by Kyle Sherard and Steph Guinan
Two local arts events return this month — the River Arts District Studio Stroll (now in its 20th year) and the sixth annual Asheville Art in the Park. Both provide art enthusiasts an opportunity to get outside (and inside as well, in the case of the RAD’s open workspaces), meet makers of all mediums and shop for unique art while enjoying two of Asheville’s distinctive neighborhoods.
But during their respective tenures, both events have seen their share of challenges and successes, from unprecedented growth to surprising results when it comes to sales figures and overall economic impact. Meanwhile, both continue to provide festive atmospheres and to attract tourists and locals alike. Xpress takes a deeper look.
The evolution of a stroll
This was the scene in 1994 during the River Arts District’s inaugural studio stroll: The then-fledgling neighborhood (called, simply, the River District) had but five buildings with studio spaces — Warehouse Studios, the Odyssey Center for the Ceramic Arts, Curve Studios, the Roberts Street Studios and the Chesterfield Mill. Streetlights and sidewalks were either nonexistent or in short, scattered supply, and there was no talk of parking decks, much less rerouting Riverside Drive. Beer was only available at nearby gas stations, and finding a taco, pizza or sandwich was harder than finding the ceramic plate to eat it on. Trains still blew their horns. And the first stroll featured only 14 artists and had a mere 200 visitors.
Compare that to the 5,000 to 6000 visitors, collectors and arts enthusiasts estimated to attend the stroll on Saturday and Sunday, June 14-15.
A lot has changed in two decades.
What was once just a small group of artists and building owners has evolved into the River Arts District Artists (RADA), the artist-operated organization behind the biannual Studio Strolls. Those events now boast more than 180 participating artists, several galleries and a handful of cooperatives in 25 buildings in the neighborhood, which stretches from the Bowen Bridge to Riverview Station and Switchyard Studios at the district’s southern end.
Adapting to the space
“On any given day, one will find our district’s studios and galleries open to the public,” says Shay Amber, RADA Studio Stroll coordinator. But that wasn’t always the case. The stroll’s earlier years introduced visitors to the individual artists and to the RAD as a whole, Amber says. “It is ever-growing and evolving,” she says. And in effect, the annual strolls paved the way for the now-daily attention that the neighborhood receives.
“In the past, people came to the RAD during the strolls because they didn’t understand that it was open all the time,” says Joey Sheehan, a ceramicist and founding member of the Asheville Ceramics Gallery, a 10-artist cooperative gallery located within the Phil Mechanic Studios. That perception, he says, changed with the rapid increase in workspaces, the influx of new artists and the continued exposure brought with each year’s stroll.
Like many artists in the RAD, Sheehan and his studio mates would set up in-studio pottery demonstrations for strollers. Similar demos have become a quintessential part of the weekend’s atmosphere. Whether it was the muddy hands or the attention to the craft, the demos began to inhibit the artists’ interactions with potential customers. “Demos were good for gawking,” Sheehan says, “but they didn’t really help with sales.”
The potter’s wheels and other supplies were stowed, and tables displaying finished pieces were set up. Those tables soon became permanent fixtures as daily traffic increased. And, when space became too tight, the ceramicists moved out all together and turned their studio into the ceramics art gallery that it is today.
Such is now the case for many RAD studios — they’re part workshop, part retail space. While many artists temporarily transform their space for the weekend, others have made the changes permanent. “That’s how I’m approaching it from the get-go,” says Andy Herod, a painter and graphic artist who’s recently moved into a second-floor Wedge building studio. Herod and his studio mate, painter and longtime Wedge tenant Julie Armbruster, have split their respective spaces to allow for both work and retail display.
“It’s a great opportunity to meet new people and to give them an idea of what you can do,” says Armbruster. “Having drawings and smaller promotional works around can help get your work out there.”
“Most people want a little something to take away from the district, even if it only costs a couple of dollars,” Herod says. He’s realized the importance of having a wide scale of works, both in price and size as well as visual scope.
In the long run
With each year, more artists open up, and more studio-goers show up for the summer stroll. The dozens of artists from the mid-1990s have turned into hundreds, just as those hundreds of strollers grew to thousands, each fueled by the addition of new studio spaces, restaurants and the rise of businesses like the Wedge Brewery. And, as the neighborhood’s cultural reputation has flourished and transformed, so have its visitors. The art enthusiasts are there, notes Wedge-based ceramicist Michael Hofman, but they’re mixed in with others coming for the music, beer and food that have become part of the stroll festivities. “It’s a big social event now, which is a good thing, because it’s become more diverse,” he says. “There’s a lot more to do.”
With more on offer, there’s arguably an increased attraction to the district. But that also means a draw away from the artists. And, while it would seem that the surge in annual patronage would mean an uptick in weekend sales — which does hold true for some — it’s not the case for everyone.
“The strolls, for me, have gotten bigger and bigger as far as the people go,” Sheehan says, “but sales have gotten smaller and smaller.” The immediate impact is comparable to any other day of the week, he says, but it always pays off in the long run. “It’s a great opportunity to meet local buyers. It’s them, the local community, that comes back most often.”
Hofman’s experience has been similar. But to judge the weekend by sales figures alone is to ignore the stroll’s long-term impact that both Hofman and Sheehan identify in the event’s foundation. “I’ll get people who come back and say they saw my work in a stroll a year or more ago,” Hofman says. “Just getting people down to go through the whole district and see what we have to offer — that’s the biggest part of the stroll.”
That’s the common ground between the RAD Studio Strolls of 1994 and 2014. They may be drastically different in size and scope, but even after all this time and development, the charge remains the same: “It’s exposure,” Sheehan says. “And any exposure is going to be good in the long run.” — K.S.
WHAT RAD Studio Stroll
WHERE River Arts District, info and events at riverartsdistrict.com
WHEN Saturday and Sunday, June 14 & 15, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Free
Parks and rec
Those suffering from hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia, beware: Asheville Art in the Park festival is set to enter its sixth year, exhibiting about 60 artists in Pack Square Park over the course of six Saturdays. Beginning on June 14 the art fairs are scheduled for three Saturdays in June and three in October — selected because they’re peak weekends for visitor traffic in Asheville. In fact, total sales receipts from prior years rang in at more than $600,000 (no bad omens to be found in this series of sixes).
The event is a way to connect local artists with an audience of tourists and art enthusiasts. Organizer Andrew Montrie developed the idea while vending his own artwork at an out-of-town show. “I was at the Buyers Market of American Craft, and I noticed that there were a lot of artists from Western North Carolina — a high percentage,” he says. His concept was to create a festival to connect these exhibitors with WNC’s tourist industry. “We really need something that can be good for artists, an economic base that we can go to,” he says.
While many other juried shows require a new application each year, Asheville Art in the Park is membership-based. Once an artist passes the jury and becomes a member, he or she doesn’t have to reapply each year. That makes the festival a consistent opportunity for participants to sell their wares. Work ranges from fine art to craft. “There are fantastic painters, there are excellent potters,” says Montrie. “It’s mostly local [artists] with a dash of regional,” he adds. This is partly a result of the intent to showcase area makers, but also a matter of logistics: It’s prohibitive for artists to travel significant distances to vend at a one-day event.
When Montrie was considering launching this venture, his research among local gallery owners showed two distinct peaks of tourism traffic in June and October, making those ideal times to schedule Asheville Art in the Park installments. The visitor season has expanded since his initial analysis: “We have more tourists, and the periods of tourism are longer,” he says. Still, the festival is driven by visitor traffic. “They’re the ones who are actually buying the art,” says Montrie. “Your friends will come out to support you, but maybe they’ll buy a mug. They’re not buying a set of pottery.”
Photographer Melanie Carreira of MelaLuna Photography was an emerging artist last year — featured in a section in Asheville Art in the Park dedicated to up-and-comers whose work may still be developing but is worthy of recognition. This year, Carreira plans to return as a regular vendor. “I make Asheville-centric photography, [and] I have found fairs to be successful for me because of the visibility during the busy times of the year and also the face-to-face contact with buyers,” she says. “Art fairs are not my only sales outlet, but are an integral piece of what makes my business — and life — run.” After her first year of showing at Asheville Art in the Park, Carreira noted that it was a tremendous amount of work, but says, “I enjoy the feeling that people are walking home with my art and that I am getting to do what I love through it all.”
Montrie knows a thing or two about hard work: In addition to organizing Asheville Art in the Park and being an artist himself, he also runs the downtown Asheville gallery The Updraft. This wide range of enterprises gives him insight into all three sales avenues. Noting the distinguishing characteristics of each, he says, “The festival gets you a large amount of visibility all at once, [but] it doesn’t give you that intimate experience when you go to [a] studio.” When buying directly from the studio, a shopper can see a more complete body of work, as well as some process pieces and perhaps evidence of the artist’s inspiration.
“Being in a gallery, that’s kind of the other end of it,” Montrie continues. “It’s a formalized presentation of the work. And being a gallery owner now, I can really see the difference. I have a studio space inside my gallery, and I know that a lot of studios in the River District have little galleries inside their studio spaces.”
Montrie is also able to track sales trends. “I get to see what media does better than another media, and that changes from year to year,” he says. “Last year we did amazing with our wood products. And the year before that, glass was really hot.”
Another way that Asheville Art in the Park distinguishes itself from other art fairs is that 10 percent of all sales — about $6,000 to $7,000 per season — is donated to the Asheville Area Arts Council. In the early years, the donation was made to a range of local nonprofits, but the funds were generally rolled into the organizations’ operating budgets without a tangible programmatic result.
“Working with Kitty Love at the arts council, we developed a regranting initiative,” says Montrie. The Asheville Art in the Park Arts and Community Grant is actually the largest one in Western North Carolina now for artists, and it generally has only a handful of applicants competing for its funds, he adds.
The grants focus on projects that have a public interaction component. The 2014 recipients are Lisa Blackshear of the The Asheville Urban Landscape Project, for a series of plein air paint-outs; Julie Becton Gullum and Sara Baird for Butoh dance performances in public spaces; and a LEAF Community Arts Easel Rider program featuring performing arts workshops and art activities. — S.G.
WHAT Asheville Art in the Park, ashevilleartinthepark.com
WHERE Pack Square Park
WHEN Saurdays, June 14, 21 and 28 and Oct. 4, 11 and 18, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Free.