Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?

A gentle plea for local support

By Clyde Edgerton

A few years ago, the first board chair of the young Arts Council of Wilmington and New Hanover County was called away after a short time at the helm. I took his position with no previous board experience, and I have just recently finished a three-year tenure. Being a board chair was sometimes challenging, always interesting.

I made new friends on the board and met many artists and arts organizers around town. I also learned there are many generous folks in Wilmington, but also that the number of large donations to the Arts Council is few. I attribute this, in part, to the fact that the council is a recent start up — and also, to a certain extent, to my failure as board chair to take to the ropes of fundraising. I didn’t find it easy to ask people for money, and I’ve learned that there are right ways, wrong ways, complicated ways, and simple ways to do that.

One way is to write a “Papadaddy” column and then pray.

I do believe donations are sure to increase over time as people become more and more exposed to what the Arts Council does for southeast North Carolina and her citizens. I’ve watched Opera Wilmington and other arts groups flourish with Arts Council help. I’ve read applications for grants from young artists who need and then get a hand through the Arts Council. I’ve seen sculpture pop up on empty street-sides throughout town and — thanks to the Arts Council — Fourth Friday Gallery nights are thriving as never before. And I believe more and more people, besides donating, will volunteer to help out as the word gets out.

One paradox on the financial end of things is that if the Arts Council is doing its job right, not placing itself in the spotlight, but serving as the hub, it can become invisible. Citizens are less likely to see it, to know what it does for our community.

Our community (and country) desperately needs artists, arts organizations and Arts Councils in supportive roles, of course. I hope the reasons become more and more obvious as the Arts Council’s work becomes better known.

1) The arts bring us together to celebrate with fun, insight and fresh observations.

2) The arts make Wilmington an arts destination, thus improving the economy, as well as benefiting the cultural tone and norms of our region.

3) The arts teach empathy.

I recently read about number 3 — the arts and empathy — in an op-ed by the outgoing chairman of the Arts Council England, Peter Bazalgette. His fascinating book, The Empathy Instinct, mentions the really interesting “mirror neurons” phenomena that occurs when we look at art, allowing us to actually feel or “mirror” what the characters in the painting/play/novel/film feel. Because of my belief in number 1, I decided to head the Arts Council. Visionary Executive Director of the Arts Council of Wilmington and New Hanover County Rhonda Bellamy helped me understand the importance of number 2. But reading about the arts and empathy made me think about why so many artists love their work, enjoy the fine task of making art that pops — in performance, exhibits, stories, poems, installments, sculpture, gigs and more.

Art can help us grow, even after we are grown. Recently, the Arts Council supported the Invisible Wounds of War project during which veterans across the state wrote about the unseen wounds of war. The project helped me better understand my own wartime experiences.

Through art we can almost experience the inner turmoil of an addict, the vacant despair of people who are alone, the soul-numbing burns of poverty, the vacant-mindedness of those who disagree with us politically (just kidding — wanted to see if you are still with me. I’m very serious about the empathy. Don’t leave me now).

Art, through empathy, may help us become more patient, less cocky, more careful about judgments, more appreciative of other souls. We see better.

If you are looking for a place to make a difference in the tone and sparkle of your community, in the life of artists and arts organizers, in our region’s economy, if you hope to spread the possibility of empathy, please donate to your local Arts Council.

There’s my ask. And now I’ll go pray.

The Arts Council of Wilmington and New Hanover County,

Clyde Edgerton is the author of 10 novels, a memoir and most recently, Papadaddy’s Book for New Fathers. He is the Thomas S. Kenan III Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at UNCW.

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