Written by Paul Clark
Will our region’s growing arts reputation make us the new Austin?
Asheville and Western North Carolina may be known for beer, but we’re also making our name in music and the rest of the creative arts, according to recent studies that for the first time provide tools that the region can use to build its “creative sector.”
The studies suggest what residents already know—Asheville’s reputation as a national arts center is growing, drawing “creatives” from all over the world. The downside, the studies (and experience) suggest, is that the area is becoming too expensive for many arts professionals already here. For better or worse, the region is booming.
Take the Asheville-area music scene. Employment in the sector grew four times faster than expected between 2010-2016, according to a study of the local music industry, conducted by the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce Economic Development Coalition (EDC) and the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce Research Center (more on that below). In eight years’ time, the core of music industry employment, led by musical groups, artists, and instrument manufacturers, grew a “staggering” 76%—778 jobs—according to an Asheville-Buncombe County Economic Development Coalition study that cites a tool that brought together never-before-compiled data on the region’s creative sector.
And consider the Asheville-area visual arts and literary scene. The tool cited above—the Creative Vitality Suite—counted 2,629 photographers, writers and authors, graphic designers, and fine artists in 2016. They were among the 7,993 “creative jobs” in Buncombe County that year, according to the Creative Vitality Suite, a software tool that analyzes “creative” industry labor data of nonprofit and for-profit organizations, as well as of self-employed artists. By comparison, there were 2,571 jobs in the local brewery industry, according to the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce.
(According to CVSuite.org, “The Creative Vitality Index compares the per capita concentration of creative activity in two regions. Data on creative industries, occupations, and cultural nonprofit revenues are indexed using a population-based calculation. The resulting CVI Value shows a region’s vitality compared to another region.”)
Also compare the earnings by local brewery workers to those made by “creatives.” Earnings by the region’s creative sector in 2016 dwarfed that of the beer industry in 2017—$398 million vs. $111 million. Asheville may have more breweries per capita than any other city in America, according to Explore Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau (jobs in the local brewing industry grew 754 percent from 2011-2016), but it has considerably more people working in the creative arts sector compared to the alcohol sector. Research by the Chamber of Commerce indicates that if the economy continues as it has, the area will continue to attract creatives at the same rate for the next three to five years, the Chamber’s CEO Kit Cramer says.
“As talented as our region is in entrepreneurial activity and creativity, there is no reason this part of our economy cannot continue to grow,” she says. The arts are so important to Asheville and Buncombe County that they are a “support structure,” along with infrastructure, education, and community development, in AVL 5X5 Vision 2020, a local five-year job creation plan that the Economic Development Coalition unveiled in 2015.
All that growth could be imperiled, however, by the area’s high cost of living—and its impact on artists and other creatives.
“We know that Asheville has a tremendous creative sector that has significantly shaped the region’s identity and culture for the past 100 years,” Stephanie Moore, executive director of the Center for Craft Creativity & Design (CCCD) in Asheville, has said. “We also know that many artists and creatives are leaving due to the rapidly increasing cost of living, putting Asheville’s culture at risk.”
Growing… and Growing Pains
Lots of metrics point to Buncombe County’s swelling reputation nationally as an arts center. The arts are a significant reason why Asheville was called a “Best Place to Go” by Frommer’s in 2015 and a “Top City for Art Lovers” by AARP in 2015. They’re why the National Center for Arts Research pegged Asheville eighth among its 10 most vibrant medium-sized arts communities. Nearly two out of three non-Buncombe County residents surveyed in 2016 said the main reason they visited the Asheville area was to attend an arts event, Americans for the Arts reported.
Meanwhile, Rolling Stone magazine has cited the Orange Peel, a music venue with a 1,000-plus capacity, as one of the leading music venues in the Southeast. In 2017, Fast Company magazine named Moog Music Inc., an electronic music gear creator and innovator in Asheville since 1978, as one of the “World’s Most Innovative Companies.”
With a population of 256,090, Buncombe County has a “creativity vitality” index—a per-capita concentration of creative activity—one quarter higher than the national average, according to the aforementioned Creative Vitality Suite. That’s likely true in part because of the number of creative professionals who prefer Asheville, a collaborative city of 92,000 that the United States Census predicts will grow seven percent by 2022, to crowded, competitive job markets elsewhere.
The number of artists that Stefanie Gerber, executive director of the Asheville Area Arts Council, has seen in the two and a half years she has lived here “has just exploded,” she says. Asheville and Western North Carolina have long been known for the arts, but this recent explosion of fine artists and craftspeople follows the development of the Asheville’s River Arts District, as well as the region’s storied history as a national center of craft, she says.
Between 2010-2016, a time when jobs in the music industry in the United States grew 12%, Buncombe County’s music sector grew 52%, greatly outpacing the 16% overall industry job growth in the county during the same period, according to a 2016 study (the “Asheville Music Industry Cluster Analysis and Economic Impact”) conducted by the EDC with assistance from the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce Research Center. The Tennessee city, of course, is another music mecca, and the Nashville Chamber assisted because the researcher there “agreed something noteworthy was happening in music in our region,” the Asheville Chamber’s Cramer says.
But with growth comes growing pains. As is true in San Francisco and New York City, Asheville has a decreasing amount of housing that many of its residents, including artists, consider affordable. And the lack of it is keeping some creatives away or driving them out of town.
“I have no idea why an artist would move to Asheville now. It’s not sustainable at all,” says singer/songwriter Chelsea Lynn LaBate (a/k/a Ten Cent Poetry), who not long ago moved to Africa from Asheville, a place she used to consider affordable. “Rent is more than what I paid in New York City before the 2008 recession.”
A study done in 2015 for the CCCD, in partnership with the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, cites a dire need for affordable space that artists can live and work in. Done by Artspace Consulting, a Minneapolis-based, national nonprofit real estate developer of affordable space for the arts, the study indicates artists can afford up to $750 a month for space they can live and work in. But the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Asheville is $985, and $1,195 for a two-bedroom apartment, according to Rent Jungle, an online search engine portal for people hunting places to rent. Too many once-affordable spaces in town are being converted to short-term rentals, a focus group told Artspace.
The cost of real estate in Asheville is driving creative communities outside of Buncombe County. The counties of Mitchell and Yancey have a vibrant scene, partly because housing and studio space are much more affordable and partly because of Penland School of Crafts, a nationally known school in Mitchell County that has prompted many of its instructors and students to move to the area. (See “Learning To Be A Maker” in the October 2017 issue of this magazine for a profile of the Penland School.)
Some of what has drawn the new transplants to those two counties is the support they’ve received from fellow artists, says Robin Dreyer, Penland School communications manager. “People like to be around other people who are doing the same thing they’re doing,” he says. “Especially when you’re trying to make a living through art and craft—not an easy thing to do—it’s helpful to have friends trying to do the same thing.”
The art scene in Jackson County has grown in the eight years that Denise Drury Homewood has been there. Western Carolina University’s Bardo Arts Center, of which Homewood is executive director, has a 1,000-seat performance hall, as well as the Fine Art Museum that draw visitors from several surrounding counties.
The museum’s collection of contemporary Native American Art is helping raise the discourse about art locally while providing a national platform for Native American artists, Homewood says. “What’s happening here is that we have a variety of visual art and craft galleries who, like us, are not just throwing art up on the wall. We’re doing research to learn more about the work. There’s a wave of education happening.”
She noted a recent Fine Art Museum exhibition by Joshua Adams, an Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians carver who had just curated an exhibition at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, in Cherokee, of millennial-generation artists who are also members of the Eastern Band.
“I would say there are a lot of people out here doing research,” Homewood says.
She couldn’t say whether the Native American art alone is drawing creatives to Jackson County. But something that is, she believes, is the Jackson County Green Energy Park, a county-run facility that uses methane from an old landfill to power a forge, a glass studio, and other spaces for artists. Situated “at the intersection of art and engineering, it’s attracted many artists to the area who are interested in reducing their carbon footprint in making their work,” Homewood says.
Another regional draw is Polk County’s Tryon Fine Arts Center, which hosts an impressive range of concerts, theater, dance, and visual arts, additionally offering arts in education opportunities to the public and operating as a regional grantmaker. It originally opened in 1969 as a 315-seat auditorium, gallery, meeting, and classroom space and has grown steadily over the years; in 2013 the 200-seat Peterson Amphitheater opened, and currently a capital campaign is underway to fund a much-anticipated expansion. (Go to page 14 to read our separate profile of the Fine Arts Center.)
“The arts scene in Polk County is incredibly strong,” says the Center’s executive director, Marianne Carruth, “with a broad-based level of community support that’s unusual for a rural county of 19,000. The beauty of this area has drawn a population that are artistically and community minded. Many artists are homegrown, having a background in traditional arts and crafts, and many artists have moved here for the beauty and the lifestyle. Many of our new neighbors have moved here because of the availability of quality arts in the area. Retirees from major cities come to the area and have an appreciation for the arts and are very supportive of visual and performing arts and crafts both as patrons and volunteers.”
“A Lot of Individual Hustle”
Andrew Fletcher’s life is typical of a successful musician in Asheville who is able to support himself playing music, but though he has worked in the area for nearly a decade, even he struggles at times. Tall and slender, the piano player showed up for a mid-afternoon interview in a downtown Asheville coffee shop recently sporting a well-groomed, pencil-thin moustache. Ordering a breakfast of a bagel and iced coffee (he’d just recently gotten up, having played a late-night gig), he looked sharp as always, in a black suit with narrow lapels, a crisp white shirt, and a skinny tie with a wicker weave motif. Black hair swept up and away, Fletcher spoke clearly and convincingly about the challenges faced by many area musicians.
It’s not all bad. Like them, he is “riding the wave” of the region’s burgeoning tourism, he says. Playing in several bands and performing solo in between, Fletcher works regularly each week. He has worked himself up to a decent pay grade, generally asking that he and his bandmates each be paid whatever a venue’s fire code is (150=$150). He jokes that he plays places that range from dive bars to the Grove Park Inn. Recently, at a benefit he played for “some very high rollers,” he was asked to play at Mar-a-Lago, President Donald Trump’s resort in Florida, he says.
Nearly all of Fletcher’s work is local, he says, counting himself fortunate to be among the Asheville musicians who make a living without leaving home. That said, it’s not all great (late breakfasts aside). He Ubered to the coffee shop, and he was going to Uber to the night’s gig. His car was on the fritz, and he was going to Uber to the parts store so he could fix it himself. He was spending money trying to save money.
“Basically, we’re all freelancers,” Fletcher says of his peers, “so there’s a lot of individual hustle.” In January he has to take a couple weeks off for some work on his right hand, and that means two weeks with no pay. If the convalescence stretches to four weeks, “I’ll be in serious danger of losing everything I’ve worked for—a place to live, a car payment, all that stuff,” he says.
New hotels in town pay about $100 for a three-hour gig, fellow musician LaBate adds. “If you talk to ‘old school’ songwriters in Asheville, they were getting paid more to perform 20 years ago,” she says in her email from Africa. “Many of the gigs are tourist gigs now.” The pay at the hotels is “small beans, but they are friendly and sometimes feed us.”
“I like to joke that we are blessed with the curse of too much talent,” says Danielle Dror, founder of Sabra Music, an artist management and consulting agency in Asheville. “So many people are creating in this town that there’s starting to be a bit of competition and over-saturation with the number of music venues.
“What’s happening,” she continues, “is more people from the outside are coming in that are not aligned with how it’s been. As soon as one establishment says there’s a certain maximum guarantee that they’re going to pay, that becomes the standard elsewhere. And because there are so many musicians here that want a gig, it means the difference between playing in a place for $50 or not playing on a Saturday night at all. For every musician that dismisses an offer like that, there are twice as many people that will take it. It makes it hard for them to make a living.”
Andrew Fletcher thought about moving to New York City a few years ago. The reason he didn’t, he says, “is what I fear about the future of Asheville—it is so difficult to afford to live in New York that it’s going to choke off the supply of new people showing up that want to be elevated by the experienced players living there. If Asheville continues on this track of decreasing affordability for working class people like myself, people are going to stop showing up with the work ethic and talent.”
Plus, he says, “government institutions are bailing on arts institutions right now, even though the creative sector is such a contributing factor to major industries such as beer and tourism.”
Pulling the Plug…
but Opening a Door
Buncombe County funded no arts organizations this fiscal year, the first time its staff determined that has happened, according to Rachael Nygaard, the county’s director of strategic partnerships. Among the organizations that county commissioners elected not to renew support this year are the Asheville Area Arts Council, the Asheville Art Museum, and Asheville Community Theatre.
“Cutting funds for the arts was one of several reasons I voted against the budget this year,” says Brownie Newman, the Commission chairman. “You would need to speak with one of the members that voted for the budget to get their perspective on why they decided to do that.”
Emails sent to the other commissioners were not returned. Neither were emails sent to six of seven Asheville City Council members about why they reduced their funding for the arts this year (Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler suggested checking with another office). Mayor Esther Manheimer did offer a statement in which she noted, “The arts are a vital part of Asheville, and truly a part of our identity as a city. The city is investing millions of dollars in the River Arts District, for example, an area with an industrial history, which is now a thriving arts community with studios, store fronts, and education facilities (the RAMP). With regard to the CCCD’s effort to build housing for artists, the city remains a partner in that effort. The city is actively studying the ice house property [on Riverside Drive] for the feasibility of using it for affordable housing.”
This fiscal year, Asheville City Council awarded $7,500 to the Asheville Art Museum, which is undergoing a significant expansion and renovation. It gave the Asheville Area Arts Council $2,500 – down from $5,000 the year before and from $10,000 the year before that. City Council also awarded $40,000 for programming by LEAF Community Arts, an Asheville-based nonprofit organization that brings the arts to communities locally and globally through festivals, community events, and education programs.
“I definitely see Asheville being another Nashville or Cincinnati,” Dror says, “but by not pouring enough resources into our artists and arts in general, they are making Asheville the opposite of what is so attractive about this town, which is its culture and thriving arts.”
Part of growing the local arts industry is exposing the community to diverse artistic heritages, observes Jennifer Pickering, founder and executive director of LEAF Community Arts. The more inclusive the regional arts scene is, the more successful it will be in cultivating and attracting creatives and others, she believes.
“I’m seeing little signs of it,” she says. “We’re really becoming much a more multicultural, thriving community at all layers and levels. But the struggle is still there.”
A few years ago, she went to the Orange Peel to hear Baaba Maal, an internationally known Senegalese musician, and was disappointed at how few people showed up. “So, some of [growing the local arts industry] is cultivating the larger audience curiosity for the arts they don’t know,” Pickering says. LEAF Community Arts is doing that through its LEAF Schools & Streets program that puts international musicians and artists in Buncombe County schools.
“In Asheville we’ve advanced in lots of ways really fast. But some of the pieces haven’t advanced at the same rate,” she says. “The top of the list is housing and the cost of living compared to earnings.”
Before conducting a survey of creatives in town, Artspace Consulting suggested the city of Asheville study the feasibility of an 80-unit housing/studio complex for artists. Artspace looked at 10 sites owned by governmental and institutional organizations and concluded the most probable one is at 81-91 Riverside Drive in the River Arts District—the former ice house that Mayor Manheimer mentioned.
Its subsequent survey of the creative community revealed a much larger need than it had assumed, however—503 of those surveyed said they needed help with housing, prompting Artspace, through its formula, to suggest the city needs up to 168 live/work units and up to 81 affordable studios, Mike Marcus, project manager at the CCCD, said in August. In the next couple of months, he and other project participants would present the findings to Asheville City Council, since the proposed building site on Riverside Drive is in the city, he said.
No other decisions have been made about the Artspace recommendation, Asheville city community and economic development director, Sam Powers, says. “We realize people in the creative sector add a lot of vitality to the community,” he says. However, the City Council hasn’t singled out any single sector for help with housing, other than low-income residents. The city is addressing affordable housing for artists by addressing it for everyone, he explains.
Powers notes that city voters in 2016 overwhelmingly approved a $74 million bond referendum that includes $25 million to build 2,800 affordable housing units by mid-2021. Possible sites for new affordable housing, the city community development division has said, are on six tracts of land the city owns, including one in the River Arts District.
One aspect of the $74 million bond referendum is the improvement of the city’s transportation network, including its greenways and bike lanes, as well as its parks and recreation facilities, Powers says. “All the things that creatives and millennials look for when they want to find a place to live are the things the city is concentrating on.”
The city has identified four areas—downtown, the South Slope, River Arts District, and north Charlotte Street—as “innovation districts,” a designation that will give the city favorable borrowing rates to enhance the infrastructure of these creative clusters. Innovation districts are hubs of related businesses that typically support each other and grow together. New Belgium Brewing Co.’s decision to build its East Coast brewery (and popular tasting room) on the old stockyard in West Asheville created a hub of outdoor recreation and entertainment venues that has given a boost to the riverway masterplan.
“It’s just incredible how many more people are using the river now. New Belgium changed everything,” he says. The city’s role in this creative sector attraction was developing public infrastructure such as river accesses and stormwater drainage.
One thing limiting local music is the cover charge many venues impose to hear local bands, says Matt Peiken, an arts journalist at Blue Ridge Public Radio who moved to Asheville about a year ago from Minneapolis, a city known for its music. He also lived in Cincinnati, where a half-dozen clubs showcase local music for free, contributing to the city’s expansive homegrown music scene, he says—one that Asheville could have too if it presented its music to visitors and residents at a price they’d love.
Mothlight in West Asheville has good audiences for its free local music nights on Mondays. Peiken wonders why other clubs don’t do the same. Music lovers will spend what they would have paid on a cover charge for a high profit-margin drink, he says. Everybody wins.
Peiken observes that Minneapolis has a lively professional dance scene not only because of the caliber of dance programs at universities there, but also because of the large corporate and philanthropic foundations that provide grants. “That’s a deep canyon of dollars that artists in other cities have,” he says. “We don’t have a philanthropic, corporate scene here when it comes to the arts.”
Setting an Example
Chattanooga, Tennessee, does. The Lyndhurst Foundation there helped turn the “wasteland” of south Chattanooga into an electrifying district of art businesses, restaurants, and coffee shops, says Dan Bowers, president of ArtsBuild, Chattanooga’s leading organization for arts programming funding. The foundation also created a program, CreateHere, that was successful in retaining and attracting creative types to the city. Backed by the Lyndhurst Foundation, CreateHere helped entrepreneurs launch more than 110 local businesses that projected sales at more than $8 million.
As in Asheville, the arts have played a big role in Chattanooga’s development, Bowers says, but they were led by “a few old-line anchor institutions” that lacked much breadth. Several years ago, when the city decided to recreate its waterfront and when its prestigious Tennessee Aquarium was built, Chattanooga decided to diversify its offerings, the arts among them, he says.
Through its ArtsMove program, ArtsBuild’s predecessor created incentives to lure artists to town, including forgivable mortgages and moving expenses for artists who located downtown and stayed five years. Thirty artists took the offers and added life to the area. More importantly, Bowers says, ArtsMove portrayed Chattanooga as “a community that values the arts and artists.”
One reason the arts are so successful in Chattanooga, he says, is a shift in philosophy. Instead of thinking what the community could do for the arts, artists, and arts organizations that created the Imagine Chattanooga 20/20 plan, they decided to emphasize what the arts could do for job creation, crime prevention, neighborhood revitalization, and other aspects of life in the city. If it hadn’t been for the city’s vibrant arts scene—and some $800 million in federal, state, and local tax incentives—Chattanooga may not have been shortlisted for the Volkswagen assembly plant it has now, Bowers believes.
Asheville, too, is growing its visual artists, the Area Arts Council’s Gerber says. Because it’s a beautiful place to live, it attracts fine artists working at a high level, she notes. Building a base that supports them takes time and will likely happen as the city’s reputation as an arts center grows, she says. As the number of visitors increases, so too will the number of buyers, and that in turn will attract additional, highly accomplished painters, sculptors, and new media creators, she says.
Nearly three decades old now, Blue Spiral 1 gallery in downtown Asheville is “like a museum,” Matt Peiken says. New-ish art and performance galleries like Revolve in the River Arts District and Momentum downtown are building up the city’s fine arts scene. Revolve, barely a year old, exists largely because of one couple’s largess, but it also has a membership program by which supporters chose the amount of money they want to give each month—a novel idea for Asheville and one that is successful in other cities, Peiken says.
Ehren Cruz, performing arts director for LEAF Community Arts, believes many of the obstacles to growing the creative sector in the region can be worked out. “People love this city and want to see it thrive,” he says. “If we keep ‘Asheville spirit’ like Asheville, we can be the next Boulder or Denver. We just can’t forget people with lesser incomes, like our artists, along the way.”
The key to growing the arts in Asheville maybe part of the thing the city (and to lesser extent, the region) celebrates– diversity, LEAF’s Pickering says. “The more that our community at large is open and supportive of a wide diversity of artists, the more that we will all thrive.
“We are still a city that has ‘isms’ and challenges and possibilities. Music and the arts really open doors that can help inform and educate. They can be the catalyst for change.”
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