Local political candidates offer takes on arts issues

DO THE RIGHT THING: Seventeen of the 18 local candidates on the May 17 primary election ballot completed the Asheville Area Arts Council's latest survey. Graphic courtesy of the AAAC

Candidates for Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, Asheville mayoralty and Asheville City Council support plans to increase funding for local arts efforts — including helping business owners and independent contractors recover from setbacks stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as establishing affordable artist housing and/or studio space — according to a recent survey conducted by the Asheville Area Arts Council.

Seventeen of the 18 local candidates on the May 17 primary election ballot completed the arts questionnaire, which was first implemented in the 2020 primary and general elections. According to AAAC Executive Director Katie Cornell, the survey was conducted to educate candidates about the core issues currently facing the local creative sector, as well as give her an idea of the kind of education the AAAC needs to provide moving forward. Responses were not received from City Council candidate Alex Cobb.

Advocacy first

In 2020, Cornell developed the survey’s questions with the AAAC’s arts leadership council. But with the 2021 formation of its Arts Coalition, composed of 10 committees focused on different key parts of the arts sector, she turned to the entirety of its membership in January to determine the five issues most important to them.

“From that, I worked with the Arts Coalition chairs to craft the five questions that we selected, and then it was reviewed by all 10 committees,” Cornell says. “We’re trying to hear all the different perspectives on issues and build consensus around the same issues so that we might be able to move the ball forward together.”

As in 2020, the 2022 survey asked candidates about their personal background and experience in the arts, as well as which arts activities they’ve attended, participated in or supported in the past year. Numerous participants noted their thankfulness for the gradual return to pre-pandemic levels within Asheville’s rich arts scene.

“I was really pleased by how many of them have connections to the arts and support for the arts issues,” Cornell says. “We’ll see what happens once they’re elected, but at least now it sounds pretty good.”

Subsequent questions gauged candidates’ thoughts on various issues. One concerned increasing local government funding to the AAAC to at least match the state arts funding awarded to Buncombe County (currently at $61,447); this money supports community arts programs for all county residents. Another addressed supporting additional pandemic relief aid for arts businesses. And a follow-up question asked candidates to express their views on using that same funding to support the maintenance and creation of local arts projects.

Similar to 2020 responses, multiple candidates questioned why this funding would go to the AAAC. The response, Cornell says, reveals that elected officials and their constituents do not understand the role of the arts council.

“I’ll be the first to admit it: The arts council hadn’t been fulfilling its role for a long time, so it’s going to take us a little while to do that education process and help people understand we are the designated artist agency for Buncombe County by official resolution,” she says. “We receive the state funding on behalf of the arts in the county and we can receive federal funding on behalf of the arts in the county. Our role is really that leadership piece.”

When asked if they’d support an initiative to create affordable artist housing and/or studio space within Buncombe County, candidates seem united in recognizing the importance of stable housing. Prior to the survey, Cornell wasn’t convinced that those running for office necessarily realized housing was also an arts issue but thinks that pointing it out could prove beneficial for individuals at risk within the creative sector.

The final question concerned the proposed creation of Asheville and Buncombe County’s first cultural plan to support the preservation of its cultural assets and the equitable recovery and sustainable growth of the creative sector.

“It seems like I have some work to do there,” Cornell says. “I don’t think people understand how important that is to have some real goals set around our cultural assets. But we’re getting there. That started a lot of good discussions after the 2020 survey, and I think it will continue … but it’s kind of hard to justify a cultural plan at a time when you’re going through a pandemic.”

Making a difference

Reflecting on the 2020 primary and general election surveys, Cornell feels they were helpful for arts leaders to understand candidates’ views and also informed her work as the advocate for the arts sector. But she also sees the AAAC’s advocacy paying off in the form of Buncombe County commissioners discussing arts and culture funding at their April 26 meeting.

“I really expected it was going to take a lot longer for us to see a conversation happen,” she says. “It’s very exciting to see things working. This was like opening a door with a lot of these elected officials to understanding the importance of the sector where many hadn’t considered it being on the top of their agenda. It helped me form more solid relationships with the representatives that were elected after the 2020 election.”

Now, with the buy-in of the Arts Coalition, Cornell is confident that the 2022 survey will have an even greater impact as it reverberates throughout its membership and each individual’s network.

“What we’re doing is setting the scene,” she says. “We’re taking a different approach to the Creative Sector Summit this year. Instead [of moderated panels with arts leaders], we’re going to do a series of arts town hall events in the fall which will be candidate forum events, moderated by the chairs of the Arts Coalition.”

To view the full survey results, visit avl.mx/bit.


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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for ashevillemovies.com 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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