Yesterday, I had coffee with a successful young actor who is relocating from Brooklyn to Winston-Salem at the end of the summer. I asked her why, with no family, school or work in the area, she wanted to make the move. She said that she had never met so many creative people in one place working to advance their community more than their own careers and egos. She also cited the weather (and who could blame her?). For me, her perspective brought into sharper focus what I think we need to remember about our pursuit of being the City of Arts & Innovation.
Since I moved to Winston-Salem from New Haven, Conn. four years ago, I find myself having the same conversation nearly every time I meet someone new. Due to my work at the arts council, I have a lot of coffee with young professionals and artists interested in being more involved in the community. Whether my caffeinated conversation partner is a native or a transplant, we seem always to agree both that there is something special about Winston-Salem that bewitches and grounds us here, and that it still needs this or that one thing that we feel it’s missing. Whether we agree on that “something” hardly matters. The point, rather, is that so many of us — regardless of whether we were born here or moved here — are inspired by and want to be a part of Winston-Salem’s growth. Our belief that it needs us seems to be precisely why we love it so much. You can easily get wrapped up in this town.You don’t have to look far to find some great examples of this devotion, like the Winston-Salem native who started a music festival to create the kind of performance opportunity that he and his friends almost left Winston-Salem to find. Consider the painter who, frustrated with the lack of professional opportunities for visual artists in Winston-Salem, recruited artists from his MFA program not only to move here, but to donate half of their online-gallery sales to a new fund that supports emerging visual artists.
And yet, too frequently behind the well-intentioned ruminations on what Winston-Salem needs, I hear people compare it to other cities like Asheville, Durham, Charleston, Austin — you know the drill. Too often they point to “things” that those cities have which we don’t. I admit, I did this a lot, too when I first moved here. And I still insist that we need a good French restaurant with white tablecloths, snooty staff and a wine list filled with obscure, low-alcohol imports. Although this sort of comparison is inevitable, it’s important to remember that craft breweries, fancy tacos, pour-over coffee, food trucks and, yes, even French restaurants per se do not make a community creative. They certainly signal to residents and visitors alike that Winston-Salem is a cool, fun town, but we should not conflate what we think is cool with what is creative. To me, the real potential of places like Small Batch and Hoots derives not simply from the selling of beer, but from serving as a place for eclectic, interesting people to gather and connect through ideas.
So, what should we be doing with this overwhelming and benevolent interest in Winston-Salem? I propose that we participate actively in the cycle of creativity, and not just in its consumption. We begin by seeking out experiences that refine the way we see and listen, and end with the daring to create something even better than what we have experienced.
Challenge yourself to experience different art every month. If you regularly imbibe classical music through the Winston-Salem Symphony or Piedmont Opera, go see a concert at the Garage or Muddy Creek Café next month, or vice-versa. Challenge yourself to experience art from communities different from your own. If you stick to Trade Street galleries, check out the Delta Fine Arts Center on New Walkertown Road or the gallery at the Enrichment Center. No idea what or where these things are? So much the better. Challenge yourself to cultivate a community of culturally curious friends with whom you enjoy fancy tacos and craft beer. And, finally, choose a discipline and work hard at it. Take lessons at the Sawtooth School for Visual Arts or UNCSA’s Community Music School and put Winston-Salem on the map as the first place where anyone ever saw the next big idea that you helped to cultivate.
That’s the beauty of Winston-Salem, and it’s why we love it — because that culture exists here, and we’re able to create what we’d still like to see.
Devon MacKay is director of major gifts at the Arts Council of Winston-Salem & Forsyth County. Born and raised in Queens, NY, she moved here four years ago with her husband, John, who works at Wake Forest University.