UNC Asheville and the Asheville Area Arts Council are in the early stages of renovating two unaffiliated buildings. Though both stand empty for the time being, excitement echoes in those hallways because the projects promise innovative new approaches to artmaking.
The Refinery Creator Space, the arts council’s new location on Coxe Avenue, rethinks the 15,000 square feet that used to house a homeless shelter in what is now known as the South Slope Innovation District. “We really want to create a place where artists can explore, innovate, collaborate and provide increased opportunities to showcase the results,” says Jen Gordon, the gallery studio manager of that property.
Broken up into several spaces of different sizes, the Refinery will offer 13 individual artist studios, four or five cooperative rooms, an event area, gallery, kitchenette and resource library. “It has always been our goal to provide support for working artists with an economy of scale that an institution like ours can offer in terms of market opportunity, training, access to resources and the like,” says Kitty Love, executive director of the arts council.
The cooperative component will involve anchor tenants, including Local Cloth, Mechanical Eye Microcinema, Asheville Makers and production ceramicist Nick Moen. These specific occupants will lease larger spaces within the Refinery, but will receive subsidies on their rent for sharing tools and workspace with members of the Refinery.
Membership itself will involve a vetting process. In this way, anchor tenants can be assured that only qualified applicants, capable of safely and skillfully using shared tools and space, are offered the 25-hour-per-week access. Once accepted, members may also receive discounted rates on classes, access to exhibition opportunities in The Refinery gallery and possible discounts on event rentals. Further details, such as the cost of membership, are still being worked out by the arts council.
An ambitious and adventurous undertaking is also underway at UNC Asheville. In the fall, the university anticipates opening the River Arts Makers Place on Riverside Drive. Jackson Martin, assistant professor of art, sees the facility as a great way to attract prospective students. While offering tours of the campus, Martin says he had to excuse cluttered hallways and limited room. Now, with 11,575 square feet to work with, he’s excited to showcase the university’s state-of-the-art “makerspace.”
Brent Skidmore, assistant professor of art and art history, agrees with the new potential that the space provides. He notes that in the past, the university has struggled “to recruit art majors due to the lack of 21st-century studios and equipment.” He views the RAMP facility — which will be outfitted with new equipment for 3-D modeling and printing along with water jet, laser and plasma cutters, in addition to multiple forms of metal fabrication equipment and a woodworking facility — as a place that nurtures students in both single and multidisciplinary research projects.
Cross-disciplinary learning through collaboration will be a major component at the RAMP location. Rebecca Bruce, professor and associate director of engineering, views the facility as a chance for art students to learn how to use “mathematical abstractions to analyze the functionality of their designs” from engineers and computer scientists, while those techies can learn from art students about the aesthetics in their work.
Skidmore also sees the RAMP facility as a way of bringing together college students with those in elementary, middle and high school. He envisions working in programs that connect art and science. “These efforts will be driven by both volunteer and curricular objectives likely involving robotics, woodworking, and design both physical and virtual,” he says.
Collaboration was a crucial element in getting both projects off the ground. A $500,000 grant from the Windgate Charitable Foundation, an equipment grant of $400,000 from Duke Energy Foundation and $100,000 from North Carolina State University all went into UNCA’s new site. RAMP owners Eddie Dewey, Rick Eckerd, Tom Oreck and Brent Starck, who lease the property to the university, contributed over $57,000 in upgrades.
Skidmore acknowledges that it is unique for the university to have a lease, but a 10-year agreement emphasizes the new administration’s “forward thinking and interest in being engaged with the community.” UNCA will share the overall 100,000-square-foot facility with a variety of creative neighbors and businesses, including Cheap Joe’s Art Supply and Astral Design. Skidmore hopes the shared space will offer greater synergy to UNCA students, as well as possible professional connections.
Partnerships played a major role in AAAC’s development of the Refinery, as well. In October 2015, Mike Figura of Mosiac Reality, along with his partners at East West Capital, approached Gordon to see if she’d be interested in helping them curate the space for working artists. “When we put this property under contract, we were not sure what we were going to do with the building,” says Figura. “But we knew that it was well-suited for an arts studio, and we asked if [the arts council] wanted to partner with us on running it.”
AAAC is hopeful to have the Refinery’s doors open within the next few months but remains realistic about the process ahead. “The co-op won’t be fully developed the minute we open,” says Love. “But we expect pieces to fall in place as the community recognizes the rewards that membership offers.”
UNCA anticipates its new space to be available in time for the fall semester, and its faculty looks forward to the location’s potential. “Any one student working by themselves can only do so much,” says Martin. “Four or five students will be able to get together and soar.”
For more information on AAAC’s Refinery, visit ashevillearts.com or contact Jen Gordon at firstname.lastname@example.org. A website for UNC’s RAMP facility is underway.