Where were you the day the HVAC died?
In late June, the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning system failed, prompting the Asheville Symphony Orchestra to find a new home until repairs were made. Previously announced shows by Nick Cave and Ray Lamontagne were moved to the adjoining Harrah’s Cherokee Center – Asheville, and in autumn, Asheville City Council whittled down plans to renovate the aging performing arts center to two options.
The city’s arts scene also suffered a setback in June when Moog Music sold to InMusic. Three months later, a significant number of staff at the formerly employee-owned electronic instrument manufacturer were laid off.
Elsewhere, AVLFest shook off the ghost of Bele Chere, bringing a new four-day music festival to venues across the city in August; West Asheville institution Orbit DVD turned 20; and in November, Burial Beer Co. opened Eulogy, a South Slope music venue that carries on the spirit of the dearly departed The Mothlight while forging its own distinct identity.
Xpress asked six local members of the arts community to ponder the biggest issues facing the creative sector in 2023. Featured below are reflections from Katie Cornell, executive director of ArtsAVL; Marcus “Mook” Cunningham, recording artist and co-founder of Urban Combat Wrestling; Silas Durocher, vocalist/guitarist for The Get Right Band; Bob Hinkle, founder and CEO of White Horse Black Mountain; Stephanie Moore, executive director of the Center for Craft; and Kevin Patrick Murphy, founder of The Actor’s Center of Asheville.
What recurring themes did you notice within the local arts scene in 2023?
Moore: The arts continue to rebuild, yet this year in particular reflects a renascence of innovative approaches. We are all trying to figure out how to get audiences back into our spaces.
The free ArtsAVL trolley connecting downtown to RAD is a fun way to encourage exploration. Several inventive offerings popped up, like Asheville Community Theatre’s Bat Boy and the Center for Craft’s Krafthouse 2023. Many new art spaces have increased their programming to provide important resources. Story Parlor and The Residency at 821 offer artist residencies to emerging and established artists. Revolve [Gallery] has been hosting programs with organizations like Youth Outright and Campaign for Southern Equality. Connections are being made between all areas of our local art scene to grow and engage our community in new ways.
Hinkle: As a venue manager/booker, I’ve noticed that customers are regularly buying tickets for shows on the day of the event, unlike in the past when it was not uncommon to sell the majority earlier. Also, I happily note even more of an openness on the part of audiences toward music of different cultures and genres.
Cornell: One 2023 theme is the major impact visitor behavior has on local arts businesses. This year’s national Arts & Economic Prosperity 6 report revealed that drops in nonlocal attendees in 2021-22 caused economic activity generated from local nonprofit arts events to drop 26% from the previous study. A recent survey by ArtsAVL also showed that drops in tourism this summer/fall led to major sales losses for arts businesses downtown and in the River Arts District.
Murphy: The recurring theme that I noticed in my medium, fortunately, was more female-run and -supported projects. Women are directing, producing and booking jobs. … And in general, there’s a movement toward an open attitude and exploring more diversity.
Cunningham: Within my medium, being wrestling and hip-hop, I saw a huge combination of hip-hop and LGBTQ+ event collaborations. Whether wrestling and hip-hop, wrestling and drag, drag and hip-hop — it was awesome to see this.
Durocher: I think 2023 was the first “normal” year of gigging since the [COVID-19] pandemic. Venues, bands and audiences seemed to pretty much operate normally through the year, which has been a relief. As far as trends go, year by year I’m noticing a lot more bands releasing singles instead of albums and sometimes just doing digital releases instead of manufacturing CDs. It makes sense — things have been heading that direction for years — but it seems like a lot of people made the switch over the last year or two.
What local arts initiative deserved greater recognition than it received this year?
Murphy: More attention needs to be paid toward education of children in the arts. Schools are cutting music and theater programs from basic education, and if that’s going to continue to be the case, the artistic community needs to provide the opportunity. For example, The Actor’s Center just started a scholarship fund specifically to help people who may not be exploring acting training because they can’t afford it or their school doesn’t provide it.
Cunningham: The local hip-hop scene. I feel this is a repeatedly overlooked community of Asheville and is hugely missing from the lineups in Asheville festivals. There is also no real local hub for artists in this genre, except unpaid open mics or the artists themselves paying to be a part of shows.
Moore: Designer Sala Menaya, who is involved with Noir Collective, organized a fashion show, “Asheville Black Excellence Experience,” at the Foundry Hotel, which honored several leaders in our community. I found it to be such a thoughtful way to highlight her work and draw attention to so many important people working hard for Asheville every day.
Durocher: I’m a big fan of Music Video Asheville. I’m not saying the event doesn’t get a lot of recognition but I’d love to see more and more people showing up every year. It seems like it’s mostly attended by people who were involved in making the videos, but I think a ton of people would enjoy the event. I love making and watching music videos. MVA is such a cool and unique opportunity to see what the local music and film industry is doing.
Cornell: Land of Sky Regional Council was awarded major grants from the Appalachian Regional Council and Dogwood Health Trust to begin building creative manufacturing infrastructure in Western North Carolina. This will help large and small arts businesses producing things in multiples to grow their businesses across the region. ArtsAVL is thrilled to be a partner in this initiative.
In 2023, what encouraged you most about the local arts scene, and what discouraged you most?
Cornell: One of the most encouraging and discouraging issues happening in the local arts scene in 2023 is the renovation of Thomas Wolfe Auditorium. After shutting down due to a major HVAC failure, it finally appears like the city is going to move forward with some major renovations to the historic space — even though it will not be a quick fix and comes with a big price tag.
Moore: I was so encouraged that Buncombe County included $129,788 in line item funding for arts and culture in the 2022-23 budget for regranting through ArtsAVL, our local arts council. The arts are an essential part of the vibrancy of Asheville and the surrounding area. However, I am discouraged that the city and regional foundations have not yet recognized the importance of support.
Hinkle: I’ve felt good and relieved to witness the post-COVID, ongoing return of folks who were largely absent during the pandemic. It took a long-ish time for many of them to return to something like their previous attendance habits. There seems to be more laughing.
On the other hand, I’m a bit discouraged from what I can see by the decreasing number of venues that can be categorized as “listening rooms.” Too many times, artists play an event where they wish to present their creations or interpretations in such ways that they need ears, yet there’s a noise level too high for them to be effective. Their music loses a large fraction of what it was intended to accomplish. Over the longer haul, it’s a process that tends to make the music become part of the wallpaper. It’s “music by the pound.”
Murphy: I’m encouraged by the comedy, improvisation and independent film scenes growing. And I’m discouraged by the lack of mingling of more artistic communities. There’s not enough cross-pollination.
Durocher: AVLFest was obviously a big exciting thing for the local music scene this year. As a performer and a fan, I thought the festival went amazingly well, and I’m really excited to see it develop in future years. I also love seeing bands from Asheville doing great on the national scene, like Indigo De Souza, Wednesday and Secret Agent 23 Skidoo.
The discouraging things are always the same for me: It’s hard for artists to make a living, especially making unique, original music or art. And that’s getting tougher as the cost of living in Asheville goes up. I do worry that we might, at some point, price ourselves out of the kind of people that make this place so interesting and special.
What social issue didn’t get enough attention within the local arts scene this year?
Cunningham: Social issues affecting the African American and Latinx experience in Asheville. These artists are immensely talented and get little to no recognition of the culture and community they represent.
Moore: Mental health issues have drastically risen since the pandemic. Participating in the arts enables people to deal with a wide range of distress, individually and within a community. Artists are supporting efforts to address critical issues all over the region, which deserve recognition and support. We have this amazing tool — art — that is ready made for human connection and healing.
Cornell: A growing issue within the creative sector is the need for affordable creative space. Due to the rising cost of living and workspaces, many creatives can no longer afford to live in Buncombe County. Many are moving to surrounding counties or even out of state. ArtsAVL will be conducting a creative spaces study in early 2024 to more closely examine this issue. The report, with an accompanying town hall event, will come out in May.
Murphy: I think the theater scene should be playing with much deeper issues. The need for the arts to challenge us to think and look at ourselves in scary and real ways is extremely necessary right now.
Hinkle: I think anything we can do to bring together the folks who give charitably to local causes and the recipients of that aid could potentially “de-stranger” us. If we were able to see our fellow humans as very much like ourselves, some of our local social problems would be balloons with slow leaks. The potential is to not see “us providing largess to them” or “them” feeling patronized by us. Instead, I might be just another guy with a funny haircut speaking a similar language with no strings attached.