I grew up in North Carolina. My mother’s family has lived in the Appalachian mountains for over two centuries. I was made the man I am by the education I received at Hardin Park Elementary and Watauga High School, both excellent public institutions. After a disappointing experience at a university in Chicago, I returned home to attend NC School of the Arts, receiving the finest acting education offered in the country at a fraction of the price of any other major national arts conservatory. I had my first professional jobs onstage and in film in NC. And when I went away up north to continue my studies and build my career, I always hoped I would find a way to return to North Carolina.
I love this state. I had the honor of representing it in the US Senate Youth Program. I attended Governor’s School. I learned my love of storytelling from the men and women of the NC Mountains. I learned my faith and values in the Boone United Methodist Church. I was mentored by caring, generous teachers. I am who I am because of what North Carolina gave me.
When my business partner, Rich Whittington, and I began our national search for the city where we wanted to create a new fully professional regional theater, I was a strong proponent of Greensboro. When Greensboro won out in our search, I was thrilled to finally be able to come home.
I was returning as an arts entrepreneur, using my art to help drive a renaissance of Greensboro’s historic city center. With more than half of our budget coming from earned income and the vast majority of our contributed income coming from private citizens and foundations, Rich and I opened a theater center that produces all of our work in state with the best of local and national talent. We’ve created 32 permanent year-round jobs, employed an additional 1,300 theater artists, played to over 431,391 audience members, and provided a valuable bridge from education to the profession for many UNCG and UNCSA students. We’ve built powerful partnerships with local and state organizations. We’ve celebrated the stories of our region and created world premiere productions that have gone on to have a life outside of our great state. We’ve produced 12 seasons of theater that revitalized our community and demonstrated the excellent investment of NC Arts Grants, creating a rippling economic impact that turns every dollar invested by the NC Arts Council into $16. I am so proud to be giving back to the state that raised me. I am so proud to again be calling NC home.
But I wonder for how long.
The NC Senate and House are negotiating a budget that could be debilitating to arts entrepreneurship in North Carolina. The Senate proposal would cut $1,228,000 from the arts over two years. The House budget is more favorable, but still includes $96,000 in cuts over 2 years. Both versions also include cuts to the NC Arts Council administration of at least $250,000 – this will cost jobs and severely hamper the good work of the NC Arts Council staff. Additionally, the NC Senate's tax reform proposal would require that all arts nonprofit organizations collect and revert to the state up to 7% in sales tax, thus increasing the cost of tickets and placing an administrative burden on organizations such as Triad Stage. Tax reform should not make tax collectors out of entities not designed to provide that function.
These changes will cost jobs. They will negatively impact the partnerships between arts and education. They will be detrimental to attracting jobs to North Carolina because of its negative impact on quality of life issues. They will hurt our economy. And they will drive young people, like I once was, passionate about the promise of our state, far away to schools and cities where the arts have value and the promise of the future is not under threat.
The facts and the studies demonstrate time and time again that a dollar of public investment in the art yields high returns, creates jobs, enhances education and positively benefits quality of life. What is the agenda of people who inequitably cut such powerful and positive investment in people and communities? What is the message that is being sent to corporations about the communities they might select for expansion? What is the message that is being sent to students who hope to make their home in a NC looking toward the future and not toward the past?
The progress North Carolina has made as a leader on the national arts and cultural scene will be decimated by these cuts. The brain drain will be severe. The negative publicity will drive corporations away from looking at NC for future expansion. No jobs will be created by these cuts. Jobs will be lost. Community will be lost. Only a short-sighted vision of NC will have won.
As long as negotiations continue, there is still time to make your voice heard and to urge your legislators to restore funding for the NC Arts Council and to protect the Sales Tax exemption for not-for-profit organizations. You can find updates and action alerts at www.artsnc.org/action-center/calls-to-action.