Rebirth cotillion

For every 10 artists, it seems there’s a committee trying to represent them. Western North Carolina has dozens of such organizations. While some function well, others struggle to remain solvent and stable — let alone relevant and exciting. Witness the apparent recent dissolution of the Fine Arts League of the Carolinas, or the call for help from Arts2People asking for more than $10,000 from the public to help pay debts incurred from the Lexington Avenue Arts and Fun Festival, an event that is supposed to raise money for the organization.

For some time, the Asheville Area Arts Council shared the precipice. Board members and directors left and staff were let go, programming fell off and the downtown gallery — its largest asset and a symbol of its local presence — had to be sold for cash.

The final blow was dealt last year when the council was stripped of its right to distribute state-funded grants, which double as major source of income for the council. All-out collapse seemed imminent. But in the last year or so, with a new director, a new board and a new River Arts District space, the Artery, it looks to be more of a sea change.

For executive director Kitty Love, who was appointed in December 2011, the upcoming Tangerine Ball will be more than a glamorous soiree. It will be the official re-entrance for the revamped Arts Council, its rebirth cotillion. “Everyone is new, and we have to start the whole thing from scratch,” Love says.

This is what do they do

North Carolina was a pioneer in public art advocacy. Winston-Salem established the nation’s first arts council in 1949. Three years later, in 1952, the Asheville Junior League formed the Civic Arts Council and hosted the first Beaux Ball (an early pre-cursor to the color ball). In 1964, Gov. Terry Sanford created the North Carolina Arts Council, officially recognizing the importance of the arts to the state’s prosperity.

In general, arts councils act as public canopies that serve, connect and fund many facets of the creative community. However, “It’s sometimes difficult for arts councils to find their niches, particularly when the private industry is ample and successful,” says Wayne Martin, executive director of the North Carolina Arts Council. Despite the inherent difficulty, Love insists that arts councils need to be “full-throated advocates for the arts.”

The AAAC helps distribute grants, organizes programming and hosts forums and classes in the Artery. For example, every third Thursday the Arts Council hosts the Creative Sector Forums, dedicated to combining forces and strategy to enhance the artists’ professional practices. These culminate in partnership with the city of Asheville to host the annual Creative Sector Summit, a networking and educational opportunity for artists. hosts the Creative Sector Forums, dedicated to combining forces and strategy to enhance the artists’ professional practices. These culminate in partnership with the city of Asheville to host the annual Creative Sector Summit, a networking and educational opportunity for any and all in Asheville’s artists.

Money matters

Local arts councils typically act as a funnel for the smaller grants of $300 to $5,000. Those grants are awarded to individual artists or small groups, and have in the past helped fund album recordings, art works and more. Then there are the Grassroots Grants, among the most sought-after grants, as they offer greater financing opportunities. Martin refers to the grants as “one of the N.C. Arts Council’s foundational programs.”

The program was established in 1977 to “ensure that every citizen has access to quality arts experiences.” They double as legislative proof that our representatives are publicly favoring the arts. Annual funding is determined in two stages. once the state legislature establishes the annual grant budget, 20 percent of the allocated funds are automatically and evenly distributed to all 100 counties in the state. The other 80 percent is based on a county population.

Based on the estimated 249,104 residents, Buncombe County received $50,431 for the 2012 Grassroots Grants cycle, subdivided according to several stipulations. The multicultural allotment ensures that the percentage of a county’s multicultural population — 10 percent in Buncombe — is represented. Therefore, 10 percent of the funds must go toward multicultural projects.

The city of Asheville’s Cultural Arts Department took on the task of distribution for the most recent grant cycle. Previously, the AAAC was the Designated County Partner, a largely permanent position that comes with greater rights and financial allowances. City departments cannot become full-on DCPs, although they can fill the role temporarily.

So why does it matter which group gives out the money? Designated partners can use up to 50 percent of the Grassroots allotment to pay for their own budgets: salaries, leases and materials and other operating expenses. The AAAC derived a sizable portion of its funding through this channel. Because the city’s partnership is temporary, it’s only allowed to use up to 20 percent of the allotted grant funds (the city went lower still, using only 10 percent).

These funds are usually distributed through sponsored partnerships with arts councils. But not in Buncombe County. or at least not at the moment. The loss of that money left the arts council with virtually no steady stream of funding.

Fall and then rise

AAAC’s discord was initially addressed by the state arts council in May 2008 during its annual Arts in Communities panel meeting, according to documents provided by the state arts council. The panel expressed concerns over the Asheville group’s lack of community involvement, an unclear sub-granting process involved with the Grassroots Grants and general operational disorganization. In 2009, the state council ordered that the AAAC work with Nello McDaniels, a national consultant funded by a grant. They did so, but since then the board and the director have changed — twice. (McDaniels is still working with Love, but because he travels throughout the state, his assistance is intermittent.)

But the trend continued through 2009 to 2010, when the panel downgraded the “floundering organization” to a Provisional County Partner, withholding a large portion of annual revenue, according to the meeting minutes.

In 2011 the N.C. Arts Council invited Diane Ruggiero, Asheville’s then-superintendent of cultural affairs, to apply for the PCP position on behalf of the city of Asheville. [Ruggiero resigned from the position, effective Sept. 15, to pursue similar work in Alexandria, Va.]

The position announcement was subtle. After the transfer was complete, a brief press release announced the 2011 Grassroots Grants schedule, citing Ruggiero as the contact. The transition marked a public end to AAAC’s handling of the Grassroots Grants. But, as Ruggiero put it, “the point is, is that the money gets out there [to the artists].”

Sara Crawford, spent the better part of the year building a new budget. The old ones were largely scrapped.

Nonetheless, a decrease in donors coupled with the loss of direct public funding has the council and its $150,000 operations budget in a deficit.

Rebuilding the Arts Council

Nonetheless, a decrease in donors coupled with the loss of direct public funding has the council and its $150,000 operations budget in a deficit.

The Tangerine ball is being looked to as a pivotal event, one that will lay the new foundation work to restart the organization. After all of the expenses are covered, Love and the AAAC aim to raise $10,000 from the event. The money will be “used to implement programming,” says Love.

Last year’s gala, hosted under the direction of interim executive director Graham Hackett with “almost no budget,” brought in just over $1,000, Love says. This year will be quite different, and a sponsorship by local moonshine makers Troy & Sons Distillers will help.

As for the programming, Love maintains that is how AAAC will settle into its niche. Love’s focus is on the individual artist as an individual business. There’s no shortage of artists in the area. Each one effectively functions as a one-man business. “But these ‘businesses’ lack a C.E.O, a board, accountants,” she says. AAAC’s goal is to become the outlet for instruction and business management, through forums, classes and a future partnership with A-B Tech.

The biggest problem, according to Martin, is figuring out how the councils can fit into a booming cultural atmosphere, and how they can brand themselves. For Love, the AAAC will find this in business and financial education for the arts masses. “It’s not enough for the council to just exist,” Love says.

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About Kyle Sherard
Book lover, arts reporter, passerby…..

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