Cary gets serious in supporting the arts

The First in a Series – The Triangle’s Towns as Leaders in Supporting the Creative Community

The mental picture many have when thinking of the “creative community” is of urban hipsters hanging out at downtown galleries or events like SPARKcon and Third Friday Art Walks.  While the first thought of towns such as Fuquay-Varina, Clayton or Cary are bland suburbia full of shopping malls and soccer moms.  But the fact is, in the Triangle, some of the most direct support of the arts community is coming from these smaller towns.  More importantly, this support is based on a understanding by the leaders of these towns of the importance of the arts to the quality of life of the town’s residents and to the towns future economic development. Triangle ArtWorks is working on a series of articles highlighting what these towns are doing.

This week, we are looking at the Town of Cary.

Cary gets serious in supporting the arts –


"Collective Conductivity" by Julia Rogers is part of Cary Visual Art's Outdoor Sculpture Exhibition.

Ed Gawf was hired by the Town of Cary 8 months ago as Downtown Development Manager with a goal of bringing people, businesses and a “sense of place” to downtown Cary.  Based on his experience working in places like Palo Alto and Boulder, he already understood the role of the arts in creating vibrancy and bringing people downtown.  Lucky for him, when he got there, Cary’s Town Council had already adopted several progressive arts initiatives, including making a major investment in the arts in Downtown Cary.

As already highlighted on this site, the recently opened Cary Arts Center boasts two performance venues, classrooms, and resident arts organizations, and is filled inside and out with public art. “We have seen the impact of the Arts Center already” says Ed, “so the Town wants to build on its success.  To be successful, we have to have something unique.” he continues, “We are not trying to be a big downtown (such as Raleigh or Durham) but complement that. We want to create something that people in

Lyman Collins shows off one of the new flex/dance spaces in the new Arts Center.

the region want to visit.” Because of its smaller scale, Gawf says in Cary “you can feel like an individual, rather than part of the masses.”

For Gawf, the keys to a successful downtown are “placemaking, art, sustainability and history”. The Cary Arts Center, at the end of Academy Street, is a major anchor for downtown, but he believes there needs to be more destinations in a walkable area.

In support of that goal, Cary has made two more recent arts-related additions to Cary’s downtown. The Town has purchased the old Cary movie theater on Chatham Street and will be renovating it into a multi-use community theater, where there can be a number of uses, such as film or music performance, comedy shows or theater. According to Lyman Collins, Cultural Arts Manager, for the Town of Cary, this theater is going to complement both the Arts Center and the Page-Walker Art and History Center by “providing a mid-sized space that will allow programs to build from one facility to another.” The Town will be replacing the theater’s neon marquee, which, according to Collins, will “light up the whole area and be very transformative”. The Cary Town Council recently approved an addition to this building, adding even more opportunity for arts programming and performance.

The transformation of the old Cary Movie Theater has begun.

Part of creating a “sense of place” for downtown Cary is bringing businesses downtown too.  “We will be  maintaining the residential quality of the area,” Ed explains, ” but adding opportunity for business growth.  But we need to create ‘place’ first.”  He added, “Because we are working on a smaller scale, we have more flexibility.”  As the current changes, such as the Arts Center, add to Downtown’s vibrancy, “there is less question of why we are doing it.  Success breeds success”.  The Town also owns 13 acres in the downtown area that they are working towards transforming into multi-use space, including possibly more public art, a farmer’s market, new library or park/gathering space.

I asked Ed and Lyman what they say to those naysayers who always talk down Cary as the “Bastion of Beige” and as only supporting representative art or “kids chasing dogs in bronze”. Lyman scoffed and quickly said “Come see us and you will see differently! You can’t walk into Cary Arts Center and say that!” Gawf added, “From all the places I have worked, this is as good an example of intergrated art as I have seen. That is who we are.”

And there are great examples of what they are saying all over downtown. Looking at visual art alone, temporary pieces from Cary Visual Art’s “Outdoor Sculpture Exhibition” dot the downtown area.  Raleigh artist Matt McConnell installed artwork in Cary’s downtown Amtrack Station in August, which was commissioned by the North Carolina Railroad and given to the Town in recognition of the Town’s committment to public art, and public art fills the new Arts Center, both inside and out.

But Cary supports lots more than visual art.  “Booth Amphitheatre has developed a great reputation as not only a spectacularly beautiful venue, but also one with an amazing array of programs and events.  Where else can you think of that you can hear the North Carolina Symphony one evening and Styx the next, or participate in colorful festivals like Diwali, quirky events like our Beer, Bourbon & Barbeque festival, plus Movies by Moonlight,” says Collins.  He continued, we “foster a creative environment in Cary so that new and established festivals and events, like Cross Currents Chamber Music Festival, feel at home here.  We are always open to new ideas for events, activities and creative endeavors.”

Cary is embracing arts and its arts community as a way to a create sense of place for its citizens, create a unique place for others to visit, and a vibrant place for businesses to locate.  Not just paying lip service, but allocating Town staff time and funding too.  We at Triangle ArtWorks believe that this vision will serve the Town well for the future and make Cary, and the Triangle, a better place to live and work.

Next in the Series– ArtWorks will be looking at the town of Clayton’s creative vision for its future.  I think you will be surprised by what you hear!  Beth

Not only does Cary HAVE bus shelters, but each route has a design taken from historic buildings in Cary.


Fine Arts League of Cary is doing it’s part by sponsoring high quality art exhibitions several times a year in Cary. If you enjoy contemporary sculpture, you HAVE to see our Inaugural Juried Sculpture show currently at the Cary Arts Center. Stunning! We also have a show comprising 57 juried 2-D works in a wide range of styles at the Page Walker Museum. Up until January 10th 2012. FALC is purely volunteer driven.

[…] on creative efforts in smaller towns in the Triangle.  Read the previous installment, on Cary, here. Looking to The Clayton Center from connected new Town Hall, shows the marriage between old and new […]