Their existence may have been turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the work hasn’t stopped for Asheville-area arts nonprofits. In many ways, their activity levels have actually increased as leaders adapted to continue delivering high-quality services amid an ever-shifting public health environment.
“Even though the pandemic is still ongoing, we have a lot more clarity than we did a year ago,” says Katie Cornell, executive director of the Asheville Area Arts Council. “We have moved out of emergency mode, identified the key areas that need our support and are actively working toward solutions.”
For Cornell, the most challenging problem to solve is the toll that the pandemic has taken on the creative sector. According to the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, the local arts and entertainment industry experienced the greatest percentage of job loss in Buncombe County.
“The arts council continues to monitor and report on the impacts of the pandemic on the local arts sector, and advocate for more resources and aid for artists and arts businesses — including a request for $250,000 in regranting funding from the Buncombe County COVID recovery funds,” Cornell says.
Collaborations, she says, have been key to sustaining momentum during the pandemic, and she hopes the trend of community leaders working together to creatively address the challenges of the last 20 months continues to grow. Such efforts have resulted in a wealth of AAAC-sponsored projects, including the Black Lives Matter street mural, the Equity in Creative Placemaking speaker series with Leadership Asheville, the formation of the Arts Coalition and the LIVE! An Asheville Arts Benefit Series.
In addition, the annual Creative Sector Summit returned in early November after the 2020 iteration was canceled. The single-day, in-person/virtual hybrid edition included panel discussions on equity and artist wages in Asheville, as well as the presentation of the inaugural “Crammy” award to DeWayne Barton, founder/CEO of community resource Hood Huggers International. Named after local entrepreneur and philanthropist John Cram, who died in 2020, the award seeks to honor individuals who have made a large contribution to the arts in Buncombe County.
Among the fellow local arts nonprofits continuing to enrich the community is The Magnetic Theatre, whose leaders made significant pivots at the pandemic’s onset to continue its mission.
Unable to host performances due to statewide indoor gathering restrictions, the Magnetic began producing digital and livestreamed content. The nonprofit also changed its pricing to a pay-what-you-can model so that local performers and playwrights could continue to create and be paid. To help on the financial front, Executive Director Jessica Johnson and Artistic Director Katie Jones elected to forgo their salaries until the theater could afford to pay them.
When warm weather arrived in spring 2021, the theater produced an outdoor walking show along the Reed Creek Greenway, in which a cast of 20 actors performed scenes in groups of one-to-three people. An outdoor weekly variety show at Smoky Park Supper Club likewise kept the Magnetic crew active April-September and brought in revenue.
The changes proved effective and resulted in the theater reopening its River Arts District indoor space in July, welcoming back audiences at a reduced capacity and requiring masks and proof of either vaccination or a negative COVID test within 48 hours of entering the theater.
“We shut our doors, but we didn’t stop,” Johnson says. “We are preparing to announce our 2022 season in mid-November, and there were times we thought we might not get there, so knowing that we can say with confidence that we’re ready for 2022 is a huge accomplishment.”
Take it outside
In-person gathering had likewise been key to the identity of Asheville Writers in the Schools and Community. The 10-year-old nonprofit aims to ignite social change through the power of the arts, culture and restorative self-expression from its space in the Arthur R. Edington Education & Career Center. Executive Director Sekou Coleman notes that regular meetings with participants and staff, special community celebrations and the simple act of holding space for children, families and others in the community to interact all had to be rethought amid the public health crisis.
“While we’ve been able to transition some things to a virtual space, not everything can be easily delivered via a camera and a screen,” Coleman says. “During the warmer months, we were able to do more outdoor activities, and as winter approaches, we’ve strived to make our indoor program spaces safer and more conducive to creative work. This has included purchasing items like air purifiers and technology upgrades, and developing activities better suited to small group and individual participation.”
The pandemic’s first year saw Coleman and his colleagues focus nearly all of their energy on supporting the Word on the Street/Voz de les Jóvenes youth program for teens of color. But with the dexterity of a capable staff and a supportive board of directors, plus financial support from Paycheck Protection Program loans, foundation grants and individual donations, AWITSC has now rekindled two previously dormant programs: its residency opportunities for artists of color and an elementary grade-level literacy program called Family Voices. The number of employees is about to grow, too.
“Thanks to funding we recently received, we’re looking forward to expanding our staff to include someone dedicated to maintaining healthy relationships with the youth in our programs and making sure they have access to resources that help them navigate any challenges they might face — from academic struggles to bullying or sexual violence and housing insecurity,” Coleman says. “This is a significant development for us because it not only adds value for our participants, it also supports our existing staff who are already working at full capacity.”
Back around the corner on Depot Street, the Magnetic’s emphasis on new, original work and direct collaboration with playwrights on as-yet-published pieces means the theater doesn’t have to pay the high royalties that many other companies incur. Still, its yearlong closure has created ongoing financial hurdles. Even with Johnson and Jones working pro bono, the nonprofit’s current limited seating and forgone concessions has reduced revenue.
In order to carry on, the Magnetic turned to the public for help in late September, and the outpouring of kindness is something Johnson says she and her colleagues won’t soon forget.
“We were able to raise funds through a GoFundMe campaign that will allow us to [remain open] and are forever grateful for the incredible support we received from the community, friends and family,” Johnson says. “We are working on more sponsorships and other collaborations now that local businesses are feeling more stable as well.”