The People’s Collection: Art in the Triangle

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By Erica Jevons Sizemore, writer for New Homes & Ideas

Featured Photo Courtesy of

This is part of an ongoing series: What is Making the Triangle Area so Desirable?

Built into the fabric of the Triangle area is a hub for the cultural arts.  With a plethora of state-of-the-art performance venues, museums, galleries, symphonic music, recording studios, theatres and NY Times best-selling authors in our midst, the area offers something for everyone to celebrate and enjoy from novice to expert.  The Triangle has been able to preserve its own unique artistic and literary culture during a period of robust growth, collectively yielding a wealth of opportunity and strong future potential for the community and its visitors. 

The cultural arts in the Triangle already have a strong foundation.  As Hannah Hayes, writer for Southern Living Magazine, puts it, “Free of the fuss… known more for their major universities and the international companies headquartered in The Research Triangle Park, (these towns) have discreetly transformed into a bucolic-urban oasis where the arts and tech synergize and anything homegrown – from business to vegetables – is enthusiastically exalted,” with the arts being no exception.  Led by a class of imaginative artists and innovators, the cultural arts enhance quality of life and stimulate innovation, creating an interdependent enterprise that keeps the area quietly buzzing.

Often referred to as the “Smithsonian of the South,” Raleigh is bursting with live performing artists and visual art offerings including numerous nationally acclaimed organizations, must-see collections and local haunts (small jazz clubs, coffee shops and bookstores), grassroots galleries and many collegiate art program attractions that span the region.  Concurrently, Durham has been ranked among the highest concentration for workers in the creative class and is home to the Nasher museum, several hybrid art galleries and performance installation venues and Merge Records.  Chapel Hill and Carrboro are host to a plethora of galleries and artisan co-ops; in the 1980s and 1990s, Chapel Hill was well-known as an incubator for the punk/underground music scene, and years later, that spirit remains in places like Local 506 and The Cave. National acts can be found headed to the Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC), Duke Energy Center for Performing Arts, PNC arena and The Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro.  If you are still unsure about the area’s artistic and literary underpinnings, try to find a town which doesn’t have a bookstore or forget to mention the bookBot – robotic delivery system that can retrieve any item from more than 18,000 book bins within five minutes – on the North Carolina State University library campus.  Advertised as a “community of writers,” Hillsborough inspires with its natural beauty, and locals find it an optimal space for creating, among them writers Alan Gurganus, Annie Dillard and Jill McCorkle.  And while North Carolina averages 19 non-profit arts and cultural organizations per county, Durham boasts more than 150 non-profit arts organizations with more than 900 artists of record.  There is opportunity and outlets for investment in and across the spectrum of the arts locally.


Photo Courtesy of zimmytws/

With a personal passion for the arts, Lori O’Keefe has dedicated herself to the nonprofit sector serving as president and CEO of the Triangle Community Foundation whose focus is working to build a strong, diverse Triangle community. O’Keefe believes the arts are an integral component to their strategic mission.  Together with dedicated donors and nonprofits, they help to ensure the cultural arts are accessible across neighborhoods and communities with unrestricted grants going to smaller nonprofits and grassroots organizations, allowing them to continue to fund the work they are doing.  She explains, “We try to focus on smaller arts organizations and those that have been overlooked from traditional art donor audiences.  We need to identify and curate the next generation of talents.”  O’Keefe contends that sometimes the arts are taken for granted but we should remember that we need the arts as much as other core needs because they feed our souls and cultivate a desire to learn and explore.  “A couple years ago at a lunch for a youth nonprofit, I was talking with a high school senior planning to study mechanical engineering, who said he had taught himself how to play the piano on YouTube.  I was floored by the names of the classical artists he was familiar with and enjoyed, some of which I myself didn’t know,” she recalls.  When asked whether he had ever been to the symphony, he hadn’t.  “His family didn’t have the means to do so and although he never was going to be an artist, he had found his way to music all on his own.” 

Each year, the Triangle area generates about $377M in spending by non-profit and cultural arts audiences. Local artist and gallery owner, Linda Dallas, says “Creativity doesn’t just live in the arts.  Creativity lives in business.  Creativity lives in science.  This is what makes for a Smart City.” The Triangle is definitely plumb with smarts as the governmental and educational center of North Carolina.  With an investment in the arts, our own critical thinking and innovation benefits.  National studies have proven that arts programs decrease youth delinquency, enhance childhood development, encourage conflict resolution, build tolerance and self-respect, improve overall academic and behavioral performance.  The arts are essential to innovative workforce development, provide economic benefits, increase tourism and are a principal determinant in quality of life and health.  

In a recent survey, 92 percent of community respondents across a diverse demographic sample agreed that “learning art skills is an important way to master other basic skills” and is a focus of K-12 education in the Triangle area.  As area proponents look at the programs bringing arts and music education to younger audiences, our state museum comes to mind.  The North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA) stewards programs and experiences for the entire Triangle community and beyond.  In 1947, an initial $1 million appropriation was approved by the state legislature to purchase a collection of European and American paintings and sculptures for the people of North Carolina. These funds were matched by the Kress Foundation to procure another 70 works of art, a historic investment unheard of at the time which drew national attention. 

Now gearing up for the 75th anniversary of this initial collection which established the NCMA as a premier art museum, the museum which once was located on Morgan Street in downtown Raleigh can be found on an expansive campus along Blue Ridge Road.  Valerie Hillings, NCMA director and a Duke University graduate, has always been struck by the memories of every person she meets who had visited the original Morgan Street collection.  She recalls, “For many North Carolinians, it was a first and very important part of their cultural life memories.”

NC Museum of Art

Photo Courtesy of the NC Museum of Art

In 1988, while under the leadership of Larry Wheeler, the NCMA created a master plan to expand the museum with an outdoor theatre, walking trails and contemporary gardens.  What was envisioned would add community gathering spaces and unify the museum campus.  Among the largest of its kind in the world, the complete 164-acre NCMA park established shared spaces integrating art, music and nature with the traditional museum experience.  As Hillings notes, with the addition of the Museum Park to the already respected permanent and rotating collections in the East and West Buildings, the museum “distinguishes itself, setting it apart from others across the country.  It’s the people’s (art) collection – open and free.”

Already largely appreciated, the importance and value of the Museum Park is now undisputed, having welcomed over 900,000 people from all over during the 2020 pandemic.  Not all parks remained open but this well-loved site encouraged people to visit to enjoy the outdoors and the art.  Future plans include developing the lawn space behind the East building into an arts and entertainment zone, a social space where people can enjoy community, concerts, art, film and wellness together.  As the NCMA evolves, Hillings intends to “consider the varied interests of the community to create what is balanced and resonates, aiming to bring attention to the fact that all art is contemporary when made and all art will become part of history.”

In March, the NCMA opened a featured exhibit, Golden Mummies of Egypt, and anticipates welcoming a million visitors over an extended showing period, despite reduced capacity Covid-19 requirements.  The NCMA will also be offering digital tours and educational programming with over 7,000 students expected to see the collection.  “To the degree we can offer things for free and for the people, that is our goal,” Hillings continues, “providing educational components and exposure to audiences in schools, across the state, nationally and internationally in turns gains more interest.”

Looking back, most would not have predicted that the internet would now be an arena for cultural performance like in the manner it’s been during Covid-19 and that which it will be used during the Golden Mummies of Egypt exhibition.  Similarly, there has been an effort to develop outdoor art experiences for the Triangle community during the pandemic.  Working to find new ways to feature the cultural arts, Raleigh has established its first ever public art plan which will provide new direction to how art is created and placed throughout the city, looking to maximize the use of resources to support the future arts ecosystem. 

Public support and public and private partnership will ensure the cultural arts continue to reflect the Triangle, our rich diversity and allow them to be accessible to our area residents and visitors.  Visual and performing arts, literary arts, sciences and humanities and cultural expression celebrate the foundation of the diverse population who reside here.  O’Keefe reminds, “Art is a reflection of our humanity and where we are in the evolution of our lives, a cultural legacy for each generation, and the arts make it a sustainable part of our story,” and our story in the Triangle is still being crafted by many very talented and dedicated community members for all of us to enjoy.

Below is a List of Triangle Area Arts Organizations:

                                                                                                   Photo Courtesy of the NC Museum of Art

NC Museum of Art


Duke Energy Center for Performing Arts

Coastal Credit Union Music Park at Walnut Creek

PNC Arena

North Carolina Symphony

Carolina Ballet

North Carolina Opera

Raleigh Little Theatre

Raleigh Symphony Orchestra

Lincoln Theatre

The Pour House Music Hall

North Carolina Museum of Art

North Carolina Museum of History

North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences

Marbles Kids Museum

Contemporary Art Museum (CAM)


Koka Booth Amphitheatre (Cary)


Durham Performing Arts Center DPAC

The Nasher Museum of Art

Motorco Music Hall

The Carolina Theatre

African American Dance Ensemble

American Dance Festival

NCCU Jazz Ensemble

Full Frame Film Festival

The Hayti Heritage Center and Blues Festival

Durham Arts Council

Mallarme Chamber Players


Ackland Art Museum


North Carolina Crafts Gallery

Festifall Arts Festival

Chapel Hill Arts & Crafts Show

Carolina Performing Arts

Kidzu Children’s Museum

Playmakers Repertory Company

Forest Theatre

By Erica Jevons Sizemore 
Broker, Realtor, and Certified Luxury Home Marketing Specialist (CLHMS)

Erica’s background in finance and marketing is matched with a personal passion for an unparalleled experience, love of home design and inability to sit still – always brainstorming how to better position her gregarious clients to support their lifestyle and financial ambitions. Erica returned to residential real estate after 12 years in finance with Morgan Stanley and having worked as the marketing director for Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices York Simpson Underwood Realty in the Triangle. With a love of North Carolina and all things Raleigh, she has been an active volunteer and committee chairperson at many of our local community standouts, among them the North Carolina Symphony, Carolina Ballet, and Raleigh Chamber, and currently serves on the board of directors for the House of Hope NC.