Second ‘Big Night in for the Arts’ fundraising event to air in March


First, COVID-19 pandemic restrictions forced venues all over the country to cancel gigs and shows without warning. Then prolonged restrictions and caution prevented venues and artists from scheduling shows and rebuilding gig pipelines.

Now, though back in business, surviving venues and artists still have to navigate various lingering pandemic considerations and unpredictability — from mask-wearing and possible exposure to new, out-of-the-blue vaccine-evading variants.

“Working in the arts is rarely a consistent sort of income situation,” Cheryl Chamblee, the Chatham Arts Council’s artistic director, told the News + Record. “But this pandemic, even now, has made it so unpredictable that it’s really challenging for the artists.

“There are so many hard things on so many levels for folks,” she added. “There is a lot of grief and loss — a huge amount — but artists are inherently creative, and so we are figuring it out. We are figuring out ways to get the work out there, ways to be inspired, ways to support others through the arts.”

That’s why WRAL and four Triangle-based arts organizations, including the Chatham Arts Council, have once again joined forces this year to raise funds to help the arts community continue to rebuild and emerge intact from the pandemic.

First held last year, this fundraising initiative — a show called “Big Night in for the Arts” — will feature performances from regional artists, address the pandemic’s impact on the arts and highlight the missions of its four organizers: the United Arts Council of Raleigh and Wake County, Durham Arts Council, the Orange County Arts Commission and the Chatham Arts Council.

WRAL will air the event at 7 p.m. on Thursday, March 10. Viewers may donate online during the broadcast at Donors may choose to support all four organizations or keep their dollars within a single county. All funds raised will go toward arts programming, organizations and artists across the four counties the show’s organizers serve.

“[This event] is both regional and highly local, and I really love that about it,” Chamblee said. “It’s really cool. I hope people will, you know, get cozy on their living room couch, and just have a really good time watching it.”

The event’s participating artists include Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist Nnenna Freelon, North Carolina Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green, musician Ben Folds, folk band Hiss Golden Messenger, and Pittsboro tap dancer Jabu Graybeal.

The show will also highlight Chatham potter Mark Hewitt, whose pottery has been featured in the Smithsonian and other museums across the country. Originally from England, Hewitt has achieved renown for his distinctive functional pots, especially large planters and jars, which he creates using local clays inside his wood kiln in Pittsboro.

“Regional arts institutions have been extremely important in my life as a potter here in Chatham County,” Hewitt told the News + Record. “ … The arts organizations create a cultural climate within the region that’s important and significant, and shows the diversity and talents of all the different artists in the state, nationally and internationally.”

As part of the event, viewers will tour Hewitt’s Pittsboro studio and learn a little about how he crafts his pieces. After the broadcast, viewers may bid on one of Hewitt’s pieces.

“Certainly for me as a visual artist, I’m donating an umbrella pot, which is, you know, a substantial piece. It’s about maybe 26 inches tall and 12 inches wide,” he said. “It’s a significant piece that has a story of its own, and I told WRAL that. I’m very happy to have it go to auction and raise money for local arts organizations.”

Last year’s show attracted 35,000 viewers, according to the Chatham Arts Council’s February press release, and raised over $350,000 for all four arts organizations, with help from 600 corporate sponsors and individual donors. The Chatham Arts Council alone received around $35,000 in donations, which the nonprofit used to fund several arts programs designed to put artists back to work and democratize access to the arts.

Among other projects, last year’s event donations helped finance the council’s JumpstART grants, which the organization offered to Chatham artists, paying them to create and then publicly exhibit their work during November’s Chatham Experience.

Part of the funds also went toward the organization’s four-part Arts for Resilient Kids work, including the council’s Artists-in-Schools initiative, last year’s ClydeFEST in the Wild, and ArtAssist for Kids, which provides arts supplies to students without home access.

The fourth program under their Arts for Resilient Kids work, the organization’s truck and trailer roving performances, met students where they were, bringing the arts to neighborhoods across Chatham.

“We were doing our Artists in Schools virtually last year,” Chamblee said, “ … and we’re also really aware that so many children in Chatham do not, for all sorts of reasons, have strong access to Wi-Fi or strong digital access. So, we thought, ‘OK, how can we, at least for some of those children, get the arts to them?’ And so, it became a case of taking the arts to the kids, as opposed to the kids coming into the arts.”

The organization procured a truck and trailer, enlisted several local artists — including Diali Cissokho, the Takiri Folclor Latino dancers and Geoffrey the Bubble Guy — and rode into the Love’s Creek and Nature Trail mobile home communities last year to perform.

“We started it again this year because it was so inspiring,” she said. “The communities were so welcoming; the children and the families there were delighted and delightful. So, just some really beautiful moments.”

Remaining funds — plus dollars raised during this year’s show — will go toward similar arts programs, including an arts organization grant called “Survive to Thrive” this spring.

‘It will take investment’

The pandemic, Chamblee said, has been quite the roller coaster for everyone, and the “whiplash has been intense” most especially for performing artists who need live audiences to complete their work.

So, what will it take for the arts and artists to recover from it all?

“I think it will take investment, and I mean that on a lot of different levels,” Chamblee said. “I think it will take public and private investment in artists and in arts organizations, and in what we can bring to this community. … There’s also, I think, a sort of a heart investment that is happening and will need to continue to happen on the part of audiences — and artists, of course.”

It’ll also take recognition, she said. People rely on the arts and artists to get them through difficult and confusing times, especially now during a national mental health crisis that has impacted nearly everyone in some shape or form.

“We know that the arts can help with that; the arts are a tool and a resource, and so, we’re really focusing on that in so much of what we do,” she said. “That’s a big part of getting artists back to work — making sure that we as a community are recognizing artists as a resource, and paying them for what they can bring to our lives in this moment that is so desperately needed.”

So, one good way to start? Tuning into March’s Big Night in for the Arts and supporting a local arts organization or two.

“If we can harness that power of the arts, I believe that we can pull through this time in a way that people feel less alone, and that we have a stronger recognition of our shared humanity,” Chamblee added. “That’s a necessity. That’s not a luxury, especially right now.”

Reporter Victoria Johnson can be reached at