by Bob Geary
Secretary of Commerce J. Keith Crisco's message this morning in Raleigh was: They aren't luxuries at all. The arts are an industry by themselves, he said, accounting directly for 164,000 jobs in North Carolina (2008 data) with a total economic impact of $41 billion a year. That compares, Crisco noted, to agriculture's economic impact of $70 billion — and agriculture is still North Carolina's No. 1 industry, so give the arts their due.
More than that, Crisco said, a vibrant arts and cultural milieu helps North Carolina retain other businesses and attract new ones, especially new ones in the creative sector. And nowadays, if your business isn't creative, it's in trouble: His own Asheboro company, which makes textile elastics ("Our mission: We keep your underwear from falling down."), sounds prosaic but nonetheless depends on constant innovation and invention to make its products better than the competition's.
Crisco was the featured speaker at a breakfast program, "State of Arts & Culture in Wake County," held at the N.C. Museum of Art and sponsored by the United Arts Council of Raleigh and Wake County.
The program was less a report on the state of affairs in the arts than it was a group pep talk about the importance of arts programming mixed with some awards presentations.
Crisco, who leads the state's business recruitment efforts, underlined the theme.
Innovative people have a choice of where to work and where to live. They pick places where the quality of life is high and cultural offerings are excellent, Crisco told the audience. Not only does he get it, he went on, "I work for a lady who gets it about the arts" — Gov. Bev Perdue. The three things he talks with the governor about are jobs, jobs and jobs, he said. "And the arts "fit right into that."
Crisco's best applause line today: "You can count on this Secretary of Commerce to back arts education in the schools."
A little later, he field a question from a woman worried that the Wake County Board of Education, facing a huge budget deficit of its own — and having just hired (she noted) an ex-military officer, Anthony Tata, as its new superintendent — may be fixing to slash arts education spending as a cost-saver.
"I'm worried too," Crisco said. But he cautioned against assuming that Tata, because he's ex-military, won't appreciate the value of the arts in the schools and in the community. Crisco said he has a friend, also ex-military, who went into education in Florida and was outspoken in support of arts and music courses. "It's very much a management job," Crisco said of the military's top brass, "and those guys tend to be very good managers."
In the small-world category, Crisco and Larry Wheeler, the N.C. Museum of Art director and impresario, turn out to be old buddies from college — Pfeiffer College (now Pfeiffer U.) in Misenheimer, N.C., to be specific.
In fact, Wheeler — a year ahead of Crisco — had a job in the dean's office working alongside a young woman named Jane in whom Crisco took an interest. Soon, the three were close pals. And the rest is history: Keith and Jane have been married 46 years. Crisco's been Secretary of Commerce for two years now, but today was the first time that Wheeler let him speak at the museum, Crisco cracked, "given what I know about him."