Onstage at The Orange Peel, Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer had just delivered an update on the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium when the power went out.
According to venue co-owner Liz Tallent, a short circuit in a cable caused the building’s circuit breaker to flip, which led to a brief power disruption, cloaking attendees at the Oct. 30 ArtsAVL’s State of the Arts Brunch in darkness. Power was restored within 10 minutes, and the program continued. But it was ironic timing for the latest information on Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, which has been closed since July 5 due to a failed heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system.
Before the outage, Manheimer compared the auditorium’s importance to Asheville with that of Greensboro’s Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts, the Durham Performing Arts Center and the Peace Center in Greenville, S.C.
“Those are the single largest investments those cities are making — and with good reason,” she said. “A city is people and experiences. And so, how do you make a city one of the best places to be in the world? You make sure that people are having an enriched life and having an opportunity to have the greatest quality experiences.”
ArtsAVL promoted the mayor’s update as a key point of the State of the Arts Brunch. Before the interruption, Manheimer shared that Asheville City Council had narrowed down the venue’s renovation plans from five to two options. She did not elaborate on the “improved raked floor arrangement” plan but said that the more costly “patron-driven” route “would bring significant renovation to the front-of-house space, creating an acoustically sound concert hall which can accommodate a wide array of programming.” She added that it “would reshape the interior of the facility, resulting in a new venue within the existing structure.”
Manheimer also noted that City Council will be “looking at what the possibilities are in making this a reality” but that it wouldn’t be possible without “very strong partnerships.” That urgency echoed findings that ArtsAVL Executive Director Katie Cornell shared in her opening remarks.
“The longer-term closure of Thomas Wolfe [Auditorium], even with it reopening at limited capacity, is estimated to result in a loss of over $20 million for our economy this year,” Cornell said. “ArtsAVL is supportive of this renovation, and we will lend our support as we’re able.”
She also announced the launch of a cost-of-living study to help retain young, up-and-coming creatives and artists of color whom she says are leaving the area and even the state. ArtsAVL plans to share the study’s findings in May with an accompanying town hall event.
Though Cornell’s presentation wasn’t all gloom and doom, it depicted a local creative sector still rebounding from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. She shared data from the 2023 Buncombe County Creative Economy Snapshot and the national Arts & Economic Prosperity 6 report. Several aspects of the reports drew applause, such as 61% of ArtsAVL’s 2023 fiscal year grants going toward underserved communities and 34% awarded to artists of color or organizations led by people of color.
But certain details intentionally gave attendees pause. Perhaps most troubling was the current state budget provision prohibiting tier-three counties with a population over 250,000 from receiving Grassroots Arts Program grant funding. Buncombe is one of just five counties in North Carolina to be excluded, which will result in a reduction in the number and size of Grassroots grant awards ArtsAVL is able to offer in its 2024-25 funding cycle.
“The argument for this provision is that the arts in these five counties don’t need more arts support because they’re doing so well,” Cornell said. “But as I just showed you with our Creative Economy Snapshot and our EP6 data, this is far from the truth.”
While she noted that the provision can’t be removed or adjusted this year, Cornell said ArtsAVL has “high hopes for next year” and recognized the support in these efforts from Sen. Julie Mayfield, who attended The Orange Peel event.
In addition to support from city and state government officials, the arts also have an ally in Terri Wells, Buncombe County Board of Commissioners vice chair. After identifying herself as “an arts lover,” Wells highlighted the county’s $130,000 in annual funding for block grant funds, managed by ArtsAVL, as well as arts programming throughout the county’s services, especially at public libraries.
“And I hope you all have enjoyed the beautiful murals that have been created around town,” Wells said, referring to the county’s Creative Equity Mural Project. Completed works include Durham-based Gabriel Eng-Goetz’s “Rebuild” on the register of deeds office and local artist Leslie Reynalte-Llanco’s “Eros un Orgullo Latino/You Are Latin Pride” mural behind the county tax office on Hilliard Avenue. Asheville-based artist Jared Wheatley’s upcoming work on the College Street parking deck will, in Wells’ words, honor “the ancestral stewards of this land.”
The State of the Arts Brunch concluded with Michael Manes, director and co-owner of Blue Spiral 1, presenting Gail and Brian McCarthy with this year’s John Cram Arts Leadership Award (aka the “Crammy”). The founders of Highwater Clays and Odyssey Center for Ceramic Arts moved to Asheville in 1979 and, in 1995, were integral in establishing the River Arts District and the RAD Studio Stroll.
Manes noted that both Highwater and Odyssey have been incubators for fledgling artists and those new to Asheville and that the McCarthys also started a resident artist program that nurtured people from all over the country. He added that the McCarthys’ “vision for supporting artists” made them deserving recipients of an award named for Cram, who passed away in 2020 after over 50 years of elevating Asheville’s arts scene.
Gail noted that the award was humbling for her and Brian and acknowledged that numerous people have also been responsible for the city’s thriving arts community.
“Sometimes, collaborations grow organically as people follow their own paths and reach out to help others along the way,” she said. “Opportunities in Asheville have provided many artists with the home to make their dreams a reality. So, continue to take flight and soar.”