Students from Southern Lee High School and several non-students participated in a “Stroll Down Memory Lane” event at the school’s black box theater last spring. Thanks to a $3,600 grant from the Lee County Arts Council, the theater received much-needed lighting and sound improvements recently.

Painters, potters, musicians, directors, actors and artists of all kind have benefited from grants thanks to the Lee County Arts Council, whose purpose is to ‘foster artistic expression’

By Billy Liggett

When Southern Lee High School needed significant equipment improvements for its black box theater recently, drama teacher Sheryl Davis turned to the Lee County Arts Council to get things done.

Had she tried the more traditional funding route — submitting proposals to the school and Board of Education and waiting to cross all the red tape that process puts up — she’d likely still be waiting for the much-needed LED lighting, lighting boards and new speaker system that she had today thanks to the Council’s relatively quick turnaround.

Digital edition of the February 2023 Rant Monthly

“During the pandemic, we saw in a lot of younger children that they were missing out on confidence-building programs like theater,” says Davis, whose theater is being used to both educate students and for non-school productions (a requirement for the grant). “I saw kids come in after COVID with a lot of anxiety, and after 20 minutes on stage, they were proud of themselves for overcoming that fear. Participating in arts, that teaches us how to be human.”

For the past 45 years, the Lee Council Arts Council has been committed to fostering art appreciation and artistic expression in the area through public events, educational classes and important grant opportunities. A nonprofit subsidiary of the North Carolina Arts Council, LCAC has helped countless painters, potters, sculptors, writers, poets, photographers, actors, musicians and more not only by funding their creative endeavors, but also through exhibits and other events highlighting their work. Their office in Steele Street Mall in downtown Sanford features a rotating showing of various media.

According to Victoria Naegele, LCAC director of programs and events, the Council funded nearly $135,000 in grants over the last four years — $54,000 as part of Grassroots grants (which go out to all 100 North Carolina counties based on population), $71,000 in federal grants (N.C. CARES and the American Rescue Plan Act) and nearly $9,000 in other artist grants.

LCAC will start up its grant workshops again in June of this year — community nonprofit organizations are eligible to apply for grants to “support performances, art exhibitions, festivals, after-school arts programs, arts camps, classes and workshops. The summer workshops cover all aspects of applying for a grant and are open to both prospective grantees and the general public.

“We try to help everybody we can,” says Naegele, who’s been involved with LCAC for 10 years. “We can’t grant churches or government entities, and there are several limitations on who can receive funding. But we’re so lucky in Sanford — we’re home to so many wonderful artists and art organizations. We have access to grants that others don’t have access to — they’re under-recognized and under-used. So we’re trying to get the word out.”

One organization that’s had nearly 60 years of success locally is the Sanford Brush & Palette Club. The club’s principal officer Diana King says the grant they receive from LCAC covers almost half of the costs to run their annual show and exhibition in the fall at the Hale Center.

“The show is an opportunity to not only bring in art lovers and students to see artists’ work, but also a chance for the artists to do interactive things with them,” King says. “Showing them their process or actually having them participate in small projects is a really fun aspect of the show. It’s something that brings the community together — children and adults — and this wonderful opportunity to really engage in the arts isn’t possible without the funding we receive from grants.”

Additionally, King says, grants allow Sanford Brush & Palette Club to host these events with no admission fee. The same can be said for grants received by the Lee County Orchestra, which performs a number of free concerts throughout the year.

Brush & Palette Club, the orchestra, Heart of Carolina Jazz, El Refugio, Common Thread — they’re just a few of the growing number of organizations whose annual budgets rely on grant funding provided by LCAC. Even Temple Theatre, which typically doesn’t qualify for many of the LCAC grants, received $20,000 as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

Asked what the state of the local arts scene would be if artists didn’t have access to these grants, Naegele says simply, “It would be sad.”

“There are four Cs at the heart of art expression,” she says. “Communication, creativity, collaboration and critical thinking. That’s what the cultural arts teaches, whether you’re a child or an adult. These are important life skills. I had years of training in piano, but in college, I studied mathematics and science. When I went to work in the computer field, I discovered that most of the programmers I worked with had some sort of background in the arts — often the visual arts, because that goes hand-in-hand with that kind of programming.

“Those who learn ballet — they learn poise, athleticism and presentation. We recently brought in [N.C. Poet Laureate] Jaki Shelton Green, and aspiring writers and poets had a chance to not only hear her, but talk to her. That’s a gift. Poetry paints a picture in your mind, and we hope opportunities like this inspire others to express themselves.”

“It’s been a very difficult last few years,” adds King, referring to all the events that had to be canceled or postponed due to the pandemic. “The Lee County Arts Council helped get us through that. It’s an opportunity for us to invest in this community, to not only support various programs and organizations, but also encourage them to take their work to the next level.

“I look at the Council as a catalyst for the arts here.”

Learn more

Community nonprofit organizations are eligible to apply for grants to support performances, art exhibitions, festivals, after-school arts programs, arts camps, classes or workshops. The next grant cycle will begin in June.

Organizations interested in applying for a Grassroots Grant should contact the Lee County Arts Council at (919) 774-6139 or by email at to pick up an application.

The purpose of the Grassroots Grants program is to support local artists with grants, a broad spectrum of educational and support services, and to develop exhibition venues and markets for local artists.