Agent of Change

How Craig Stinson and nonprofit Arts Friendly aim to be a hub for the Port City’s arts community

By Jason Frye

On a sunny spring day, after the madness of the Azalea Festival has subsided and before the crush of summer visitors has plotted routes to Wilmington into their GPSs, Craig Stinson stands on the corner of 3rd and Princess, looking from Thalian Hall to the courthouse and back. His eye is appraising, but not judgmental; he simply takes in the city around him, processes it with a smile, and shifts his gaze. “Wilmington’s my hometown, you know,” he says. “I’ve always loved it. That’s why I went to school here, why I left and why I came back.”

Stinson’s a rare entrepreneur in the Port City: Rather than look at Wilmington, and the whole of New Hanover County, as a real estate plum ripe for the picking, he views the region in terms of the arts. His new nonprofit, Arts Friendly, has the potential to more firmly establish Wilmington on North Carolina’s (and dare we say the Southeast’s) arts map.

“Wilmington has an exceptional arts scene and a very involved arts community,” says Stinson. “For the size of the town, we have an incredible number of people involved in the arts, from the fine arts level to the enthusiastic novice, and that’s what an arts community needs to grow and thrive.”

At first, his statement seems incongruous with the Wilmington many of us know and that many of our visitors see in the commercial district (think paintings of bright red flip-flops that read “It’s Beach O’Clock” ). But as Stinson rattles off a list of the galleries, public art installations and mini-art festivals around the county, it becomes evident that he’s spot-on in this assessment. “More importantly, this is a community that encourages creativity. There’s a broad spectrum of skill among our established and developing artists, and they’re not afraid to learn from one another. That makes the overall arts culture in Wilmington one that welcomes anyone who wants to participate,” he says.

The Coastal Carolina Clay Guild, a wood-turners group, the Wilmington Arts Association, groups of playwrights, fiction and poetry and nonfiction groups, dance troupes, short-film makers, musical jam sessions of a dozen genres represent only a blip on Wilmington’s art radar. “Then we have fine artists, the ones who sell paintings for hundreds or thousands of dollars in galleries across the region. Add to that the tier of fine artists who sell their work exclusively in galleries outside the area,” says Stinson. “And then we can start talking about film and theater. The beautiful thing about those communities is the collaborative aspect. It takes so many people to put together a successful production for the stage or screen and both theater and film welcome new talent to come and audition. That collaborative, come-together spirit is a driver of the arts community here.”

That spirit is also the driving force behind Arts Friendly. Stinson sees the organization as a way of branding the arts supporting community, and has gone so far as to secure a trademark for a “Certified Arts Friendly” seal — similar to those of the Better Business Bureau or Good Housekeeping — that designates businesses and nonprofits as Certified Arts Friendly. To obtain the certification, groups must apply and demonstrate a history of supporting the arts and a documented presence in the art world (among other requirements).

Along with the Certified Arts Friendly seal, Stinson has developed the Arts in Wilmington Awards, an annual ceremony that helps promote arts as a whole rather than specific genres of art. Rather than making it a popularity contest voted on by the people of Wilmington, Stinson has leveraged his extensive contacts in the art and arts administration worlds to evaluate nominees and select the award winners.

Because of his history as an arts administrator, Stinson’s contacts in these worlds are deep and widespread. He began his academic career at UNC Wilmington, where he learned the beauty of oral histories and the value of folklore. With the help of a professor there, he transferred to UNC Chapel Hill to study folklore. A summer internship with the Smithsonian Institution helping with their Folklife Festival drew him deeper in, and working with Americorps in Arizona helping non-native English speakers learn the language and work toward their citizenship further opened his eyes to folklore and the beauty and value of tale telling. From there, Stinson went on to positions at the National Endowment for the Arts, the South Carolina Arts Commission, the Institute of Texan Cultures and a variety of state arts councils. He has brought all those lessons and best practices together to form Arts Friendly.

One of the functions of Arts Friendly is empowerment through finances, which is to say fundraising and the distribution of funds. “There’s a sort of template for funding,” he says. “Earned income — the price of admission to a museum or a ticket to a performance — is one, membership is another, grants make up another portion, then you have corporate sponsorship and the municipal or government support.” Every element is critical to funding a vibrant arts community, and with Arts Friendly, Stinson hopes to make up for some of the gaps Wilmington sees in that financial support structure, encourage more activity from certain partners, and win new partners to the cause.

It’s not surprising that some of the funding gaps are on the municipal or government side, for as economies have retreated and funding for all programs have become more precious, the arts is an easy, and frequent, target. Think of school budgets. What’s the first program they target when ensuring they can operate on a lean budget? It’s not computers for the computer lab or athletic facilities; it’s the arts and music programs. The same is true at the city, county and state levels.

Another leg missing from Wilmington arts funding is grants, which in part depend on national and state-level support that trickles down to local and regional arts councils. There’s also a dearth of support in corporate giving. The Wilmington business community’s support of local arts groups and guilds, the Arts Council, and even individual artists is, simply put, lacking. Does this lack of support represent a disconnect from the community, a lack of investment in the future of the community or the lack of an outlet— like Arts Friendly – that could provide an easy entry point into Wilmington’s creative hive?

Stinson believes Arts Friendly can be just that: a hub for arts fundraising and fund distribution. The Certified Arts Friendly badge will make it easy to identify businesses and groups that support the arts, empowering consumers to support these businesses with their spending power. “Can Arts Friendly create a coalition of businesses and entities dedicated to art and then tie them to the community? We can. Can we be a change agent and help shape Wilmington’s art scene to be more vibrant, more evident and more inclusive? Absolutely.”

Jason Frye is a regular Salt contributor. You can follow him on Instagram: @beardedwriter.

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