New report from Asheville Area Arts Council examines pandemic impact

Press release from Asheville Area Arts Council:

Health concerns, supply chain issues, and employment challenges continue to impact the local creative sector – particularly Leisure and Hospitality, and Manufacturing industries. Lessons learned by these industries provide creative solutions for future crises, such as public health messaging that emphasizes creative engagement and socially distanced community gatherings in public spaces.

The Creative Jobs Report looks at creative industries at the end of 2019 to the end of 2021 – showing the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on these industries over time. This study is a follow-up to the Buncombe County Creative Jobs Pre-pandemic (2015-19) and Buncombe County Creative Sector Earnings reports published by the Asheville Area Arts Council last year.

Some highlights include: 

-From 2015-19, creative industry jobs in Buncombe County grew 24%— reaching approximately 14,000.
-By 2019, creative industry sales had reached $1.6 billion, representing 44% growth since 2015.
-As COVID-19 struck the nation in March 2020, many creative industries faced significant challenges — including up to 14 months of closure due to state mandated health restriction.
-Jobs in Buncombe County creative industries declined 18% from 2019-20 and by 2021 jobs were estimated to be 2,259 below 2019 totals.
-Sales, which had reached over $1.6 billion in 2019, declined to $1.5 billion in 2020 and increased little in 2021.

Ongoing Health Concerns
With the widespread distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine, the United States has moved from a global pandemic to a national endemic. Navigating the long tail of the endemic still presents challenges for many arts businesses, especially for those that encourage large gatherings of people. When and how to modify health protocols often led to frustrated patrons. Past event cancellations and worries about surges have also changed ticket buying patterns, causing people to wait longer to make purchases and move away from subscriptions. Virtual participation has also declined as individuals have reached what has been termed as “Zoom fatigue.” Even though engagement has shifted, the arts are needed now more than ever. Reports show a sharp increase in anxiety and depression over the last few years, and the arts have been proven to provide valuable health benefits to counteract these issues.

Supply Chain Issues + Opportunities
Global supply chain disruptions have impacted many businesses across the U.S., and not all of these impacts are necessarily bad. Disruptions in the supply line are causing more businesses to look to domestic manufacturing companies to fulfill their needs– leading to faster turnaround times, new jobs, and less negative environmental impacts. Manufacturing topped sales in 2019, and saw a 2% sales increase by 2021– among core creative industries these sales gains reached 41%. Musical instrument manufacturing; custom architectural woodwork and millwork manufacturing; and pottery, ceramics, and plumbing fixture manufacturing were among the top core creative manufacturing industries to see increases in sales and jobs.

A study entitled “Transitioning and Scaling Creative Sector Businesses: A Sector Development Plan for Creative Manufacturing in Western North Carolina” is currently being spearheaded by the Land of Sky Regional Council of Government to examine ways to scale creative manufacturing businesses. As part of this study, the Asheville Area Arts Council is working with Riverbird Research on an assessment of current creative manufacturing industries across the Asheville Metro in Western NC. Findings will be published in early 2023.

Employment + Cost of Living
While there were some job gains in 2021, largely in Manufacturing industries, creative industries jobs overall were still down by over 2,000. The majority of these job losses are in the Arts and Entertainment industries under Leisure and Hospitality, with Historic Sites and Independent Artists, Writers, and Performers making up 56% of the losses.

While there are positions available, finding talent is proving challenging due to the local cost of living and limited availability of affordable housing and other complex factors. These challenges were highlighted in the Buncombe County Creative Sector Earnings report published by Asheville Area Arts Council in November 2021. Findings showed there is a growing gap between local living costs and creative wages. On average, earnings for creative occupations in Buncombe County are 14% lower than the state average and 22% lower than the national average. Meanwhile, the cost of living index is consistently among the highest or highest in the state– which is largely being driven by the cost of housing.

Lessons to Learn
The last few years have taken a toll on many creative industries, but it has also created opportunities that could benefit the creative sector and local community if seized upon. The arts council says now is the time to capitalize on lessons learned during the pandemic and put plans in place to safeguard the creative sector in the event of another crisis. “Though many arts businesses were severely impacted by the pandemic, they persevered,” said Asheville Area Arts Council executive director Katie Cornell. “Due to a lot of creative ingenuity, we only lost a handful of arts businesses, and it could have been a lot worse.”

Emerging studies, such as the one currently being conducted by Brunel University London, say now is the time to assess what worked and what didn’t work across the global cultural sector to create plans focused on better response rates and long term sustainability. This creative framework could be beneficial to many event centric and/or public facing institutions– such as local governments. The initial Brunel report claims, “cities with developed creative infrastructures and cultural life are already prepared to tackle crises because they are likely to have creative and engaging means to intervene in pandemic responses.” The conclusion to this study is set to be released in late 2022.

To read the full Creative Jobs Report report, visit:

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