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Friday, November 18, 2011

Duham Cultural Forum 

Your Clarion Content’s correspondent attended the Durham Cultural Advisory Board’s meeting last Monday, November 7th. This meeting, at the Nasher Museum on Duke's campus, was a fascinating coming together or perhaps collision would be more accurate, between Durham City government, the non-profit world, and the public. The Durham Cultural Advisory Board is the successor to the Durham Cultural Master Plan.

The event brought the City Council appointed chairman of the Cultural Advisory Board, along with representatives from Durham City government, most notably, Councilman Mike Woodard, and E’vonne Coleman Cook of the Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau, together with the leadership of the biggest arts non-profit in Durham, the Durham Arts Council (DAC) and its Executive Director, Sherry DeVries. The public was also invited to attend.1

Michael Schoenfeld, Vice-President for Public Affairs and Government Relations at Duke University, and the Chairman of Durham Cultural Advisory Board, was invited to speak first. In a data heavy presentation, Mr. Schoenfeld briefed those in attendance on what the Cultural Master Plan had been and what might be up next. As he rolled through slide after slide dutifully narrating his Powerpoint presentation, Mr. Schoenfeld, who noted he had only moved to the Durham area three years earlier, laid out a lot of facts and figures.

He broke down the $222k budget of the Cultural Master Plan. The two biggest numbers were $60k for "Festivals" and $43.5k for "Arts Education." And on the face of it, it is hard for Durham art supporters to begrudge either of those numbers. Of course, there are always devils in the details. How, and on what, is that money spent? Later, when we got to the public forum portion of the evening, we realized we weren’t the only ones worried about those kind of questions.

The other number that the Clarion Content found oddly noteworthy in the line item budget Mr. Schoenfeld rapidly recited was $13 grand for a Business Committee. This was more than the Durham Cultural Master plan spent for our dear city on either public art or planning for the Durham Historical Museum. Mr. Schoenfeld, who moved to Duke and the Bull City from Vanderbilt and Nashville, Tennessee, noted: we in Durham are part of the largest city in North Carolina without a dedicated historical museum.

We hope that the committee was up to some important business.

Mr. Schoenfeld didn’t say. He did say something about a sixty-three member steering committee having been assembled to form a committee that wrote the Durham Cultural Master Plan. It is a wonder under the momentum crushing weight of all of that bureaucracy that anything happened at all.

But happen it did, as Ms. Sherry DeVries, the Executive Director of the Durham Arts Council, who was up next, demonstrated. She had all the facts and figures about Durham’s renaissance at her fingertips. Despite the national trend, recession and economic stagnation, Durham saw 10% job growth in the creative industries.2 DeVries also noted Durham exceeds the national average for jobs classified as creative by 75% and the North Carolina state average by 218%, with more than 6,600 jobs classified as high creative generating an estimated economic impact of $103 million.

Taking the podium from Ms. DeVries, Ms. E’vonne Coleman Cook of the Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau, who spoke smoothly and without notes, briefed the assembly on some of the work done at www.Durhamculture.com This is a website, the Clarion Content admittedly, had not accessed previously. Now that we have, what a resource! It is worth the time and visit for the events calendar alone. Ms. Coleman Cook also told the group that it was easy to register, and then, one would be able to update the collective calendar personally. This openness is a double-edged sword because it does not lend itself to specificity. The calendar is jam-packed with information and the list format is somewhat unwieldy. But, these are petty complaints for what the site offers.

Ms. Cook disseminated her valuable information succinctly and handed off to Mark Lee, a local radio host and the emcee of the Durham Blues Festival to moderate public discussion. Mr. Lee, a man with the sweetly resonant voice of an on-air personality, spoke only briefly, the coterie who proceeded him having gone on for nearly an hour and fifteen minutes of the forum's allotted hour and thirty minutes. He spoke about his personal experiences with Durham residents who had gone on to greater artistic success. He mentioned, though didn’t elaborate on, an encounter he had with the Raging Grannies and their singing number at Occupy Durham. And then turned it over to the public for questions.

This was both the briefest and most fascinating part of the evening. There was a passionate crowd. There were questions about how to best make contact with students and young people. There were concerns raised about reaching youth who might not be able to afford transportation to and classes at the Durham Arts Council.3

What did the numbers reflect about arts spending and the arts economy in Durham beyond the building of facilities? The public wanted to know.

There were real concerns amongst the arts supporters in the audience about reaching young people effectively. One Durham teacher noted that an amazing opportunity to learn to make documentary films on the public schools-arts nickel had been taken up only by four students. Not for lack of interest, she suspected, but rather because of the struggle to communicate the opportunity available to students and their parents.

The Clarion Content, among many others in the audience, chanced to bemoan the lack of effective use of social media by many of these organizations, including, and perhaps especially, Durham Public Schools (33,000 students, an estimated 57,000 parents and 238 Twitter followers? Really??) and the Durham Arts Council too (1279 followers, two tweets since August.)

More questions were raised about how to face these and other challenges in the light of shrinking state and local school and arts budgets, especially by Ms. Coleman Cook, but by that time the Nasher security personnel were flashing the lights in the auditorium and attempting to shoo people out of the room and into the lobby for catered snacks.

The unanswered questions echoed loudly as the audience began to filter out of the room. It could not fairly have been directed at Mr. Lee, he was only charged as the moderator. Ms. Coleman Cook posed the questions. Mr. Schoenfeld moved here in just 2008. Ms. DeVries shuffled her notes. Councilman Woodward, the only councilman who had been in attendance to hear a City Council appointed board talk about spending the public's money, had already left the building.

What is to become of the arts in Durham? Obviously, authority does not have an easier answer. The reality is that it is up to each of us.

1De-emphasis of the public is deliberate in this context.

2Albeit with backward looking data from 2006-08. But there are two ways to look at that older data, because, although it mostly predates the Bush II recession, it also does not include Durham Performing Arts Center, which most certainly created jobs in Durham.

3Here an opportunity was missed to mention the amazing work being done by KidZNotes with at-risk families and their children. The Walltown Children's Theater could have also been cited as reaching out into the community answering the claim that all the arts programs are based at the center of town as the questioner, incidentally a Wake County resident, stated.

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Interesting...I had not heard about this meeting, or durhamculture.com (which has many glaring omissions and errors).

Amy- Likewise, I was surprised by DurhamCulture.com. Where did this come from? How did we not know about it? How was it publicized? Why haven't they reached out?
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