ArtsAVL’s Creative Spaces study spotlights affordability gaps

IN THE KNOW: From left, Matt Peiken moderates a panel on the Asheville Community Theatre stage featuring DeWayne Barton, Ashleigh Hardes, Tamara Sparacino, Rebekkah Hilgraves and Jeffrey Burroughs. Courtesy of ArtsAVL

Are you an Asheville-area artist who’s lost your workspace over the past few years or are struggling to afford increased rent to sustain such a spot?

You’re not alone.

ArtsAVL’s comprehensive Creative Spaces study finds that earnings by local professionals aren’t keeping pace with the cost of living in the four-county Asheville metro area, leaving access to studios, rehearsal rooms and similar locations outside of many artists’ budgets.

The results of the nearly 100-page report were presented at a town hall event hosted by Asheville Community Theatre on May 10. The data comes from 400 surveys — 305 (76%) by arts professionals and 95 (24%) by arts businesses — across Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson and Madison counties in early 2024.

“Over the last few years, we’ve heard growing concerns across the creative sector about space affordability — both live and work spaces for creators,” said ArtsAVL Executive Director Katie Cornell in her opening remarks.

“There are several reports that have been completed or that are currently in progress about affordable housing, so for this report, we decided to focus on where there was a gap in information and look specifically at affordable creative workspaces.”

Income gaps

Cornell defined creative workspaces as “the locations where arts professionals and/or arts businesses create, present or sell their work.” In addition to averages from the four-county Asheville Metro area and information from the individual counties, the study also includes comparative data for North Carolina and the U.S.

Among the report’s key findings are that creative jobs in Asheville Metro grew 27% from 2012-22. However, the growth rate was significantly higher between 2012 and 2017 (21%) than from 2017-22 (5%), a stagnation largely attributed to impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic beginning in March 2020.

“During this period, many creative businesses endured up to 14 months of closure due to state-mandated health restrictions,” Cornell said. “These prolonged periods of closure led to the elimination of many creative jobs. Creative job recovery and growth remains slow but steady.”

But wages are another story. In examining living wage data, ArtsAVL used the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Living Wage Calculator, figures that were updated in February. MIT defines a living wage as “what one full-time worker must earn on an hourly basis to help cover the cost of their family’s minimum basic needs where they live while still being self-sufficient.” For Buncombe County, the hourly living wage is $24.61 ($51,198 annually), and the Asheville Metro average is $23.61/hour ($49,113 annually).

In 2022, median earnings for Asheville Metro ($21.07) and Buncombe County ($21.06) were each roughly 1% lower than North Carolina ($21.35) overall but were each about 13% lower compared with the U.S. ($24.10).

“Median earnings have actually increased 16% in the last five years. They just aren’t keeping pace with the cost of living,” said Cornell.

She added that 50 of the 66 arts occupations included in the report (or 76%) have median earnings that fall below the living wage. And in addition to Buncombe’s 14% disparity between median earnings for creative jobs and the county’s living wage, the counties of Haywood (14%) and Henderson (16%) showed a similar gap. Insufficient data was gathered for Madison County regarding median earnings.

Wish lists

With the wage gap defined, other findings from the Creative Spaces study regarding affordability become easier to grasp. 51% of survey respondents said that they did not have access to affordable creative space, and 60% of participants who did not identify as white said they did not have access to affordable creative space. In addition, 56% of arts professionals who do not currently have workspace in Buncombe County did not feel that they had access to affordable creative space.

Among arts professionals, 15% said that they are no longer located in Buncombe County but used to be. They cited rising costs — especially rent expenses — as their top reason for leaving. For both arts professionals and businesses, the top concerns were that their current space was limiting their ability to grow and expand, and that their space was too small to meet their needs.

Arts businesses with budgets under $100,000 were also more likely to feel they did not have access to affordable creative space (57%) than organizations with budgets over $100,000 (32%).

Despite these concerns, Cornell noted that there is no definitive data pointing to Buncombe County’s creative community shrinking, suggesting that if creatives are leaving, new ones are moving in to keep numbers roughly the same.

Additional findings show that gallery/exhibition space (41%) was the top occasional need for arts professionals, and event space — for receptions, fundraisers, client entertaining, etc. — was the top need among arts businesses (43%). Both arts professionals (36%) and businesses (37%) identified classroom/teaching/demonstration space as their second-most pressing occasional need.

The most preferred location for both arts professionals and businesses is in Asheville’s central business district (61%), followed by West Asheville (35%), North Asheville (27%) and South Asheville (14%). Outside city limits, Weaverville (12%) and Black Mountain (9%) were the most preferred spots.

Cornell called the Creative Spaces Report “an assessment of the issues,” and now that it’s complete, ArtsAVL will work with community leaders and the Arts Coalition to draft potential initiatives to address the long-term stability and sustainability of Buncombe County’s creative sector as part of ArtsAVL’s 2024-25 policy agenda.

The report will also be used to help prepare for a countywide cultural plan, which will create a road map for Buncombe County arts and culture over the next 10 years. The planning process will be led by ArtsAVL, in collaboration with local governments and other community partners. It is set to launch in mid-2025.


Following Cornell’s presentation of highlights from the report, Matt Peiken, founder of Podcast AVL and “The Overlook” podcast, moderated a panel of five local arts leaders who’ve had success addressing creative space issues in various ways.

With the Blue Note Junction project, co-founder DeWayne Barton seeks to “create an arts destination” in the Burton Street neighborhood in West Asheville. He and his team have raised roughly $2.2 million of the over $7 million needed to complete what the endeavor’s website describes as “an entrepreneurial hub that not only supports the health and wealth of the local BIPOC community but promotes the spiritual, emotional and economic health of the entire city.”

Ashleigh Hardes Koslow, marketing director for Lexington Glassworks, shed light on the business’s Resident Assistantship program, which included the purchase of a five-unit apartment building where two up-and-coming glass artists at a time stay for a three- to six-month cohort while honing their craft at the studio. The other three units are rented out to nonprogram participants who nevertheless tend to be artists.

Tamara Sparacino, interim finance director at Asheville Community Theatre, spoke to the importance of owning one’s space while also noting the costs of maintaining what are often older buildings, such as ACT’s location. To help meet the needs of local artists seeking modest performance and rehearsal space, the nonprofit recently renovated its 35below basement space and launched a program where creatives can apply to produce their own work in the black-box theater.

Additional insights came from Rebekkah Hilgraves, owner of RadHaus Studios, who likewise offers rehearsal space to itinerant theater companies.

“We can’t work in silos,” she said. “We have to collaborate. We have to reach across different disciplines and different areas of the arts and work together to find solutions.”

Such action felt especially vital to Jeffrey Burroughs. The president of River Arts District Artists moved to Asheville from New York City and, after seeing artists forced out of the SoHo district, is seeing a similar squeeze in the RAD.

“They can’t afford their spaces if they haven’t bought them already,” Burroughs said. “We need the city to help us.”

For more on the Creative Spaces study, visit


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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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