Windgate gift enables Warren Wilson to jumpstart its crafts program

The Windgate Charitable Foundation may be based in Siloam Springs, Ark., but the distance hasn’t hindered the organization’s interest in Western North Carolina’s arts and crafts economy. That interest benefits area artists, educators and organizations who receive the foundation’s grants — most recently, Warren Wilson College.

Warren Wilson in May joined the ranks of high-profile Windgate recipients when it was awarded a $2.1 million grant to better realize and enhance craft’s impact on its small liberal arts campus. While WWC’s art department currently offers painting, printmaking, photography, ceramics and sculpture, there hasn’t been a clear focus on traditional Appalachian craft studies. That is, not since the first half of the last century.

“For a time, Warren Wilson craft flourished,” graduate Morgan Davis said in a 2011 article in the alumni magazine Owl & Spade, adding, “Textiles and wooden goods [were] sold under the label ‘Warren Wilson Crafts.’ Students preserved Appalachian weaving methods with woven table linens, towels and rugs,” she said, “and they ‘learned to do by doing’ as they created wooden boxes, turned bowls and other pieces.”

In the early 1900s, the college boasted 18 looms, a pottery program and a wood shop that turned out furniture, boxes and other much-needed farming implements. But the programs dwindled in the postwar climate. As more students began turning to the growing public education system for college degrees, fewer were seeking the crafts-based vocational programs offered by Warren Wilson, where an on-campus job has long been part of the curriculum.

By the late 1960s the looms were inactive and on the way out. Work dwindled to only a few hours a week, done only by the dedicated. Fragments of the craft education programs lingered in the work crews. But for decades, practicality prevailed over artistry.

Then, in 2009, student interest in craft surged, said Paula Garrett, WWC’s vice president of academic affairs and dean of the college. That interest resulted in new and revamped work crews. Students, with help from faculty and community members, secured the space for a donated loom. Several alumni returned to teach and supervise a new fiber arts crew.

Ten years earlier, a wood shop had been reinstalled. It was initially (and still is) used for furniture building and maintenance. But in 2009, students interested in crafting musical instruments started using it. And students from the blacksmithing, carpentry and fiber-arts work crews began using the shops after hours for their artistic pursuits.

“We’re reviving what was clearly a deep value in the life of the college,” Garrett said. And Windgate’s support will allow them to enhance existing craft-oriented programs and strengthen craft’s impact on the art department.

The school will be expanding what’s already in place during the grant’s three-year term, rather than building new facilities, Garrett said.

“The initial focus is giving additional resources to grow our art department,” she said. The art department and the blacksmithing, carpentry and fiber workshops will get upgrades and additional equipment.

And, work crews will expand. “The main function for these work crews is to produce craft materials for the college,” said Ian Robertson, WWC’s dean of work. “They bring an individual, artistic component to the campus … [The expansion] also offers the opportunity to blend together elements of the fine art department with the work crews.”

Windgate’s gift will extend across departments. “It will mean greater opportunity to bring in more classes,” said Eric Baden, chair of WWC’s art department. The grant will also support undergraduate research and the addition of foundation courses. “We can increase and enhance the study of craft in the art department.” He also spoke of the potential for an art history class that would explore the nature and cultural context of craft in our region.

The school will hire a sculpture professor, add personnel support and offer artist residencies and internships for recent graduates and area crafts artists, along with holding on-campus and multi-institutional exhibitions. (One exhibition already in the works will bring the famous Gee’s Bend quilts to Asheville in the coming year.)

Along with the positions created for the residencies and internships, the school will add two full-time staff positions. One will manage the on-campus gallery. The other will coordinate programming and collaborative efforts with the Center for Craft, Creativity and Design (CCCD), an area crafts-research and support organization that has close ties to Windgate.

CCCD is among the WNC organizations regularly supported by Windgate. While it operates as part of the UNC school system, its annual state-funded budget is matched by Windgate.

CCCD will advise Warren Wilson during the next three years, according to executive director Stephanie Moore. Moore told Xpress that the two institutions were working together to build a course of study that will be on par with local and national programs.

“[WWC] expressed interest in teaching courses at our space, maybe offering some of their workshops,” said Moore. They’ll also oversee the implementation of internships.

“We will be responsive to their needs as they come up,” Moore said.

“Our vision is to be the connective tissue between institutions and crafts research,” said CCCD board president Michael Sherrill. While this grant directly and primarily assists Warren Wilson, the college and the CCCD want to use it to the craft community’s benefit. That means including regionally accessible programming, such as the internships and residencies.

“Asheville is the nexus for the crafts culture in America,” said Sherrill. By CCCD’s charge, Western North Carolina is the nation’s craft capital. And with community-oriented development, these institutions can continue to uphold and elevate that status.
who is windgate?

The Windgate Charitable Foundation doesn’t have a website. But it does have a P.O. Box. It’s in Siloam Springs, a small town in the far corner of northwest Arkansas. The town is home to just over 15,000 people and to John Brown University, a small, interdenominational Christian liberal arts college (no relation to the abolitionist.)

Windgate is one of that university’s biggest financial backers. Annual grants and donations routinely peak above the $1 million mark. The foundation also assists organizations that support family life and marriage programming though Christian-based ethics and education. They balance local priorities with contributions to early education arts programming in state schools across the nation, including support for North Carolina’s “A+ Schools” program.

Then there’s craft. And my, does Windgate love craft. It gives millions every year to crafts-related programs and projects, ranging from individual artists to private and public institutions. And it would seem that WNC is the annual-heir-apparent to a considerable portion of the millions it injects into the nation’s arts sector.

“There are very few foundations as focussed on craft as the Windgate Charitable Foundation,” said Stoney Lamar. Lamar, a longtime Asheville-area craft artist, is a regional Windgate representative and board member for CCCD.

“Craft is an important part of our culture,” he said, “and they get that.”

In the past decade alone, Windgate has given tens of millions of dollars in grants, stipends and awards to WNC artists and institutions, including Penland School for Crafts, CCCD, Blue Ridge Community College, the Asheville Art Museum and to students, NPOs and individual craft-oriented projects throughout WNC. Grant givers show a strong preference for program development over capital campaigns and major construction. While most of the grants fall between $2,000 and $100,000, Windgate occasionally gives millions to a single program or project.

If the $2.1 million grant that Warren Wilson College recently received for developing its crafts program sounds familiar to people who follow the arts in WNC, that’s because it was extended before.

In 2006, UNC Asheville received an anonymous $2 million grant to initiate a craft studies program on an expansive new satellite campus. That anonymity was thinly veiled, though, as the Windgate Charitable Foundation was well-known for its interest in crafts development in the area (having given much to CCCD, Handmade in America and the Penland School of Crafts, among others).

But Windgate would eventually retract that award after more than a decade of planning by UNCA stalled out and ultimately collapsed in late 2010.

Initial plans for UNCA’s Craft Campus were put into swing in the late 1990s by UNCA sculpture professor and CCCD board member Dan Millspaugh. Millspaugh, who retired in 2008, was frustrated by lack of space in Owen Hall, home to the school’s art department. “The idea was that we had no space,” Millspaugh told Xpress. “We couldn’t grow, we couldn’t expand.”

The solution? What came to be called the Craft Campus. According to Millspaugh, UNCA would raise funds and build facilities adjacent to the former 153-acre Buncombe County landfill located just north of Woodfin. The property was to be leased from the county for $1 per year on a 99-year contract. The campus would harness methane from the landfill to generate heat for classrooms and studios and to power kilns and furnaces.

The new campus would become the foundation for the art department’s expansion into traditional crafts studies — glass, metal work and fine woodworking — to complement the long-established ceramics program.

During the early planning stages for the Craft Campus, Millspaugh said, the CCCD’s board suggested that UNCA look to the model of the EnergyXchange, a small crafts studio, gallery and educational space situated on a former 10-acre landfill between Burnsville and Spruce Pine. The EnergyXchange uses landfill methane to power its operations.

All of this was on a small 10-acre site — easy for Millspaugh and the Craft Campus organizers to imagine the possibilities that could be harnessed from a landfill 15 times larger.

In 2004, UNCA applied for and received a $100,000 grant from the Detroit-based Kresge Foundation to develop architectural plans and to explore the land’s methane resources.

The $2 million Windgate grant followed in January 2006. The money had to be matched before it could be used. “It was never implied that they would fund all of it,” Millspaugh said. Rather, it was an incentive to move forward with the planning and fundraising.

The university then conducted a national search to fill two new positions for the Craft Campus: director and assistant director. In 2007, just prior to Millspaugh’s retirement, Brent Skidmore, a wood sculptor and art professor at Michigan’s Kendall College of Art and Design, was hired as director. Jon Keenan, a ceramics artist and professor at New Hampshire’s Colby-Sawyer College (where UNCA chancellor Anne Ponder served as president for 10 years) was hired as assistant director.

Skidmore, who remains on the UNCA faculty as assistant professor of art and director of craft studies, did not return telephone calls and email requests for comment on the Craft Campus. Keenan has since returned to Colby-Sawyer.

By 2009 the methane was proving to be a difficult plan to pursue. “The cost projections of extracting and piping the methane, along with maintaining the infrastructure necessary, proved that plan economically unrealistic in 2009,” said Ed Katz, associate provost and dean of university programs, in a written statement.

Logistical issues mounted as projected expenses soared. When the recession took hold, fundraising was put aside. The project was officially removed form the university’s capitol projects list in early 2011. Windgate would soon withdraw, effectively ending UNCA’s Craft Campus.

“That decision to remove a new craft facility from the capital priority list has not altered the university’s commitment to craft education,” Katz said in his statement. “UNC Asheville remains committed to craft education, research and practice through a craft focus in our new art history degree, work toward a new concentration in craft as part of the Studio Arts major, and our continued collaboration with Windgate, the CCCD and crafters and the craft community in WNC.”


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

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