Rural arts nonprofits navigate distinct pandemic challenges

BOUNDLESS: Gavin Stewart and Vanessa Owen of Asheville-based Stewart/Owen Dance perform at Trillium Arts' inaugural event in Mars Hill. Photo by Tanja Kuic

For over a decade, Heather Hartley and Phil Reynolds contemplated the next stage of their careers. Based in Chicago for twice that long, working with various arts organizations, the couple dreamed of translating their professional passions to a less hectic setting, one where they could host and connect like-minded creators from across the country.

“We were getting a little restless,” says Reynolds, a native of Palo Alto, Calif., who grew up outside of New York City. “I always thought it would be interesting to establish a place where artists, primarily performing artists, would have time and space to create their best new work.”

Hartley, a fourth-generation Yancey County native who grew up in Boone, had long desired to permanently return to Western North Carolina, and when she and Reynolds found themselves in an “empty nest,” they got serious about establishing their nonprofit residency center. Had Hartley’s mother, who passed away in February, not suffered a devastating stroke, Reynolds suspects they might still be in the Windy City, merely talking about moving. But the tragedy provided the catalyst they needed to relocate, and, in 2018, they incorporated Trillium Arts in North Carolina.

Finding property that met their specific goals, however, took considerably more time. They envisioned what Reynolds calls “a beautiful setting people would want to come to for a few weeks,” including a house in which he and Hartley would live, plus lodging and studio space for four-six artists. The couple also sought reasonable accessibility to a decent airport, a nearby grocery store and, in Reynolds’ words, “a road that we don’t have to fear for the lives of our guests driving off of in the middle of the night into some gulch.” They acknowledge it was a lot to put together into one package, especially without a bottomless bank account, and say they’re thankful for patient real estate agents who didn’t cut them loose over the course of looking at what wound up being nearly 100 properties.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March, they were still narrowing down their search, a process that became more cumbersome with the addition of elevated safety measures. But the lockdown had a far greater impact on Trillium’s fundraising efforts, which were already difficult without a site nailed down and led to the cancellation of key meetings with potential stakeholders. “It’s a little hard to go to someone and say, ‘Write a check for $100,000 so we can build a studio and gather some momentum, but we really don’t know where that’s going to be right now,’” Reynolds says.

Forced to reframe their vision, Hartley and Reynolds closed on a Mars Hill property in July that featured many of their intended ingredients. While renovations are underway on what Hartley calls a “classic fixer-upper,” the couple have been living in a nearby rental home owned by one of her cousins. But thanks to a grant from the Illinois-based Pert Foundation, they made enough progress on the Trillium site to host their initial round of dance residencies on Oct. 16.

Through the Asheville/Chicago Exchange, choreographers Joshua Blake Carter and Vershawn Sanders-Ward each brought three dancers to Mars Hill, where they were joined by Gavin Stewart and Vanessa Owen of Asheville-based Stewart/Owen Dance, and Hendersonville-based dancer Melvin AC Howell. With 35 masked, socially distanced invited guests gathered on Trillium’s expansive front porch, Stewart and Owen performed a five-minute improv dance on the property’s sizable lawn, Howell led a hip-hop jam on the porch, and Carter’s group took to the house’s great room. “[They] were on one side of the glass, and the guests were outside, looking in through the patio,” Hartley says. “It felt almost like watching an aquarium — a dance-arium.”

Feedback from artists and attendees on the inaugural events were unanimously positive, and while unreliable internet service prevented the dancers from incorporating digital technology, the advantages of the rustic setting far outweighed the disadvantages. One Chicago-based artist praised the absence of aggravation that often accompanies a long train commute to urban practice studios, and another dancer experienced a nature hike for the first time.

Hartley and Reynolds seek to provide those types of “disconnected” opportunities to national and international artists as Trillium’s fundraising grows and pandemic restrictions gradually lift. They also plan to build a roster of WNC artists who can collaborate with partners in Chicago and as-yet-established U.S. cities. In the meantime, they’ve established the “Miss Sarah” Fellowship for Black Women Writers in honor of the late Hickory social justice advocate Sarah M. Johnson — opportunities that the Trillium co-founders aren’t sure would have been possible under other circumstances.

“While it’s been difficult to launch a business during the pandemic, I’m also thankful that we’re not a 20-year-old institution that has massive overhead and all of this lost revenue that they’ve been counting on,” Hartley says. “We were small and flexible and able to roll with it because we were new, so I just really feel for our brothers and sisters out there in the nonprofit arts arena that are really struggling right now.”

Digital revolution

Among the established area groups fighting for survival — and winning that battle — is Toe River Arts.

Based in Burnsville, the nonprofit is the only arts council in North Carolina that serves multiple counties, providing resources for both Mitchell and Yancey residents. Prior to March, Executive Director Nealy Andrews and her staff had been in talks with their funders to address how the needs of rural arts organizations differ from their urban counterparts. The discussions resulted in the N.C. Arts Council, its largest financial supporter, altering the boundaries for grants so that Toe River’s artists would be competing for awards with peers in counties with similar populations and resources instead of Asheville-based creators.

But when the pandemic hit, those distinctions became even more prominent. Though Toe River receives state funding, Andrews likes to say it’s a grassroots organization in that it works with numerous community partners, housing authorities, chambers of commerce and private businesses, and has a strong connection with local schools. Those in-person activities came to an abrupt halt in March, and though a crisis plan was quickly developed with its board of directors, she and her staff of three worked remotely until June.

Like many arts organizations, Toe River shifted to virtual programming, hanging its annual blacksmith exhibit as if it would be seen in person, but launching it as a digital experience to increase accessibility. The organization also had the good fortune of establishing an e-commerce website for its retail space in January, and on Nov. 23 moved its annual studio tour online through Sunday, Dec. 27. Though local partners are helping with funding and marketing, and the expansion from a three-day in-person event to a five-week digital offering brings exposure (and potential sales) to a national audience instead of merely a regional one, the changes — including the cancellation of its popular exhibition receptions — are palpable.

“Not being able to gather in groups has been tough,” Andrews says. “One special thing about our community is that it’s so close-knit. We have over 100 people for the exhibition receptions in our little space each time — which is amazing, given the size of our community. People feel disconnected, so we’re looking forward to being able to do that again safely.”

Until traditional get-togethers are practical, Toe River will continue to add online options, including prerecorded banjo and guitar lessons that its instructors would typically offer in area middle schools. Upgrading the audiovisual equipment to deliver these and other online offerings came with unexpected costs that Andrews says her group was lucky to afford. Though she notes that smaller rural arts councils aren’t faring as well navigating those expenses, the innate creativity of her peers gives her confidence.

“As artists, we consider ourselves to be problem-solvers,” she says. “We were all forced to innovate, and I feel lucky to be surrounded by so many innovators.”


Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

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

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.