SPIRIT OF STANLY 2024: Stanly County Arts Council marks 50 years

Celebrating its 50th birthday in 2024, the Stanly County Arts Council provides wide-ranging support for arts-related activities of all types in the community.

“For Stanly County’s size, we are blessed with as many arts opportunities as some large metropolitan areas,” says Renee VanHorn, who has served as Arts Council director since 2016. “Our organization is volunteer-driven by a passionate community of artists, with a mission to encourage and promote broad-based cultural and educational activities in the arts throughout Stanly County.”

Founded in 1974 by Harold H. Hilburn within the Stanly County Chamber of Commerce, the council now operates independently. Funding comes from private and public sources, including the North Carolina Arts Council (with funding support from the National Endowment for the Arts), in addition to private donations and sponsorships from local businesses. The Stanly County Agri-Civic Center houses the Council’s office, as well as provides exhibit space.

“Much of what we do is ‘behind the scenes,’ ” said VanHorn, who noted a number of affiliated organizations that SCAC supports. “We assist in funding, promoting and publicizing all genres of the arts throughout the county, and partner with a number of arts-focused organizations.”

Of the organizations to which VanHorn alludes, several predate the Arts Council itself.

“The Stanly County Concert Association is the oldest such group, having been established in 1947,” she noted. “The Stanly Arts Guild had its beginnings in 1963, and the Stanly County Chorale was founded in 1968.”

Local arts groups that have come upon the scene since SCAC was formed include the Uwharrie Players (1975), Uwharrie Youth Arts/City Youth Ballet (1998), The Talent Company (2005) and the Stanly County Concert Band (2012).

In addition to supporting these organizations, the Arts Council has been instrumental in establishing a number of community programs and events that promote arts to citizens of all ages.

“Our Celebration of the ARTS grew out of a gala event called ‘Evening of the ARTS,’ ” VanHorn said. “In 2016 a consensus was made to change to a free event open to the public, adding varied aspects to inform area residents of all that Stanly County has to offer in the arts.”

Events comprising Celebration of the ARTS include live performances highlighting local dancers, choral groups, musicians, theater groups and bands; information booths and demonstrations by local arts organizations and businesses; opportunities for artists to display and sell their pieces; and “Creation Station,” which provides children of all ages a way to create their own art to take home.

“A key element of the Celebration is a county-wide student art show,” VanHorn said. “It includes all private and public elementary, middle and high schools, plus entries from Stanly Community College and Pfeiffer University. Schools are limited on the number of entries, so it is an honor to be selected.”

Recognition of local artists at the Celebration is the highlight of the event, according to VanHorn.

“We announce recipients of regional Artist Support Grants, as well as honor the winners of the Fine Arts Educator of the Year and the Arts Person of the Year,” she said.

The Arts Council also has established and expanded cultural education programs through school partnerships.

“This started in the early days of the Stanly County Arts Council, and exposes students to different arts genres,” VanHorn noted, adding that all students in pre-K through 10th grade are provided experiences with professional artists.

“Elementary students have experienced performers such as puppetry with Doug Berkey and Opera Express. Middle School students have learned about the origins of hip-hop and rap music through the Soul Street Dancers and have attended performances by the North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble. Plus, high achoolers have learned about Stanly County’s own Lou Donaldson through artists like John Brown, and about the history of blues to rock from Scott Ainsley,” VanHorn said.

Students also benefit from free admission each year when SCAC brings the Charlotte Symphony in concert to the Agri-Civic Center.

“Because of strong community support, students are able to attend the concert free and we are able to keep ticket prices low for everyone else,” said VanHorn.

A summer arts camp, started in 2008, has recently expanded and is able to provide scholarships to at-risk youth thanks to local sponsor support.

“It’s my favorite program,” VanHorn said, “because one can witness firsthand the joy that the arts bring to our youth.

Throughout the week of camp, the students make new friends and learn how to express themselves. Hopefully, this will ignite the spark for a lifelong love of the arts.”

In celebration of the Arts Council’s golden anniversary, an exhibit at the Stanly County History Center is scheduled to run from April to July.

“The exhibit will feature all the arts organizations in Stanly County, and will include a number of artifacts, and histories and biographies of key artists from the county,” VanHorn said.

She was also quick to credit the many people and organizations who give of time and resources to promote and expand arts opportunities in Stanly County.

“The credit must be given to the numerous volunteers who ensure that the arts continue to thrive,” she said. “We all benefit from the abundance of time, talent and dedication that these groups and individuals are committed to each year.”

Toby Thorpe is a freelance writer for The Stanly News & Press.

This article originally appeared in the Spirit of Stanly magazine.