Luring companies with pirouettes and a symphony

Sara W. Hodgkins figures her job says something about the state.

She's secretary of cultural resources in North Carolina -- believed to be the first state to have such an official at cabinet level. And the state's commitment to the arts is seen by virtually everyone as an important part of the boom in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area.

In fact, as in other communities around the country, the arts have become one of the newest recruitment tools in attracting new industries. Time and again, officials talking about the wooing of industry into the Research Triangle say, ''You can't draw good people from New York or Boston without good cultural resources.''

Engineers, it seems, think about more than just widgets after hours. They want art, they want symphonic music, even modern dance -- and to a degree that sometimes surprises them, they find them in the triangle.

Highlights of the arts scene include the North Carolina Symphony, whose educational programs for young people are heavily supported by the legislature. There's also the North Carolina Museum of Art, noted for its European paintings from the collection of dime-store magnate Samuel Kress. The American Dance Festival flourishes in Durham, where it is entering its fifth season.

So keen is local officials' awareness of the importance of these organizations that Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. has even brought along the symphony on industrial recruiting trips. A foray to Chicago a few years back won critical acclaim for the musicians and a new Sears, Roebuck store for Raleigh.

And Secretary Hodgkins has traveled as part of the governor's economic development team to Japan and Europe. As North Carolina magazine has put it, ''The arts are often as persuasive a selling point to prospective new industry as industrial revenue bonds and a favorable tax structure.''

Culture in the triangle isn't all just a matter of putting on the dog to impress Yankees, though. Charles Reinhart, director of the American Dance Festival, says: ''When we first came to Durham, there was an immediate realization that the festival would be an economic help to the area. But then people became curious about us -- 'What is it?'

''Now I find when I go into the candy store to buy the paper, I get some positive feedback. . . . I find about half the people I run into have been to one of the performances.''

The Paul Taylor Dance Company and Pilobolus, festival regulars, are now ''hometown heroes,'' Mr. Reinhart says.

He doesn't have any solid research on the festival's audience. But he notes that in recent years, the Taylor company has spent a week in Durham and only a week or two longer in New York; that is to say that the triangle, its half-million people just a small fraction of Greater New York's population, provides a proportionally much larger audience. From this he concludes, perhaps a bit hyperbolically, ''We've got the best modern dance audience in the world.''

Some newcomers find themselves enjoying more cultural evenings in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area than in whatever big city they may have come from. John Pilat, an engineer transferred by Data General Corporation from Westborough, Mass., to its plant in the Research Triangle Park some four years ago, is one.

Living near Boston, he found that concerts in Symphony Hall were something he just didn't get around to. But he has had season tickets for the North Carolina Symphony for a couple of years, and he plans to renew this fall.

The price is usually right. Triangle season tickets can cost little more than single tickets in New York, for example. In general, he finds the arts in the triangle ''more proletarian, and more accessible.''

Like many things in the area, the arts have a university connection. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has a strong theater tradition and imports half a dozen Broadway shows every season. The American Dance Festival is associated with Duke, which also has three theaters in its new Bryan Student Center.

North Carolina State's Friends of the College music series packs 'em in at Reynolds Coliseum. Acoustics are politely acknowledged to be less than ideal, but where else, enthusiasts ask, can you enjoy internationally known artists for such piddling admission charges?

The triangle's arts scene also illustrates the area's tendency to do things on a regional basis. The state museum of art is a case in point. Long housed in a converted office building in downtown Raleigh, the museum is soon to move to a new home on the western edge of town.

The choice of a site was fought by those who felt the museum should remain downtown. But the citizens were reminded that it was a state, not a city, museum , and the desire for parking and easy access prevailed. In fact, a survey found that the new museum's proximity to the highways made it the most accessible spot in Raleigh -- an indication that in a spread-out city built with the automobile in mind, the shortest distance between two points may be not a line, but a beltline.

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