schools and through eight of Wake County’s 12 municipalities, as well as additional dollars those municipalities invest in those programs.

Of the $400,000 it receives from individuals and corporations, down from $600,000 five years ago because of a decline in corporative giving, United Arts Council counts on its annual campaign for about $300,000, and on an annual fundraising event known as “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” for the rest.

Roughly 30 corporations, as well as employees in 13 workplace campaigns, contribute to the annual campaign.

In November, to celebrate its 25th anniversary, the dining event will include two nights of dinners in private homes, as well as a 200-seat dinner at the headquarters of the North Carolina State Bar in downtown Raleigh. United Arts Council aims to raise $110,000 at the three-day event, up from $80,000 last year.

United Arts Council works to champion arts education, investing about $200,000 a year in arts programming.

It does that through grants to arts groups and those that provide arts programming for students in kindergarten through 12th grade; to schools for arts projects; to local parks and recreation departments; for arts programs that feature artists of diverse ethnicities or serve people with special needs; and to help young arts groups build their organizational capacity.

And it invests about $117,000 a year in its artists-in-schools program, which last year helped put professional artists — ranging from theater troupes, dance companies and chamber orchestras to storytellers, writers, musicians, singers and mimes — in 142 Wake County public schools.

Wake’s booming population, combined with the economic downturn and slow recovery, prompted United Arts Council four years  ago to drop its support of arts programs in Raleigh for adults.

And it now is partnering with arts groups in Durham and Orange counties to sponsor the Piedmont Laureate program for literary artists; helping to place bluegrass bands in Wake elementary and middle schools as part of the annual World of Bluegrass festival that was held last week in Raleigh; and supporting arts listings published online by the Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau.

United Arts Council also is looking for ways to secure more resources so it can expand rather than shift its support for the arts and help build the region’s arts infrastructure, Oakley says.

The big challenge, she says, is “funding to keep up with the growth.”

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