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Ask not what your culture can do for you 

With Durham's $200,000 cultural master plan unveiled, it's time for artists to take the Bull City by the horns

It's not exciting, but it sure makes sense. After nine months of surveys, interviews and public meetings, a draft of the Durham Cultural Master Plan was finally unveiled two weeks ago. Much of what it recommends is abstract, even boilerplate: a cultural economic development committee, expanding the private-sector donor base, celebrating our heritage. But the 15-page executive summary (available at www.durhamculturalmasterplan.org) lays out a set of priorities that are likely to affect county and city budgets, and nonprofit fundraising efforts for years to come.

While the plan avoided controversy by including every available perspective, some in Durham have said it's entirely too careful. A Herald-Sun editorial on Feb. 24 bemoaned that the $200,000 project produced only "not-so-bold ideas ... It hardly seems worth it."

Not everyone feels that way, though, and what the document lacks in imagination it could make up for in flexibility. Thanks to hundreds of on-site interviews, the master plan represents near consensus about what the city needs--and in a city as politically sensitive as Durham, consensus is nothing to sneeze at. Durham is on the cusp of massive economic change, and if the city's culture-makers have sense, they'll use the plan to jump ahead of the commercial boom and put self-conscious artistic development at the forefront of the city's plans for the future.

"For spending almost a quarter of a million dollars, I'm a little underwhelmed with the final result," says landscape designer Frank Hyman. "But it's better than some of the master plans I've seen, especially in terms of turnout, so a lot of the credit for that goes to the Arts Council." Hyman, who was on the Durham City Council from 1993-97, attended several public meetings on the plan. "I think overall it's been a good thing, and to the extent that it helps to weave those two threads together of nonprofit arts organization culture with the business culture, that could be a very good thing, as long as it doesn't lead to too much self-censorship."

Without a strategic plan, says Barbara Lau of the Center for Documentary Studies, Durham's culture is like an octopus with arms pulling in all different directions. "You can't get anywhere that way," she says. The process of prioritizing goals and finding the best way to use resources "connects people across interests," making everyone feel they share the same essential objectives. Lau offered her opinions one-on-one with one of the consultants early in the process, and she says she can see her suggestions reflected in the 15-page summary.

Lau is one of many who lobbied for the creation of a museum dedicated to the history and cultural heritage of Durham as a whole. It's not a building she wants, but a way of organizing and promoting many ongoing projects that are already underway such as the downtown civil rights heritage walking tour and an oral history project on desegregation. "The point is to engage our history," she says. "The bricks and mortar will follow."

Bricks and mortar issues are a good example of how the master plan can help manage public resources and keep small, independently minded and under-funded arts groups from trying to reinvent the wheel. A lack of available space is one of the most pressing problems facing arts organizations, according to public comments--so maybe it's time to build a new venue. Meanwhile, facility operators said they have lots of open space in their schedules and they're facing huge problems maintaining their houses. A theater might be booked every evening, but the mornings are free. So before Durham rushes into a new building project, it's important to make sure that the existing ones are being well maintained. No coherent, consistent system to establish priorities for these resources spells bad public policy.

Durham doesn't have a lot of financial support for the arts from the business community or from individual donors. What it does have is a lot of small organizations consistently putting out good work on a shoestring, and a loyal, diverse audience eager to enjoy it. Nearly half of the city's arts groups operate on budgets of under $100,000. To support those groups, the plan suggests a percent-for-art public fundraising plan like that in Orange County, "first Friday" events with gallery walks and short live performances, publicly subsidized living and working space for artists, tax credits for small businesses deemed culturally enriching, and even group health care.

Now that the consultants have been paid, $500,000 generated from a hotel occupancy tax is left to implement the plan. Top priority is to form a "Cultural Collaborative," an autonomous advisory group working under the umbrella of the Arts Council that would call meetings to address whatever cultural issue might be bubbling up. Many of the members from the 63-member steering committee that oversaw the plan's creation are likely to take part in this group as well.

Lau says she's glad the plan is broad. "If it were too specific, it would be too easy to write off [as] 'Oh, that's not what we do.' I would like to see this plan challenge people, to pose the question to them: What could you do to advance this? How will we all share that task of leadership?"

Leadership is a big problem for small arts groups, so in order to solve their staffing woes while drawing interest from the private sector, the plan suggests tapping business owners to serve on boards of directors. "The private business sector is really the weakest link in the development of the arts and culture in Durham," Hyman says. "I think a lot of the folks with deep pockets in the private sector who are involved in business in Durham, they don't live in Durham, and, being mostly white, they don't feel as invested in Durham because there's a lot of African- American leadership and a large African-American population. So executives have their businesses here but they're not necessarily putting their money here. If this plan helps bring the private sector into play, that would be a really good thing."

Now is the time for the art and business worlds to get acquainted, before the massive American Tobacco Project is complete and before the West Village expansion and the rail transit stations are built. If downtown Durham's economic overhaul comes to pass, it could leave artists' heads spinning. They'll be priced out of today's cheap downtown rental spaces. Public support for broader cultural activities could put introductory art courses and expensive public festivals up higher on the priority list than the concerns of individual sculptors, photographers, musicians, painters and the like.

Bold ideas don't come from consultants; they come from artists. That's why leadership is also an issue for individual artists who expressed concerns late last year that the cultural master plan was concentrating too much on broad notions of culture and not enough on supporting the creation of art. "Yeah I think that's a concern," says Hyman, "and I would put a lot of responsibility for addressing that on the arts community itself. If artists don't get their hands dirty in politics, they're going to get short shrift."EndBlock

  • With Durham's $200,000 cultural master plan unveiled, it's time for artists to take the Bull City by the horns

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