An Artivist at Heart: Carly Jones Blends Theater and Activism

Raleigh performer and NC Arts Council member Carly Jones tells us how she balances art and advocacy to aid art programs struggling due to COVID-19.
by Noor Azeem

Carly Jones is used to the limelight—she’s versed in the holy trinity of stage performance: opera, musical theater and plays. But when Jones is off the stage, she serves as the Senior Program Director for Artists & Organizations for the North Carolina Arts Council. “They naturally go hand in hand with one another,” Jones says about her “dual career” on and off the stage. With the Arts Council, Jones get grants and fellowships out to artists and organizations who might need them, like rural communities or communities of color.

Her career path was inspired partially by her parents: practical public servants, a teacher and a judge. They insisted that Jones attend college rather than trying her luck on Broadway after high school. She got a music scholarship from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and graduated with a double major in Black Music History and Vocal Performance, and a minor in Arts Management (at the suggestion of her father).

In college, Jones wanted to be an opera singer and travel the world. She did a stint in Italy, performing on the beach as part of the ensemble of La Bohème. It was the dream life: by the final act, her time on stage would be up, and she’d be “in the ocean, drinking vino and eating grapes, listening to the symphony play the last act of my favorite opera,” says Jones. “And I thought, if this is what being an opera singer is like, I’ll take it!”

But her practical side prevailed; she returned to the States to finish college. After graduating in 2009, her arts education came in handy. “I ended up leaning heavily on my grant writing,” says Jones. “It took me time to realize that that’s okay—most performers are doing something on the side to pay the bills.”

Now, a decade later, Jones sees those skills as a blessing rather than a fallback. With a full-fledged career in the arts administration world, Jones can still perform, but she doesn’t have to say yes to every role that makes its way to her. She has the financial stability to take on roles that mean something to her and that send a message. She’s become an artivist.

Jones didn’t coin the term—it’s been around since the late 1990s—but she’s embraced it as her ethos. “I wanted to merge my love of being politically involved with my love of my art,” says Jones. “I have a passion for telling stories that people don’t normally hear.” Jones’ version of an artivist is using her artistic prowess to help her community—taking on roles that tell an important story. She’s inspired by Nina Simone—“the original artivist, a voice for the voiceless.” If Jones can be the vessel to make someone’s voice heard, she wants to do it. Maybe, she muses, this comes from her upbringing as a biracial girl in the South. “My own story hasn’t really been told on a stage,” she says.

In 2018, Jones played Camila in NC Theatre’s production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights. The musical is near and dear to her heart. “I saw In The Heights [after college] and I remember thinking: everyone up there looks like me!” says Jones. “I’d never seen a musical where everyone was brown.” When the musical came to town, Jones was one of four local performers chosen for the show (everyone else came in from New York).

Working with the big-city professionals was informative, but the greatest lesson she learned was about balance. “I’m doing the same level of work as they are, but living in my own home, with a career to go back to when that show is over,” says Jones. “I love the life I’ve created for myself here. We need to teach young people that you don’t have to be a starving artist. You can create your own version of success.”

Most recently, Jones was in a production of Orange Light by Howard Craft, which ran at The Fruit in Durham through February. The play is based on the 1991 Hamlet, N.C. chicken processing plant fire, which received national attention after low-income workers were trapped inside the burning chicken plant with the fire exits padlocked. Dozens of people died, mostly single moms. “Howard wrote this play about their stories,” says Jones. “Oftentimes when we hear about tragedies, we just hear a number.” The cast was all women, each playing multiple roles (firefighters, victims, even Jesse Jackson). For Jones, this is social activism: using her voice to share an important story.

Jones notes similarities between the victims in this play and those in recent outbreaks of COVID-19 in meatpacking plants. And in recent months, her workplace has transitioned full-time into relief efforts. “It has taken us all by surprise,” says Jones. “No one was prepared for this. I’m so grateful I can help people.”

In April, Jones and her colleague Sandra Davidson spearheaded a new form of artivism: a three-day virtual music festival called Under One Roof, which featured artists like Ben Folds, Tift Merritt and 9th Wonder. Putting a festival together, even virtually, was no small task—but Jones was up for it. “I love being able to be creative like that in my work,” she says. “I got to work with people from different genres and see the amount of compassion that musicians and artists have—even the ones who have ‘made it.’” says Jones. “People just want to give back during this time and they want to help.” They raised over $50,000, all of which will go to artists who are suddenly out of work.

Typically, this time of year, the Arts Council would be hosting panel discussions and reviewing grant applications for upcoming arts programming. But with venues empty and arts programming indefinitely halted, there are no grants to approve. Instead, Jones is concentrating on ways to support the arts and artists—and make sure the arts industry can survive the global pandemic. “It’s less about programming now and more about stabilization.”

Today, Jones’ day-to-day consists of distributing information and funds for artist recovery efforts, breaking down stimulus grants for performers, staying in touch with venues and nonprofits, and having the “reopening” conversation as it pertains to the Arts Council. Jones is worried whether the arts can weather this storm, but she believes that artists and their supporters are strong. “The arts community is innovative and resilient,” she says. “We’ll get through this.”