In February of this year, Regan retired after 39 years with the North Carolina Arts Council—36 of them as its executive director. On March 2, just days after her retirement, she and I sat down for a different sort of exit interview in a Morrisville cafe. As lunching office workers came and went (and a cool rain came and stayed), we took an hour and a half for a conversation that was largely about distance: How far the arts have come in North Carolina since her start in 1972; how they’ve managed to come that far, despite the economic turmoil of the past decade and the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s; and how far they’ve yet to go.
Regan was as graceful and candid as I’ve known her to be throughout our own long conversation over the years. And this time, she was able to go a bit further on the record.
The remarks below are excerpted from that conversation.
INDEPENDENT: Let’s go back to the beginning of your term. Where was the North Carolina Arts Council when you found it?
MARY REGAN: (laughs) In offices in the Heart of Raleigh Motel, which was over on Edenton Street. There was something of an “entertainment house” right across the street, where we saw ladies coming and going. And men. All of the time. (laughs) That was very interesting.
I don’t even remember what our budget was—maybe a couple of hundred thousand dollars.
I took the job just because I needed a job; I didn’t have a clue what it was about or what I would do. I intended to leave in a year and go back and work on Nick Galifianakis’ campaign [a Democratic congressman who lost to Jesse Helms in 1972]. But after a year came, I had really gotten hooked on it. I knew it was a great job.
Is there a moment you can remember as a turning point, or the moment you realized you had to stick around?
Not really. I think I could have been torn away, but because of the things going on at the time, I thought this was a good place to be.
Edgar Marston [Executive Director of the Arts Council from 1968-1973, and director of the NC Division of the Arts, 1973-1978] was such a visionary. Everything was very experimental then. We’ve tried to remain experimental through the years, but back then, there was no mold; everything we did we kind of invented.
We carved out for North Carolina a role as a leading arts council, as far as doing community development, working out in the communities. Some arts councils started off just funding major organizations in the cities. But the early leadership understood: If they were going to be able to make it within state government, they had to be serving the whole state.
All of our programs were public value programs. In the last 10 years, that’s become a popular term, almost as if were some new thing discovered to do. We were into public value from the very beginning; we just didn’t know to call it that. We wanted to be at the table (in state government) with the rest of the sectors in the state. Public value was our hook.
Without a broad spectrum of impact across the state, and not just the major metro areas, it was obvious that your political viability was going to be compromised.
Right. Before I got there, they had started the Visiting Artists Program to give full-time work to practicing artists by putting them in all of the community colleges in 1971. That was an innovation. They weren’t to be teaching classes; they were supposed to be out working in the community, to introduce these strange arts forms to little towns. And that was so unheard of at that time, for a state arts council or a state government to do that.
But there were so many enlightened legislators back then, that if you suggested to them a good idea, and if they thought it would help where they came from, they would go with you on it.
Now, it wasn’t like they were giving us millions of dollars; we weren’t into big bucks. But they would endorse our ideas by giving us a couple of hundred thousand dollars. And that was pretty major for us.
If we came up with a good idea, we knew that we could go out and do it. It wasn’t like having to get permission all around. If you had a good idea, you went out and started trying to make it happen. It was a wonderful time.
We got a million dollars of federal jobs money through the CETA program, the Comprehensive Employment Training Act. A woman who worked in the manpower office in state government called us one afternoon at 4:30 and said, “I’ve got a million and a half dollars over here. If you can get me a proposal, I think we can get you some money. But it has to be here by 8:30 in the morning.”
We stayed late that night, and we developed a program, modeling it after the Visiting Artists Program—we knew how to use artists out in the community because of the Visiting Artists Program. We had it finished the next morning. A month or so later, we had a million dollars to put artists to work all across North Carolina.
Every six months or a year or so, the feds would change the requirements and every time they did, we’d just design another program to put artists to work and we’d get more money. For something like two or three years, we found full-time work for nearly 300 artists of all kinds. Performing, visual and literary; they were all over the state, in it and in the Visiting Artist Program and the Third Century Artists Program, for the coming Bicentennial.
We believed in our naivete—or our idealism, I should say—that in America, in the next hundred years, artists would work in a public capacity all over the country. They’d have these public jobs and they’d be out there doing their work. So we named it the Third Century Artists Program. It was not really a good name; it was more satisfying to us than it was to the world. It struck some as something pre-medieval (laughs). But it was an example of our idealism at the time.
We would go out and help start local arts councils in communities. In the 1970s, we really did excel in community development, and local arts councils were kind of our basis for that.
The whole community arts council movement preceded us. There already were maybe 20 arts councils; Winston-Salem was the oldest, it started I believe in 1949, and there were arts councils in Kinston, Elizabeth City and Durham. But elsewhere in the state nobody really knew what an arts council was.
Edgar gave me this book, The Arts in the Small Community: A National Plan, by Robert Gard. He wrote about things arts councils could do, and different ways they could structure themselves.
I bought a lot of those books, and then I went out to these communities. I’d get a group of people together and we’d sit around a table and look at the book, and say, “OK, look here, it says this. Maybe we could do this—or no, we could do that.” And then I’d leave them a book and go on to another town.
It really wasn’t a “how-to book.” It was more just to plant ideas or things to consider. From the beginning, we said the local arts councils should structure themselves to suit their own community. We always encouraged people to design it for their needs, not as a cookie cutter.
Even though the state wasn’t really peopled by those who came of age in the 1960s, there was that sense of possibility: how to do things and not to be tied down by what the last generation did. I think that contributed a lot to the way the arts were being developed in those years.
About the Visiting Artist Program and Third Century Artists: If somebody wanted to be in it, it was competitive, and they were screened by panels. We developed lists of people who were qualified artistically, and if you were in the program, you kind of had to go where somebody wanted you to go.
There were all these wonderful artists out there who were just open to a lark: “I’m going out to this little town I’ve never heard of and I’m going to live there for a year!” That kind of personality was so prevalent back then in society, and the artists had that too. Everything was a great adventure.
And in North Carolina in the 1960s, there was Terry Sanford, who started the [UNC] School of the Arts and the Arts Council.
It was kind of a combination of the “Greatest Generation” in the late ‘30s to ‘50s who knew they could change the world, and the 1960s, where people were just throwing tradition away. That was such a powerful combination, and the arts really benefited from that.
There was no shortage of optimism; a can-do, “let’s try this” sort of sense...
And government was so un-controlling then. Government hadn’t been attacked so much, as it has more recently. There wasn’t a sort of “circle the wagons” mentality like there is sometimes now because you don’t want to make a misstep and end up in the papers.
Who wants to make a meal of the arts today?
Right. But not as much that, as just the reaction to that fear, that you need four signatures for everything you do.
There’s such restraints on travel now. We couldn’t have done what we did with the travel restrictions we have in place now. You can’t do that kind of development from Raleigh. You’ve got to be out there, and shift your focus when something shifts, when you confront something different than you thought it was going to be. I don’t think that’s typical of North Carolina; that’s government all over.
Our Third Century Artists Program: its budget for the first year alone was a million dollars. The person we hired to run it was 24 or 25 years old. All the other people we hired administratively to keep up with those hundreds of artists were all in their lower 20s.
I was talking to some of them last week, and I said that, looking back, older people couldn’t have run that program. First of all, they couldn’t have put it together as quickly as we put it together. They would have overthought it. They would have been overly careful about how they designed it. But people weren’t noticing us. We didn’t know we could misstep. We just thought, “We’re here to change the world, and we’re going to do it, and everybody’s going to be real happy with us.”
But over time, we all got older. The environment changed. Still, that has still been the most rewarding part of this work: trying to remain entrepreneurial within the confines of government.
I think we’ve been able to do that to a very large degree, probably because instead of just inventing programs in Raleigh, we’ve been working through arts organizations and artists all over the state that aren’t a part of government. Together with them, we’ve been able to retain that sense of, “Okay, I’ve heard that this works—well, let’s try it and see if we can get someplace with it here.”
I was in what was called the “Women’s Department” back then. I never did the society page; I did more “how people live” stories. I got out around the state and got to know a lot of communities. And that is why I think Sam Ragan [the state’s first Secretary of Cultural Resources and first chairman of the NC Arts Council] wanted me to work for the department. He already had this plan in mind about getting out into the communities.
...and since you were already out there, it wouldn’t be a quantum leap.
He had been one of the editors at the News and Observer when I was there.
One of the curiosities of your position is that every several years, you’re working for an entirely new boss. I can only begin to imagine what sort of impact a rotation like that can have on long-term planning or a long-term mission. I’m wondering about how that dynamic by itself influenced your experiences over the years.
I’ve always liked the transition when a new administration was coming in. I—and we—would start positioning our work to educate a new person to what we were doing and why, and examining it with an eye toward being able to explain it. We had to really focus on what we were trying to accomplish. That, in itself, was a great exercise.
And then, when we’d get a new secretary, we’d set out to try to convince her—it was always her, except for Sam Ragan—of the value of what we were doing, and help her understand. Most of the secretaries weren’t really interested in getting into the details of our work: how we run the programs or even what programs we might be running. They’d come in, and the department is so huge that it can be daunting to someone who hasn’t been living it day in and day out. Most of the secretaries accepted that: that we were running these programs, and that it took professionals to run the programs. It wasn’t about politics, it was about content.
They usually picked out certain projects or things they wanted to accomplish, and that usually was an overlay for everything else already going on. It wasn’t a tug-of-war between what we’d been planning to do and what they wanted us to do. It was more of a layering on.
There’s another thing, and I think this is all across state government. I think it is a very nice juxtaposition to have people with a short-timer’s attitude—“I’m in here for four years, and I want to have an impact and I don’t have much time and I have to really move toward it”—and people like me: “I’ve been here 20 years and I’m going to be here; we’re taking the long view.” If we fail in the short run, or get set back a year, it’s not as devastating to us because we have our eyes out there.
I think it’s a nice blending that you have to make that fit with your boss who wants everything to be accomplished in four years. I think it’s a good system to have both of those concepts have to find a compromise.
I wouldn’t say there weren’t any earthquakes. But politically, the Arts, [the Office of Archives and] History and the Library system are bipartisan. There are many, many Democrats and Republicans who are out there working in the arts, and they appreciate that there’s a state agency helping them work. It’s not about politics. I really think that’s basic. And if there ever were rumblings, we’ve always had great boards.
There was one time, and I won’t say who this was, but a former board member of mine, from a party that had just came in, called me and said, “Mary, don’t leave town.” That was like, “OK, you might be jeopardy, so hang around.”
But we always had fabulous boards. We were bipartisan, and they wanted to help. I’m sure that’s not like that in other departments; Commerce or [Department of Environment and Natural Resources] could have been more political. But I do note that Cultural Resources has never been even mildly political, except maybe in a little instance here or there. As a mindset, that’s never been there.
Which would be a strategy to follow if you wanted to stay out of the worst of the turbulence. But in the 1980s and 1990s the cultural wars were largely being waged under the auspices of NC Senator Jesse Helms. Are you saying that when such a fit about the arts was being prosecuted by our senior senator in Washington, there was no political blowback here in North Carolina?
There were several years when Senator Helms’ protégés in the legislature tried to copy him, when what he did in Washington, they tried to do here. We had some scary fights; some close calls in the legislature.
But we still had broad support in the legislature, and broad support from Republicans too. Governor Martin was from the more moderate wing of the party when Senator Helms represented the more conservative. Even in the legislature there were Republicans who tried to help us through that.
It was a hard time, I don’t mean to say it wasn’t. It was a very hard time, and we lost some things. There was a bill to eliminate the Arts Council. It was proposed that our staff be cut in half. There was a censorship amendment floating around, and there was a bill to end the Art in State Buildings Program. They didn’t eliminate us, they didn’t cut us in half, and they didn’t manage to get a censorship amendment, but we did lose the Art in State Buildings Program.
We had struggles, and, I’ll be honest, that was a very hard time to be working in the arts. But it was also invigorating. Because the field was right with us, and the board and the former boards; they were ready to just drop everything and do anything. It became a cause. It was like everybody wanted to stake himself or herself out: “We’re against censorship.”
It was more support, ready to help us do anything we wanted to do, than we ever needed to call on. That in itself was invigorating. At the time it seemed traumatic. We had victories and setbacks; we were celebrating, and then we’d say “Oh, no, we’ve lost it again.” But it was a really exciting time to be working in public arts support.
So, are we past all that?
Anything can come back, you know. I don’t think it will come back with the same passion that it had. That’s just my guess. It will be tied to money or other things. I don’t think there will be that heightened emotion.
When I told Linda [Carlisle, NC Secretary of Cultural Resources] in September that I was going to retire, I said there were two things I wanted to get done.
We had taken over the A+ Schools Program that the Kenan Institute for the Arts started. They funded it for 13 years, then UNCG took over. Then the budget dilemma hit and they weren’t able to continue it. Rather than have it die, we adopted it.
I wanted to get it really stabilized and start raising private money for it, laying the groundwork hopefully for legislative money in the future. We decided that this is something that the private sector will want to support. We’ve done that and have had some success with that; I’ve got a great staff and they’ve got a good plan.
The other thing is something that frustrates me because I’ve left it unfinished. It’s the SmART Initiaitive, the arts-driven economic development plan that we’ve come up with. We’ve already got a lot of arts-driven economic development in spots across the state, and Durham is a fabulous example of that.
We’ve come out with a plan. We’ve collected all these stories from different communities that have done as Durham has done. I think that works well in North Carolina; people want to do as well as other communities like them. We’re getting that word out and we’re starting a grant program. We’re starting small, to get a few model projects going that will move the kind of things that people that are already doing to another level, and then to help other parts of the state that aren’t into it get into it. I love the concept, and I’ve loved working with the task force. I hate to leave it behind.
What do you love about it?
It’s exciting; it’s new. It’s working with other parts of the state. The business sector’s going to be front and center in it. And the whole point is to make all of our downtowns lively—and that’s something I would enjoy anyway.
If you think, now, what does North Carolina need, I’m thinking we need more places like Charlotte has done in reinventing itself around the arts and sports. Then there’s downtown Durham, and now downtown Raleigh is lively. If I travel, I would want to go to places like I want these places to become.
That’s exciting, to think about jazzing up the state, and letting the arts be recognized for what they really do in invigorating the communities. Just being able to focus on the arts’ role has been really nice.
And to think, after all these years, to be in your last year, and still get really thrilled about something—and frustrated because you’re not going to be able to see it through.
But I think it’s got legs now. The staff, Secretary Carlisle, and the people on the task force are committed to it, and I think it’s going to do just fine.