United Arts began in 1962 with the formation of the Raleigh Cultural Center which later became known as the Wake County Arts Council. In 1990, the organization merged with the Capital Area Arts Foundation to become United Arts Council of Raleigh and Wake County, the official arts agency of Wake County.
In 1990-1991, Henry Bowers served as the first Executive Director of the merged arts organization. Bowers, along with G. Smedes York, the first Chairman of the Board of the new United Arts, is credited with uniting the two groups and facilitating a smooth transition. Read More..
From 1991-1997 Robert Bush, Jr. was Executive Director. During his tenure, the arts education programs, under the leadership of Linda Bamford, received state and national attention for bringing teaching artists into Wake County schools. In addition, United Arts began working with smaller municipalities to develop cultural plans and fund grassroots groups throughout the county.
In 1991 United Arts received its first grant from the National Endowment of the Arts to create more diverse arts programming by launching Heritage Arts, an African American organization that put on an annual street Fair in Moore Square and ran arts programs in Wake schools.
Associate Director, Marilyn Harrison, served as Interim Director from 1997-1998.
From 1998-2001 Margot H. Knight took over as President and CEO. She is credited with changing the way United Arts worked by creating an atmosphere of transparency and restoring the trust in United Arts as an advocate for the arts and artists. She said, “Our problems are your problems, your problems are our problems. We are too small a group to be at competition and at odds with one another.”
In 2001 Eleanor Jordan Oakley was selected as the next President and CEO and served for 18 years. While at United Arts, she expanded the Artists in Schools program, began master classes for high school arts, created the Wheels on the Bus fund, and launched the Wake Murals program.
From February 2020 to October 2021, Charles Phaneuf served as President, guiding the organization through the pandemic and enabling United Arts to continue its support for the arts and artists in Wake County during uncertain times.
During his tenure, United Arts joined with other area arts groups to create a Relief Fund for North Carolina artists and partnered with Triangle arts organizations to fundraise regionally through Big Night In for the Arts.
From November 2021 to August 2022, Ragen Carlile, Vice President for Education and Community Programs, served as Interim President. In addition to keeping the organization running smoothly during a time of transition, she also is credited with creating the Community Spotlight Project Grants to support innovative projects that feature or are led by historically underrepresented communities and led the organization’s first summer internship program for undergraduate students from backgrounds historically underrepresented in arts leadership.
In August 2022, United Arts welcomed its sixth leader, Jennifer Dwyer McEwen* as President and CEO. Jennifer is currently focused on the new Arts and Economic Prosperity 6 study for Wake County which will show the economic impact of the nonprofit arts and culture industry. She is also working with the United Arts board on a new strategic plan that will determine the direction of United Arts over the next three years.
*Fun Fact: Esther Hall – current chair of United Arts’ Advisory Council – led both President & CEO searches in 2001 (Eleanor Oakley) and 2022 (Jennifer McEwen).