An Asheville without artists?

Predictions:

• Cost of living could price artists out
• “Far more creative opportunities”
• Tech infrastructure needed for support

Twenty years ago, few would have predicted that Asheville would be the hub of creativity that it is today. Downtown was a rundown, dirt-cheap and largely abandoned husk. Its financial future was murky at best, and culturally speaking, the city was something of a blank slate.

What a difference two decades can make. Galleries, music venues and all manner of creative ventures have flowered here since the late 1980s, helping to drive an engine of development that is now threatening to make the city more attractive—but paradoxically, less welcoming—than it has been.

What will Asheville’s arts culture look like in 2027?

“I think that we’re in danger of not being able to entice artists to move here already, much less 20 years from now,” says Adrienne Crowther, executive director of the Asheville Area Arts Council. She compares today’s Asheville to the SoHo area of Manhattan, which was once popular with artists but became so hip and trendy that eventually few of them could afford to live there. She’s concerned that the Asheville of 2027—or of 2010, for that matter—will have an all-too-similar story.

“Increasingly, artists can’t afford to live here, so they keep having to move further and further out of the city,” she says. “I see that as a danger to our arts community.”

For those who have come to think of Asheville as an arts magnet—not only for visual arts and crafts, but for other arts such as live music and theater—this is a depressing, if not unexpected, projection.

But the experts’ expectations aren’t all bad.

“New York City has been discouraging people from living there with housing prices for 150 years, and yet there’s more going on in New York than there ever has been,” argues Greg Lucas, vice president of Music and Art Management, a promotional firm with offices in New York City and Asheville. “It may become more of a drag to be an artist in Asheville—because it won’t be as cheap and there won’t be as much space—but there will also be far more creative opportunities.”

Lucas contends that there are two main reasons that Asheville is likely to see a boom in its creative class. First, the city is a great place to live, which makes it a welcoming base for an increasingly decentralized music industry. Second, that industry “tends to follow the talent,” he notes. Since Asheville’s creativity-encouraging culture already attracts talented people, the trend should create something of a snowball effect, with recording studios, production houses, marketing companies and management firms relocating to the area—with most of them carving out a viable living from the native talent.

He’s also quick to point out that, while Asheville could become a sizable hub for live music, there are reasons that it hasn’t happened on a grand scale yet. For example, the local music scene, while active, isn’t yet fully self-supporting.

In other words, what’s holding back the music scene—and for that matter, the city’s arts community at large—is a lack of infrastructure. Without that bedrock, the current boom from the creative side of the economy could end up a big bust, some argue.

“Yes, that’s certainly a concern,” says Allison Watson, executive director of the technology-focused creative group the Media Arts Project. “I think it’s really important that Asheville develop a technology-based infrastructure. A lot of places are trying to attract tech firms.” The tech market is widely seen as a cornerstone of creative economies, “but when there’s no infrastructure in place, it’s hard to keep them.”

In spite of these challenges, Crowther, Lucas and Watson see a bright future for the city. All three project that, with proper planning, the Asheville of 2027 could be a vibrant cultural center with a substantial creative economy. The trick is to create an affordable city that welcomes artists, musicians, filmmakers and other creative types, while forging a city development plan that remembers to include this sector’s need for places to live, work and perform.

It’s either that, or Asheville runs the risk of becoming known as the SoHo of the South.

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