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Tuesday, December 04, 2012

At the center of the community: Durham Arts Council 

Friend, artist, community activist, and occasional guest columnist for the Clarion Content, Catherine Howard, has undertaken to pen a series of articles about how the visual arts have impacted Durham's community on her 13/13/13 Sketchbook site. Howard is both a leader on the ground in bringing the arts to communities worldwide and also a coalition builder who helped get the ball rolling for the Durham Storefront Project.

The Clarion Content was delighted that Ms. Howard selected our publisher, Aaron Mandel, and the co-founder/director of The Carrack, Laura Richie, as the subjects of her first pieces. Ms. Howard has generously agreed to co-publish this series on the Clarion Content. Her third piece is about an important Durham institution.

Creative Leaders of Durham: Margaret DeMott and Lindsay Gordon of the Durham Arts Council
by: Catherine Howard

One cannot discuss the development of "arts" in Durham without giving a hearty nod to the Durham Arts Council, one of the oldest arts councils in the United States. The Durham Arts Council, whose mission statement is to promote excellence in and access to the creation, experience and active support of the arts for all the people of the Durham community, combines arts education with exhibitions, performances, and community events, such as CenterFest* and Art Walk.

During a lunch at Toast, Margaret DeMott and Lindsay Gordon from the Durham Arts Council expanded on five factors that promote flourishing arts communities:

1. Public space where you can find the art. The Durham Arts Council is a physical place where things can happen - meetings, art can be hung, shows can be put on, people can find it. Although lots of arts councils don't have a permanent space, whenever they want to hold an event, their first challenge is finding a space. With an understood showcase, people know events will be happening. Town squares used to provide those spaces, and now those spaces often need to be run by groups to insure stability for cultural programming.

2. An educated adult audience. Even if expensive visual art is not being bought, an audience that is educated (either through school or person-to-person outreach from the artistic community) will support the arts by giving their time to attend events. Universities attract people with talent, curiosity and creativity, and in Durham, there are two large universities (Duke University and NCCU) which have launched and funded many arts organizations. In communities without universities, such as Sarasota, the arts can still flourish if wealthy individuals are eager financial supporters.

3. An educated child audience. Arts education has proven to promote critical thinking and social skills, which helps children to succeed in any career path they choose. Exposure to the arts from a young age, in school or in arts camps, also encourages children to grow into adults who understand and support the arts. As Lindsay put it, "If you catch them when they're young, you'll keep them."

4. Supportive government. If a community desires to encourage artistic engagement in the community and promote the reciprocal communal respect of the arts, government leaders can use the arts to denote respect and honor. For example, leaders can commission concerts or paintings to celebrate an official's service, rather than giving them a watch or plaque. The City of Durham has made a substantial investment over the years in public cultural spaces such as the Carolina Theater, Hayti Heritage Center, and Durham Arts Council building.

5. Recognizable leader. Even if there is not an arts institution in a community, there still must be a single recognizable leader who leads the charge on coordinating events. People will get excited about an idea, but unless there is someone to keep moving the ball forward, to keep sending the next email, to keep cajoling everyone, events just won't happen.

Artists displaying their wares in the Armory during Art Walk

According to one of those leaders, Margaret DeMott, "Artists are the "research and development department" of a community, and the arts non-profit sector helps the artists to do their work. When artists move into the commercial arena, their problem-solving skills can be applied to many different areas, making the community, as a whole, better."

A big "THANK YOU" to Margaret and Lindsay for meeting with me and to the entire DAC staff for their daily dedication to promoting the arts in Durham. Be sure to stop by their building at 120 Morris Street to see the current exhibitions by David Baker, Matthew Litteken, and Nuno Gomes. Join the mailing list to keep track of upcoming events or follow their Twitter here!

*This year was the launch of a revitalized CenterFest. The Clarion Content tracked the community input sessions and wrote a series of articles on the process of reinvigorating a community tradition.

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