Written by Mary Carol Koester, an Asheville-based artist and founder of Azalea Bindery
Asheville is currently one of the most desirable art destinations in the country and when cities have a strong arts presence, people want to live, work, and visit there. What began as informal inquiries into Asheville’s growing reputation as a vibrant art community, has blossomed into an unprecedented partnership between six organizations.
Wendy Whitson, artist, River Arts District Association (RADA) board member and past president, was interested in the changes taking place in the art community and asked along with others, “What has catapulted Asheville to this level of recognition, and what do we know about the value of our artists’ contributions to the local economy?”
The quest for answers goes back quite a while. Whitson, a long-time arts advocate, knew there was no quick answer to how and why the city’s reputation for art had grown so rapidly. It was also known that it had been at least ten years since any kind of comparative analysis had been done on the creative sector in Asheville.
Readily admitting that painting, not numbers, is her passion, Whitson followed up with Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce Director of Research, Heidi Reiber, to talk about sources of data for the arts. Coincidentally, the creators of a software program called Creative Vitality Suite (CV Suite) reached out to Reiber as well. The calls were timely and prompted many collaborative conversations among organizations who share goals of supporting arts in Asheville.
Soon, Stefanie Gerber Darr, executive director of the Asheville Area Arts Council (AAAC), Brenda Mills, economic development specialist with the City of Asheville, and Mike Marcus, assistant director of The Center for Craft, Creativity & Design (CCCD), with support from UNC-Asheville, joined the discussion to consider the possibility of working together to better inform art sector advocates and other members of the creative economy.
Projects like this take time. Often there were many more questions than answers, but all were determined to keep the project moving forward. After considering possibilities, resources, and priorities, the team joined forces to purchase the consolidated software system. By uniting around their ideas, means, and enthusiasm, CV Suite was jointly acquired by the six organizations in late August.
In doing so, Asheville is joining cities such as Austin and Minneapolis in using a reliable data tool to quantify creative vitality and its importance to the local economy. Over the next three years, key indicators of the creative sector will become available.
Included in the data are the number of jobs in creative industries and occupations, as well as estimates on earnings and cultural nonprofit revenues. The partners will be able to see what aspects of the sector are growing or contracting, and compare or benchmark these with select regions. For example, in 2015, using a population-based calculation, the data showed that Asheville had 44 percent more creative activity per capita than the rest of North Carolina. This valuable information provides a great starting point for further investigation and may help explain Asheville’s prominence nationally.
These new tools not only advance the ability to quantify the economic activity of arts, but can help inform strategic planning and galvanize support, further understanding about arts in the region, and open doors to opportunities such as available grants. It is worth emphasizing that each resident artist spends a large portion of their income in Asheville, leading to additional jobs attributable to the creative sector. Arts also provide a higher quality of life to our community, which helps businesses attract and keep skilled workers. Additionally, creative sector jobs are less likely to be outsourced.
The Center for Craft, Creativity & Design, which shares the goal of demonstrating how integral arts and culture are to the fabric of this community, expressed strong support for obtaining data that could help create a comprehensive strategy for arts and culture over the long term, as well as increase overall investment in the city’s creative sector.
Marcus, Assistant Director at CCCD, noted, “While the intrinsic value of the arts remains paramount, the creative sector needs to also be able to demonstrate the quantifiable impact of the arts in order to successfully attract resources in a resource strained environment.”
Brenda Mills, with the City of Asheville, also recognizes the value of using a tool which will demonstrate economic growth in the creative sector over a longer period. We’ll be able to call attention to significant changes in our creative economy and provide information from a broad arts coalition to policymakers and stakeholders. We need to know as much as we can about public participation in the arts or public demand for arts experiences and events because that ultimately drives budgets and organizational funding levels.”
AAAC’s Gerber Darr expressed the deeper benefits of understanding the role the arts play in Asheville. “Through this partnership we hope to strengthen our understanding and exploration of community values, to foster greater stakeholder involvement, and to do everything we can to make sure Asheville remains a nationally known city of art.”
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