When few area residents could imagine a sustainable future for downtown Asheville, John Cram was committed to its revitalization.
“He was a brave visionary who cared about our city and backed up his vision — at significant personal financial risk — as one of the earliest and most important pioneers in helping bring downtown back,” says Pat Whalen, president of local development group Public Interest Projects. “He undertook all three of his important downtown businesses at a time when there were still grave doubts about whether downtown could be saved.”
Cram, 72, passed away peacefully in the company of his family on Oct. 26, due to complications from Parkinson’s disease. A native of Wisconsin, he moved to Asheville in 1971 and opened New Morning Gallery in Biltmore Village in 1973. In subsequent years, he made his mark on a then-desolate Biltmore Avenue with the Blue Spiral 1 gallery, the Fine Arts Theatre and clothing stores Bellagio Art to Wear and Bellagio Everyday.
For these and other endeavors, Whalen describes Cram as “a creative entrepreneur who helped foster local artists and craftspeople,” efforts that helped establish Asheville as a noted arts community.
“His energy and creativity will be sorely missed,” Whalen says.
Local artist Connie Bostic recalls meeting Cram in the early 1970s through his work at New Morning Gallery and being “interested in what he was doing.” She went on to open World Gallery, later called Zone one, on Biltmore Avenue at a time when Cram, speaking to Xpress in 2009, said downtown was “80% empty.” Bostic, who concurs that Asheville was “very, very quiet” in the ’70s and ’80s, encouraged Cram to open a gallery downtown, setting up a friendly dynamic between the two spaces that she describes as “across the street and a million miles away.”
“We had different ideas about what we were doing,” Bostic says. “It was a really interesting time. John was a lot more savvy about how to make things work than I was. He was extremely detail-oriented, and that made a huge difference in his business.”
She and Cram remained friends, a relationship she calls “always an adventure.”
“There were times we’d disagree, and he’d get huffed up, and I wouldn’t hear from him for three months, then it was like nothing ever happened,” she says. “He was an adventurer — always up for something new and different. And he was restless … and fearless.”
That tenacity made Cram a driving force in the revitalization of Asheville, prompting him to serve on multiple boards and committees while encouraging reinvestment in the city. In 2009, he told Xpress that 1994 was “the cusp of when Asheville was starting to happen” — a transformation in which his businesses played a major role.
In the early ’90s, rumor had it that plans were afoot to gut the Fine Arts Theatre and turn it into a nightclub. Cram purchased the former adult film theater and eventually reopened it in 1996 as a home for independent cinema.
In a 2009 commentary, the late Xpress film critic Ken Hanke noted that the Fine Arts’ programming factored into his decision to move from Florida to Asheville in August 2000 and praised the business’ responsiveness to the local moviegoing public.
“As a theater, it answers only to owner John Cram and manager Neal Reed, not to some far off corporation that hasn’t a clue as to local demographics,” Hanke said. “That makes it truly Asheville’s own theater — a distinction I sometimes think we forget or take for granted, especially if we’re in the mood to bitch about downtown parking.”
Cram’s love of film extended beyond his stewardship of the Fine Arts. A 1995 Xpress article by Ashely Siegel notes that he “made several films himself while a student at the University of Wisconsin,” and that Blue Spiral 1 is named “after the monolithic imagery in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey.” According to Reed, now the director of operations for New Morning Ltd., the overall company name and Cram’s first Asheville gallery are tributes to the 1970 Bob Dylan song, “New Morning.”
Philanthropy and preservation
In addition to brick-and-mortar businesses, Cram created the Village Art & Craft Fair in 1972. The event was cited by the office of then-Gov. Pat McCrory in 2014 when Cram received the North Carolina Award — which recognizes “significant contributions to the state and nation in the fields of fine arts, literature, public service and science” — noting that the fair helped “transform Asheville into the cultural destination it is today.”
Cram was honored by the Center for Craft in 2019 with the street-level John Cram Partner Gallery, shared by UNC Asheville, Warren Wilson College and the Center for Craft. And he was awarded the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, the highest award for state service, in January 2020 for “significant contributions to the state” and the Asheville community through “exemplary service and exceptional accomplishments,” as well as his philanthropy.
“John’s charity extended well beyond public sight,” Reed says. “He helped people out of the kindness of his heart, never for recognition.”
Blue Spiral 1’s press release announcing Cram’s Order of the Long Leaf Pine honor highlighted his commitment to preserving the local environment. Using proceeds from the sale of works from the Will Henry Stevens estate, Cram “began a revolving trust to provide assistance to the Conservation Trust for North Carolina and the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, enabling land acquisition and protection.”
He considered these preservation efforts his greatest accomplishments and enjoyed sharing the fruits of his personal passion — gardening. A 2005 Xpress post by Cecil Bothwell reports Cram “once again” opening his “extensive gardens to the public as a fundraiser for Terpsicorps Theatre of Dance.” The event included “daylight tours of Cram’s impressive collection of plants and outdoor art,” as well as “a market featuring plants by local growers, a garden-art sale, live music, refreshments and human topiaries.”
“He was an optimist who believed in the promise of this community,” says Karen Ramshaw, vice president of PIP. “I hope that part of his legacy is a reminder that we too, as individuals, can contribute to making Asheville a better, more inclusive, more beautiful, more welcoming and more fun place to live and visit.”
Bostic is likewise confident that Cram’s commitment to Asheville will endure with future generations. “I see a lot of young people here doing remarkable things,” she says. “His work brought some of these marvelous young people here, and I have every faith that what he started will continue.”
Reed concurs: “When asked about his vision and drive for business, and the growth of Asheville, John often quoted Eleanor Roosevelt — ‘The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.'”
A memorial and celebration of Cram’s life will be announced at a later date, but in the interim, his family encourages everyone to visit a gallery or take a hike in the mountains that he worked so hard to preserve. In lieu of flowers, community members are invited to plant a tree or a special plant in their garden, and/or honor Cram’s memory by making a donation to their favorite arts or conservation organization.