The impetus for starting the new organization called Triangle ArtWorks, says founder Beth Yerxa, came from a string of "somebody needs to" conversations when she chaired the Raleigh Arts Commission. Somebody needs to connect all of the various arts groups in the region, people would say to her. Somebody needs to connect the artists themselves within a single discipline, and across disciplines, making the most of the region's creative juices. Somebody needs to bring new patrons to the arts, and bring the arts to new patrons.
"Somebody needs to"—and the list went on about what such an organization could do if its purpose was to connect the creative class across the Triangle and, by growing the connections, grow the arts as a economic driver.
"One of our frustrations," Yerxa says of her commission members, was seeing so much promising, even excellent work go begging for audiences, "but there was no way to say to the public, this is going on, you might want to support it."
One supporter is Molly Matlock, executive director of the Chatham County Arts Council, who says there is a void between the Triangle's multitude of local and county-based arts groups, some of which operate (as hers does) with a staff of one, and the handful of statewide advocacy groups.
"There are so many great cultural attractions in the Triangle, but I don't think we have the cohesion," Matlock says, "especially the cohesion in our marketing." An effective regional organization could help by fostering more and more ambitious collaborations within the arts community while marketing it collectively as "an incredible cultural tourism destination for the whole country."
But before any of that could happen, somebody needed to start one.
That somebody turns out to be Yerxa, which is doubtless what so many had in mind when they engaged her in those blue-sky conversations a couple of years back. Funny, because she didn't see herself in the role then and, even now, doesn't intend to be that somebody permanently. Once Triangle ArtWorks is established and enough money's been raised, she says, she plans to be replaced by someone with more hands-on experience in arts administration.
"I'm a lawyer," she says in self-effacing fashion. "I don't have a creative bone in my body."
Maybe not, but she's a natural leader—after four months on the arts commission, the other members chose her as their chair—and a high-energy organizer who gets things done, her collaborators say, without the need to be in the limelight.
And, if not an artist herself, she's a prime example of the kind of gung-ho arts patron that Triangle ArtWorks intends to reach as it launches over the next several weeks with a website and successive events in Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill.
"She's an incredible supporter of the arts," says Sarah Powers, executive director of the Visual Art Exchange in Raleigh and one of the 10 founding board members of the new organization. "Beth goes to everything. She has three kids, and she takes them to everything. And she knows a lot of artists."
Indeed, Yerxa's children would seem to have their whimsical genes working even if their mom, ostensibly so serious, might not. Thanks to the kids, the family van looks like it's headed for Woodstock, hand-decorated to display their theme for the summer—it's "the Summer of Action"—and their theme song, from Mission Impossible.
Mission impossible? "That has no relevance to this story," Yerxa says, trying not to smile but not succeeding. "They don't necessarily like it that I'm working all the time" is her final word on the van.
Yerxa was on the VAE board for four years, and did some of the heaviest lifting as chief organizer of its annual auction-fundraiser. "She really is passionate about the importance of the creative community in the Triangle," Powers says enthusiastically. "And she's a very hard worker."
Triangle ArtWorks begins as a virtual community with a website designed to help artists find the resources they need, including business assistance, artists' forums and blogs, and listings of everything that's playing, showing or in the works—or potentially in the works—in the region.
It's a platform, in other words, for artists, patrons and others to find each other, which is something Shane Hudson, associate development director for PlayMakers Repertory Company at UNC-Chapel Hill, thinks the region needs and was surprised to learn that it didn't have when he moved back to the Triangle from Boston three years ago.
Hudson, a Chapel Hill native, found his way around soon enough, but he's an arts professional. Others who're coming to the Triangle for the first time, he thinks, "will really benefit by having a single place where they can go and jump right in, and the information will be there to help them start to make a living right away without having to piece it together bit by bit."
Eventually, he adds, Triangle ArtWorks could help the region achieve what Boston has: "a great sense of community" that yields constant collaborations and innovation. "For me, it's about all of these organizations talking to each other that much more," Hudson says. Example: PlayMakers and the N.C. Symphony are mounting a joint production of Amadeus.
Dan Douglas, an urban planner with the architectural firm of KlingStubbins in Raleigh and former head of the city planning department's Urban Design Center, takes it one step further. He sees Triangle ArtWorks as a way to expand the creative community beyond practicing artists to professionals like himself—and Yerxa—who appreciate the contribution of public art to the quality of life in the region.
With better information, such folks can provide a stronger network of support and advocacy for public investments in such things as the new Raleigh City Plaza, the Durham Performing Arts Center, the N.C. Museum of Art expansion—and more needs to come, Douglas says. "A lot of good things have been happening over the past five to seven years," he says, "but we're still missing a lot of opportunities." In the debate over the Clarence E. Lightner Public Safety Center in Raleigh, for example, before it was shelved entirely, Douglas notes, "the first thing they cut from the budget was money for art in the building."
Is it possible that Triangle ArtWorks will be seen by other arts groups as a competitor for limited resources? The answer from the leaders of several such groups is no.
"To me, I would call it complementary," says Lyman Collins, cultural arts manager for the Town of Cary. "Art is collaboration—even for individual artists, there's collaboration with an audience—I just don't think you can have too many opportunities for collaboration."
Eventually, Collins thinks, there's a role for a regional arts group in marketing, "and Triangle ArtWorks can grow into it" if it first succeeds in knitting the creative community together.
The VAE's Sarah Powers agrees: Job 1 for the new organization, she says, is to be a place for artists to bring what they have and ask for what they need.
That's Yerxa's plan in a nutshell. She's studied successful regional arts groups in other places—New York State, Seattle, Broward County, Fla.—and they're all different, she says, because they've all responded to what their creative communities needed them to do.
So, yes, group advertising is possible some day, Yerxa says. So is group health insurance. So is helping artists find lawyers and business assistance. "Our goal is to support the other groups and, if there are gaps, fill them via collaborations. We kind of want to be lean and mean starting out, and more of a platform for listening until we prove our worth."