Self portrait with food stamps

An artist at work during last year's City of 1,000 Easels event. Zen Sutherland.
An artist at work during last year's City of 1,000 Easels event. Zen Sutherland.

Since the mid 1990’s, Asheville’s reputation as a haven for artists has swelled — it’s a funky city in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains that teems with creative types and crafty kinfolk. The New York Times last year touted Asheville as an “Artists’ utopia” (in the first of two articles from the international outlet that referenced our community’s art scene).

The city’s bohemian reputation and scenic surroundings lure artists to the area. Artists in particular might expect an abundance of time, a low cost of living compared to major metro areas and general community support. The lingering legacy of Black Mountain College, Appalachian crafting traditions and the laid-back vibe of the city — again, compared to major metro areas — motivate different aesthetic visions.

Some are simply inspired. Meg Winnecour, a painter, notes that daily life here is rich in experience. “On any given day I can visit a gallery or a studio or a creek or a graffitied wall and find my creative cup refilled — for free. A lot of the inspiration comes from friends, because it's that small of a city,” she says.

Some have found Asheville to be just the right vibe for their work. “I am able to spend lots of time making art and developing my studio,” says painter Julie Armbruster. “Plus, there is a great community here that appreciates my work — a dream scenario.”

And new artists can easily find venues willing to show their work — from coffee shops to restaurants, hair salons to bookstores. Nava Lubelski, an artist who moved to Asheville from New York City says that, there, “Everything is really competitive and it can feel impossible just to get your first show — you need to already be a pro. In Asheville it seems like anyone can show their work.”

But, is it possible to make a living as an artist in a town that may be known for being artsy but not profitably so for the artists? Is the “dream scenario” in fact only a dream? Should Asheville artists heed the advice of musician and author Patti Smith and "find a new city,” a less so-called artsy city “like Detroit or Poughkeepsie”?

A struggle to maintain

In the brochure version of Asheville, the dream scenario is a thriving reality, all but observable from the balcony of a downtown hotel.

The Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce’s website greets visitors with these lines that seem to promise an idyll:
“Come for the abundant natural beauty, friendly atmosphere, wealth of year-round outdoor activities, rich history, and lively local arts and music scene. Stay for the diverse economy, entrepreneurial opportunities, mild climate and high quality of life.”

Peppered throughout the site are descriptions of Asheville’s historical art deco architecture, hopping nightlife and great shopping opportunities. “The city rates, year after year, as one of the nation’s top arts towns, and you will not find a higher concentration of artists and crafters in many places other than Western North Carolina.”

That might sound good in writing, but in reality many artists are hard pressed to get by. “A lot of people want to market the fact that this is an arts destination without knowing what goes into having all this art around,” says Graham Hackett, program director of the Asheville Area Arts Council and a longtime curator of local art events. “I think we need to form a very clear narrative that it is a struggle to maintain all of this as an independent artist, or as a nonprofit in this area.”

Asheville’s desirability meant a real-estate boom and a subsequent rise in the cost of housing. The city has always had a service-based economy, and service-based jobs often end up being the default career for many artists whose skills may provide enjoyment for people and draw people to the city, but do not translate, in practical terms, to financial livelihood.

Plenty of artists live hand-to-mouth, subsist on food stamps, share homes or work out of “studios” that are no more than a corner of someone’s basement. Winnecour, who has had success selling paintings out of her studio in the River Arts District, confesses that she’s not painting as much these days due to the birth of her daughter two years ago. “Back when I was making work all the time, I felt like I sold whatever I made, and so if I could just paint and never sleep or eat or wash dishes I could actually make a decent living. But still, it's a tough town in terms of cost of living: It's damn expensive here. Food is out the roof, and housing even more so,“ Winnecour says and jokes, “These days, I’m lucky to have a sugar daddy without whom I would be eating Saltines exclusively.”

Others rely on second and third jobs to get by, like Anna Thompson, who works 40 hours a week as a waitress. A native of Chattanooga, Tenn., Thompson moved to Asheville three years ago after graduating from Pratt University. She had heard about Asheville’s arty reputation, “mostly because of Black Mountain College,” she says. Her first year in town was a challenge, as she was living in her mother’s basement and working a retail job.

“I had a studio but I couldn’t afford gas to drive to it,” she laughs. “Then I started waiting tables at Over Easy and I can’t say enough good things about it. I like having cash at the end of the day. It’s really nice to have a job that you leave at your job, and there’s a social aspect to it that I like a lot. “

Last September, local painter Gabriel Shaffer was able to quit a food-serving job which he worked at 40-60 hours each week. “You have to hustle if you don’t want to live on the edge of poverty your whole life,” he says. “It’s really hard to survive economically as an artist here. Asheville has got a long, long way to go before it can brag that it’s as strong as [a city like] Santa Fe.”

He might be right. According to a poll conducted by Business Week in 2007, Santa Fe, N.M. ranks No. 2 on a list of Best Places to be in an Artist in the U.S. right behind Los Angeles and just ahead of Carson City, Nev. New York City is ranked 4th. The poll was determined by the ratio of artists to general population, and how much money was generated that year by the creative sector.

“Sociologists and policymakers have long been touting art and culture as the cure-all to economically depressed neighborhoods, cities, and regions,” says the article. “The reason? It has been proven that artists — defined as self-employed visual artists, actors, musicians, writers, etc. — can stimulate local economies in a number of ways.”

Asheville did not make the list. Nor did it make artbistro.com’s 2009 Top 25 Cities for Designers and Artists.

More recently, Forbes.com determined Asheville to be the fourth worst city to find a job this winter — tied with Allentown, Pa. This statistic may be the most relevant to area artists, and a source of disillusionment for artists in other cities when and if they consider relocating here.

But Asheville tops the charts as a tourist destination. The relationship between high unemployment and tourism is implicit: artistically motivated people out of work will look towards creative options to generate income from tourists. Hence, cottage craft industries spring up. Art malls like Woolworth Walk and Atelier 24 fill up with artists vying for tourist dollars. The River District is cleaned up, and buskers abound.

Creating opportunities

The do-it-yourself ethos that flourishes in Asheville just might be the city’s biggest advantage regarding its arts scene. Home-grown fundraisers and Kickstarter.com campaigns have helped local artists (and entrepreneurs) raise thousands of dollars for independent projects, like painter Dustin Spagnola’s recent mural venture to Miami.

Several local independent films, including the slick sci-fi short, Solatrium, have been produced on small budgets with the do-it-yourself philosophy in mind. To produce Solatrium, director Chris Bower culled talent from his circle of Asheville friends and built a set out of found materials in his studio. The film has gone on to screen in Asia and at festivals around the U.S.

Similarly, artisans looking for an alternative to traditional craft fair venues started the hugely popular Big Crafty, while studio tours have popped up in out-of-the-way locales like Kenilworth, West Asheville and north Asheville — places where collectors don’t typically venture to look at art.

These things wouldn’t be possible without the support of the community. “The audiences here give energy and that’s as important as money as far as I’m concerned,” says Shaffer. “People actually pay attention [to what’s going on.] That’s a reward system in its own.” Thompson agrees, saying, “ I feel like I’ve been totally embraced by the community. Everyone wants you to succeed here.”

The lack of established art organizations could also be a reason for all this do-it-yourself activity. “It’s not like there’s an Alvin Ailey [dance studio] down the road that’s dictating how things are gonna be [in the Asheville dance scene]. Here you can do a more grassroots [kind of thing],” says Hackett, who cites the thriving Cirque and Burlesque scene of Asheville as an example of this.

Artist Mariana Templin recognized the area’s potential and left an editorial job in New York City to come here last February. Later she convinced her friends to move to Asheville, and just two months ago they formed The Thousand Artists Collective. “Asheville is sort of a bubble that exists apart from the larger art world,” says Templin. “That’s why we were interested in using Asheville as the home base for our project.”

Julie Armbruster, a member of another local arts collective, Segment 16, and a curator for Eclipse salon on Wall Street states simply, “We [artists] have to create opportunities for ourselves.”

ART SUMMIT

The newly formed Creative Sector Coalition (comprising more than 15 local arts groups) is holding the First Creative Sector Summit on March 16 and 17. Born from a downtown master plan initiative, the conference will bring together creative professionals, business and community leaders and key stakeholders for networking, education and collaboration. “We’re going to activate the best strategies to enhance the creative sector’s capacity and impact to benefit our community and the economy,” says AAAC program director Graham Hackett. Full details at ashevillearts.com.

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25 thoughts on “Self portrait with food stamps

  1. Betty Cloer Wallace

    Asheville certainly has an abundance of creative talent, but the general mindset is geared too much toward the city supporting the arts and art auctions to benefit charities—rather than promoting the goal of raising prices paid for artworks up to a level that enables artists to support themselves.

    For visual arts especially, we need a good independent upscale auction house that draws agents and collectors (not just tourists) so that Asheville’s artists can more efficiently enhance their reputation and reach a wider audience—an audience with deep pockets.

  2. As tempting as it is to devote one’s life to expressing their inner creativity, I think it’s very difficult to make a good living at it. I’ve been in the artisan business for nearly 30 years. The only people in the field that I’ve seen survive well had a backer. Either family, a patron, spouse, or a sugar Daddy. Most have to find a way to mass produce an object, artwork or design that can be sold wholesale across the nation. The merchandise market in Atlanta has a big section devoted to work of artisans…it’s worth going to that show to see what’s happening and pick the brains of those artisan/vendors.

    Wholeselling to specialty shops, gallaries & catalogs is what I have survived on. Now that I’m semi-retired, i get make the type of work that is sheer expression, without worrying about selling it to make a living. Everyone has to figure a way to make it work for themselves.

  3. Ursula Gullow

    BCW- I agree that art is sorely underpriced in Asheville, and you’re absolutely spot on when you point out that artists need to reach an audience with deeper pockets.
    I’ve donated art to auctions and was awe-struck by the opulence at these events. It would be great to hold some art auctions that benefit the artists directly, as naive as that sounds.

    Curious — I was under the impression that at least 2 of the people I contacted for this piece are (were) making a solid living from their work. Gabriel Shaffer, for example, I cite as an artist who was able to quit his food service job.

    I’m open to any recommendations you have on artists to interview in the future.

    Please send your ideas to ursulagulow@gmail.com. Thank you!

  4. Tandy

    Thank you for this good piece, U.

    As for the question at the end of the comments, the only (visual) artist I know who is making a living solely from his work here is Daniel Nevins, whom you well know and who is kind of in a different category or marketing, having been picked up by Blue Spiral.

  5. Asheville is a wonderful place to live and create art. Places like New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, Santa Fe and Chicago are great for selling art. Do the artists pioneering a new Detroit sell their work in Detroit? I doubt it.
    Does anyone make a living as an artist in Asheville without also reaching broader markets and maintaining an online presence?
    Thanks for starting this conversation Ursula!

  6. Curious

    From the tone of Mr. Shaffer’s remarks (” ‘You have to hustle if you don’t want to live on the edge of poverty your whole life,’ he says. “It’s really hard to survive economically as an artist here.’”), I didn’t realize he was the example of a financially successful artist. I’m sorry if I misinterpreted. I’m sure it’s hard to compile detailed data on the number of people in the area who work as artists (but don’t support themselves through their art), the number of artists who do support themselves through their art, and the range of salaries/income the self-supporting artists report.

  7. Art Lover

    Following on from Tandy . . Robert Johnson? Randy Shull? Ann Vasilik? Kathy Triplett? Hoss Haley? Sean Pace? Mel Chin? Julyan Davis? Ben Long? Hoss Haley? Robert Winkler? Alex Bernstein? George Handy? The late Vadim Bora? The late Sallie Middleton? Patricia Hargrove? Deborah Squier? Jonas Gerard? Daniel Essig? Others?

  8. Gabriel Shaffer

    And to clarify, i wouldnt be able to make my living as an artist if i relied strictly on sales within the Asheville area. Id estimate 80 percent of my collectors live outside of town. I choose to stay here because i love living here, regardless of how challenging financially. I know for a fact i could make more money if i moved to any number of major cities where i have developed relationships and contacts. The reason i have to hustle Curious, is because my family is poor, meaning im not some privileged rich douche. Art is what i do best, so i do it to try and improve my life and the life of my family. I stay here because i believe in Asheville and the artists that live here.

  9. Ursula Gullow

    Thanks for the heads up tomatocloud!

    Curious — The reason why I decided to write this piece was to draw attention to the fact that even the artists who appear “successful” are probably hustling or being supported by a second income. It’s not as easy as it looks! Also a few of the “established” artists I approached were reluctant to disclose their financial matters which is perfectly understandable.
    I appreciate your interest in this topic, btw.

    Peter — I plan to write more about the arts market in Asheville, but my research is indicating that most artists need to seek venues outside of Asheville if they want to actually make a living or earn a reputation as an artist. Same goes for performers and musicians.

  10. Lynn

    “Will the reporter be interviewing artists who ARE succeeding financially?”

    I don’t know of any artists in Asheville that make 30-50,000.00+ a year. If there are any they need to come forward and share their secret.

    As an artist myself..I sell more online than in my studio. People always buy the small, cheaper items in Asheville. If I go outside of Asheville for shows I sell larger works. Amazing.

    Asheville is full of rich retired folks but they like to hold on to their money and not invest it in local art. (from what I’ve seen)

    Also..there is a lot of bad art in Asheville. Everyone wants to be an artist but in reality they are not very good at it. Sorry..I’ve seen a lot of it. Everyone who has a camera is a photographer ..everyone that has Photoshop is a graphic designer..everyone that learns to use Dreamweaver is a web designer. (via Craigslist)
    Whatever happened to a college degree or years of experience behind that creative service? Those of us who have those are wondering why we bothered. If no one takes that into consideration for a job first..we have no chance.

    Personally I’m sick of Asheville and as soon as I see a good chance to split..I’m taking it. Asheville has been a curse to me ever since I arrived over 10 years ago. I say cut your losses and run to every artist I see.

  11. Curious

    ” . . Also a few of the ‘established’ artists I approached were reluctant to disclose their financial matters which is perfectly understandable.”

    Understandable indeed! Perhaps the newly revitalized arts council could do an anonymous survey.

    Lynn certainly raises some interesting questions. Mr. Shaffer’s note that most of his sales are from elsewhere is also interesting. At least visual artists (and writers) can sell their work elsewhere and still live here. Performing artists face another kind of challenge. It must be the case that actors and dancers living here don’t make a living by their art here (unless they teach or also do arts administrative work).

    Again, thanks to Ms.Gullow for tackling this topic.

  12. Gabriel Shaffer

    Lynn,
    “I don’t know of any artists in Asheville that make 30-50,000.00+ a year.”
    I know of at least 6 artists that qualify Lynn, myself included. The sad news is, thats still not enough to operate a strong art business, while living in Asheville, unless your single and very humble. The inflated cost of living combined with materials, shipping and traveling costs, can evaporate all of that almost instantly. My total cost of living here, is comparable to the what i paid while living in Chicago 7 years ago. The difference is i made way more money in Chi town.Combine the irregular intervals that artists earn their livings with and youve got yourself a challenge.
    To me part of the “secret” is at least two things. First, i dont care where you live, if your planning on surviving as an artist you better get used to being a workaholic with extremely tough skin. If not for the sake of mastering your craft, then definitely for selling and marketing your work. The other “secret”, is learning to compartmentalize your mindsets. This might sound a little split personality, but the mindset that you have inside the the studio, must be completely different from the mentality you have outside of the studio.
    I openly admit, i dont know everything, im learning as im going along, but i have also made a major effort to really understand the multiple facets and avenues that my work travels through. I would hope ive gained a little wisdom from the past 7 years of exhibitions, while living here.

    I understand your frustration, you basically are gambling with your life, when you decide to try and be a creative professional. Its the most difficult endeavor i have ever experienced, but it has also been the most rewarding. I have met a number of artists and musicians in Asheville who have expressed more or less the same sentiment you feel. Its my belief that if you can survive in Asheville as an artist, you can survive anywhere.

    I wish you luck in finding the path that works best for you.

  13. Great topic. Thanks for opening it up.
    Organic Armor (the company I run with my husband) makes a basic living about 2/3rds of the year. In the winter we work part time to supplement. We work odd jobs all year round and eat a lot of rice and beans, rarely go out to hear music or see theater (sadly). 95% of our sales are from out of state.
    In the summer a lot of money flows in, but then it flows out quickly on materials and travel expenses to sell at shows. We rely on credit cards to float us and those balances are steadily creeping up. No retirement account, no health insurance, old car.
    BUT, we are doing all right compared to many and we love it here. We work very hard and are learning to work smarter. If the economy doesn’t really tank, I have confidence we will continue to grow each year.

  14. Thanks for starting this dialog Ursula. As a local artist, I have been dealing with the realities of life as an artist in Asheville for decades. The most important thing an artists can do for themselves is get educated in the business of art. There are many programs available to local artists via the many professional art organizations in our area. Learn the specifics of your particular art field. Ask other respected vendors in your area what it takes to get to their level. In general you will find most artists are happy to share the tips and strategies of success but make no mistake, they will all tell you it’s a lot of hard work.

    A few years ago I got tired of looking for good local opportunities to self represent my work as I was continually disappointed with the events I would attend. I decided to create a local market of ONLY professional art vendors. Asheville Art in the Park started in 2009 with its first 3 consecutive Saturday market. In the markets first 9 days of operation artists have earned more then $100,000 from market sales directly at the event. They have also donated more then $10,000 to local non-profits that help us directly in our cause of making it here as artists.

    Let me give you some more direct data to add some clarity to this important issue of the economic survival of Asheville’s artists. The lowest earnings of a booth at the Saturday market was $0. The highest was almost $3000 and the average booth generated $580 in sales. This is data from a cross section of about 175 local and regional artists. In general artists should look for events that payback at least 10 times the booth fee. This information dose not include wholesale orders, special orders or sales after then event hours.

    Please check out http://www.AshevilleArtinthePark.com for more information about this continuing local opportunity.

  15. West Asheville

    If you are unable to support yourself with your “Art” then maybe you should think about doing something else and do “Art” on the side as a hobby. I (taxpayer) should not have to pay for you to fingerpaint and play with clay.

    10% of the people do 90% of the work…the rest are just leaches.

  16. boatrocker

    Sorry, I joined this thread late.

    If I hear “if you can’t support yourself with ‘art’ of any kind, maybe you should get another job because I’m tired of supporting you”, again, consider me screaming when I type on a keyboard.

    1) I do support myself by performing live music, and yes I have a crappy part timer to help out with $. Ironically, I’m happier and make better $ playing music than with the crappy part timer on the side.

    Too bad people love the arts- until they have to pay for it. Just listen to anyone who complains of a cover charge or a price set for a piece of art yet can’t/won’t try to do it themselves.

    2) I’ve never asked any taxpayer to help me with $ concerns. If you as a (supposedly) well informed consumer can’t or won’t pony up to sign a contract for me to play your wedding, “special event”, festival or pay a measly cover charge for music in a skanky dive bar, I’ll sleep ok for you not showing up to hear “art”. I won’t miss you.

    Those folks remind me of every supporting character that Fitzgerlad lampooned in “The Great Gatsby”. Who considered themselves as “art supporters”. He also researched real life models for said characters by hanging out at (you guessed it) The Grove Park Inn in the 1920′s. Who woulda knew?

    The real leeches (note spelling here West Asheville, or do they not sell dictionaries there?) are the spoiled types who cry a river when they don’t have 217 choices of “art” type events to choose from on a nightly basis to go eat finger food and sip bargain basement wine with their ‘life partner’ in Asheville yet can’t or won’t take a chance to try it themselves.

    Please take me up on that challenge of trying it yourself West Asheville- noveau riche white people always need “artists” to make them feel cultured when they hang out in the same room yet will always make the same “artists” load in through the side door just like the hired help that they feel guilty talking to.

    Sheesh. I smell a huge clould of smug over Asheville. The weather pattern also looks to stay the same for a looooong time. If you as a consumer are so angry at those pesky ‘artists’, content yourself with Dan Brown novels, Applebee’s, Holiday Inn paintings and the soundtrack to “Riverdance”. Or try it yourself and quit whining.

  17. “Let me give you some more direct data to add some clarity to this important issue of the economic survival of Asheville’s artists. The lowest earnings of a booth at the Saturday market was $0. The highest was almost $3000 and the average booth generated $580 in sales. This is data from a cross section of about 175 local and regional artists. In general artists should look for events that payback at least 10 times the booth fee.”

    Thanks for your candor on the real numbers. I figured out early on, that most shows for artists were just money makers for the show promoter and not for the exhibitors. I do see some hope on the horizon for local artist to do something similar to the outdoor artists who surround Jackson Square in New Orleans….it’s one of the oldest outdoor artists shows and really does make good money. Was speaking with a former exhibitor recently…his take (back in the late (70′s early 80′s) was $300.00 to $500.00 a day. The artist would purchase an exhibition license for a nominal fee, which used to be around $50.. annually.

    I’ve mentioned this concept on several occasions when the subject came up, on this and other forums…people don’t seem to get it. It eliminates the show promoter and gives artisans direct access to paying customers. I can foresee a similar outdoor market during the pleasant months in Asheville at City? County plaza…or in the arts district along the sidewalks.

    Local artists need to consider banding together and pressure the City for this type of low cost yet attractive marketing endeavor. The City has implimented some upgrades in the art district…they need to include a substantial fence for outdoor artists to display their wares.

  18. Just Me

    I am looking at recent Buncombe County population data and the unemployment rate and cannot fathom where such a statistic came from.

    BC Pop under 18 is 21%
    BC pop over 65 is 16%
    BC pop under the poverty line is 14%

    Don’t have figures on how many in those pop groups are employed, but we all know that some do work.

    The current unemployment rate is 7.5-8% of the “labor force”, so those not working that could be of the total population would be maybe around 5% overall. And of course we all know that many of those people are just waiting on a phone call to go back to work.

    Still not adding up to a 10/90 ratio.

    But yeah, I mean, those greedy school-kids and senior citizen just get to finger paint and play with clay at school or community centers all day while the rest of have to work. Who came up with that crazy system?

  19. Lynn

    Asheville is a strange place. If you find others to help promote your art you are probably going to make some cash but if you choose to not hang in the social circles that everyone reads about (eh..you know) you are doomed. Friends promote friends here. A good thing for them. I am trying to appeal to an older crowed with my work..those who have cash. It has worked a little but not as well as I’d hoped. I’m looking for a place to move. Any suggestions?

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