RALEIGH — Bobby Kadis, head of the state’s arts council and a potter himself, had no interest in art for more than half of his life. Now 76, he was in his 40s when his wife signed him up for a pottery course, a diversion from his work as a developer and the stress of building a new home for his family
That class led him to the Penland School of Crafts in Western North Carolina – the first of 35 annual trips to the intense school for artists in disciplines from paper to iron. His work at the wheel has continued since, most recently resulting in an 80-piece exhibition that opened this weekend at Raleigh’s Roundabout Art Collective.
“I fell in love with it immediately,” he says of pottery. “It was therapy for me.”
This sudden love also launched him into the role for which he perhaps best known, as an arts booster who has chaired the N.C. Arts Council for seven years, and as a donor and volunteer to various local, state and national arts organizations.
As founder and former president of a commercial real estate development firm, he brings unusual business savvy to this role, lending his expertise to scrutinize budgets and his voice to advocate for public funding of the arts.
“I can’t ever remember a time when Bobby wasn’t right there in the center of things when it comes to the arts in North Carolina,” says Karen Wells, executive director of Arts North Carolina, a nonprofit that advocates for the arts. “He understands policy and process, and he understands the role of citizen activism better than anyone I know. He thinks people have an obligation to be active in their support, and he does that himself. He’s a leader and a model.”
Wall to wall, art
Kadis’ home is a gallery in which he knows nearly every artist personally. Huge handmade shelves surround his television with pottery. A staircase lined with ornamented birdhouses – one covered in pushpins – leads to a downstairs studio where he throws his pottery.
His wife’s interest in the arts predated his; Claudia Kadis was serving on the Goldsboro Arts Council when she first pushed him to try pottery. She noticed that her husband had been mesmerized watching an artist throw pots at an arts festival, and she thought his patience and eye for detail might find an outlet in clay.
His first class left him craving more, so he took the unusual step of signing on for two weeks at Penland, where he was the only beginner in a room full of serious potters.
He had thought of the trip as a vacation. He brought books and magazines, but found himself in the studio at 3 a.m. instead. Working with clay allowed him to explore ever-changing possibilities, he says.
“You learn to sit down and think about what it is you want to make and ask yourself, ‘Can you do it?’ ” he says. “I’ve learned that’s a very rewarding process.”
His annual trips to Penland led him to serve on the school’s board, where he helped organize and digitize its unruly and antiquated bookkeeping system. In all, he served for 16 years on its board – twice the usual term limit – including two years as its president.
He was appointed to the arts council in 1994, when he was offered a political appointment to the community college board. He asked the local chairman of the Democratic Party if he might serve on the arts council instead.
Having run a business prepared him for leadership roles in arts organizations, where he has scrutinized budgets and is not afraid to take on touchy debates, particularly regarding funding. He became chair of the arts council in 2005, and in recent years has also served on the national board for state art agencies and is now its treasurer.
Part of his job is to advocate for the arts as crucial to public life, and therefore worthy of public funding. Kadis says he finds supporters of the arts of all political stripes, but he works hardest to convince conservative lawmakers, who tend to believe museums and symphonies should be privately funded, that the arts are key to the state’s economic development.
“I am ready to have that debate,” he says. “I want people to understand how important it is to have public support for the arts.”
Career in real estate
Kadis grew up in Goldsboro. His father owned a half-dozen stores throughout Eastern North Carolina that sold retail clothes on credit. Kadis spent his summers working in the stores, and while he went to college for business, he had no intention of making his career in the family stores.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew what I didn’t want to do,” he says.
He interviewed with several New York City department stores and planned to take a job there when he finished a six-month stint in the Air Force; the draft was in effect, and he enlisted voluntarily.
But his father called him before he made it to New York and presented him with a chance to go into real estate. To his continuing disbelief, Kadis accepted the job selling unfinished homes for rock-bottom prices throughout rural parts of Eastern North Carolina.
The business grew quickly until the supply of homes outstripped demand, and many clients started defaulting on their mortgages. Kadis was left to buy back and resell many of the homes, often persuading parents to buy one for their adult children and move it to their land. It was hard, frustrating work, but Kadis says it made him wiser.
“You learn more from failure than you do from success,” he says.
He joined forces with his brother in a business that started building convenience stores and shopping centers Down East in the 1960s. In that past few decades, Centrex Properties followed demand to the Triangle. The company eventually moved its office and entire staff to Raleigh.
Kadis stills weighs in on some Centrex decisions from his home office, but his son and nephew run the business now, allowing him to devote his time to other pursuits.
He and his wife have immersed themselves in Raleigh’s arts scene, becoming regular patrons and donors to the symphony, ballet, museums and more.
They also travel extensively – recent trips include Japan and Australia – but rarely collect art on these trips, choosing to instead buy pieces from artists they know.
The time Kadis spends on his pottery has varied widely over the years. He devoted nearly half a year t his current exhibit, which will run throughout September at the collective on Oberlin Road.
The result is an assortment he calls “Altered Pots,” after his favored techniques of faceting the sides of pots in geometric designs and stamping surfaces with patterns. He found his shapes becoming more complex as he worked, and he’s eager to get back to the studio.
“I’m excited to continue throwing and see where I can go from here,” he says.
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