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.
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.”
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.