A place at the table: Art and commerce collide in Asheville

Consultant Tracy Kunkler led a session aimed at creating a “Buncombe County Cultural Task Force,” but Creative Sector Summit attendees couldn’t reach agreement concerning the idea. Photo by Max Cooper.

From arts and crafts to craft beer, Asheville has claimed a secure spot on the national map as a hub of creative activity. Over the last several decades, the area has become a magnet for creative types of every stripe — and the patrons who support those endeavors.

With that trend has come increased economic clout: According to a handout from the city’s Public Art & Cultural Commission, the nonprofit arts-and-culture industry generated $43.7 million in economic activity in Buncombe County last year. That money — $16.9 million spent by local nonprofits plus another $26.8 million from audiences at arts events — supports 1,427 full-time-equivalent jobs, generates $32.5 million in household income for local residents, and delivers $4.8 million in local and state government revenue.

But that highlights tensions between art as a business, an economic-development tool and a means of personal expression.

And as a cash-strapped city government casts about for new revenue and the River Arts District continues its dramatic expansion, those fault lines may loom large.

The money chase

The third annual Creative Sector Summit, held March 6-8 at venues across downtown Asheville, aimed to provide educational forums and networking opportunities that could help take the local arts sector to the next level, said Kitty Love, executive director of the Asheville Area Arts Council. In partnership with assorted other local organizations, the Arts Council sponsored the event.

Some 75 people from diverse backgrounds attended, and in various guises, money loomed large in the discussions.

Grant funding was one such concern, and the term “creative placemaking” kept coming up in connection with the money hunt. A National Endowment for the Arts report defines the buzzword as “partners from public, private, nonprofit and community sectors strategically [shaping] the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, city or region around arts and cultural activities.”

Each year, the federal agency offers grants to support such projects, and several North Carolina towns have received them. But despite Asheville’s impeccable reputation as an arts destination, local organizations haven’t made the cut, noted Gwynne Rukenbrod, executive director of HandMade in America.

“We’re not positioning ourselves competitively in these funding applications,” she argued. “That’s one of the big reasons [for this summit].” HandMade co-sponsored the event.

Another key focus was creating a “Buncombe County Cultural Task Force.” The idea was to merge creative placemaking “with the ability to go after grant opportunities,” said Tracy Kunkler of the Asheville-based Sims & Steele Consulting, who led that session. The task force, noted Love, could also make recommendations to local governments.

But the resulting dialogue revealed significant disagreement over how much the new group should focus on money. Participants were also split over what kinds of people ought to be included: Suggestions ranged from designers and engineers to Chamber of Commerce executives, government officials, philanthropists and educators.

Some questioned calling it a task force; others wondered aloud what the proposed entity could hope to accomplish beyond what existing groups are already doing.

The task force session ended with no clear consensus, though representatives from both the Arts Council and HandMade said they would reach out to the Chamber and continue exploring the idea.

“We just want to keep moving forward until we can find a solution we can live with,” said Kunkler.

Art and development

Meanwhile, over at City Hall,  major changes may be in the works concerning how Asheville engages with the arts community and works to nourish the broader creative sector. Six months after Diane Ruggiero resigned as superintendent of cultural arts to take a similar position in Alexandria, Va., that key post is still vacant, Love noted with dismay.

“We don’t have a designated staff person at the city” to serve as a liaison, she pointed out.

But more appears to be at stake than merely finding Ruggiero’s successor. “We are evaluating the role and the focus of the city’s cultural arts program,” reports Debbie Ivester, assistant director of the Parks, Recreation and Cultural Arts Department. Although the existing program will be funded at least through June, after that, “We don’t know the outcome,” she reveals.

And even as discussions continue among city staffers and elected officials, the Public Art & Cultural Commission is recommending a major reconfiguration: folding Ruggiero’s former job into a new “creative economies director” position in the Office of Economic Development. According to a commission handout given to summit participants, the proposed staffer would be charged with “fostering economic development, urban recognition, small-business growth, the visual and performing arts” as well as “enhancing artistic growth in the community using tools like grant opportunities.”

The proposal is getting serious attention from City Council.

Take me to the river

Not surprisingly, a good deal of discussion at the summit revolved around the River Arts District’s explosive growth in recent years. And as New Belgium Brewing Co. proceeds with its $175 million facility on Craven Street, the pace of that development is likely to accelerate.

As part of the deal with New Belgium, the city will install a new greenway, bike lanes and sidewalks adjacent to the brewery property. Other infrastructure improvements are also in the works, noted Stephanie Monson, Asheville’s riverfront redevelopment coordinator. Another greenway will be built on Riverside Drive property the city owns, which is earmarked for a possible urban village development.

In addition, the stretch of Riverside from Hill Street all the way to the Amboy Road Bridge is in line for a major transportation overhaul, including realignment, bike lanes and sidewalks. Construction will begin within the next three years, Monson predicts.

The city is also gearing up to start work on a River Arts District Master Plan. Over the next six months, says local architect and planner Tom Gallaher, “We’re going to ask the community to get together and tell us what you want to see.” Gallaher also played a key role in developing the Downtown Master Plan, whose recommendations included holding a creative sector summit.

Participants in the Creative Sector Summit ponder a map of the River Arts District and what improvements they’d like to see in the area. Suggestions included affordable gallery space and a rotating sculpture garden. Photo by Jake Frankel.

But here, too, money claimed center stage, as some summit participants voiced fears that gentrification will drive out the very artists who now make the River District a vibrant place. “Artists are the No. 1 interest group” planners want to hear from before drafting their master plan, Monson responded. “There will be more and more opportunities to get involved in shaping the development of the River Arts District,” she promised.

Organic growth

Amid all the talk of plans, programs and task forces, however, summit participants also heard about a less structured approach. As part of one panel discussion, Pink Dog Creative owner Randy Shull told the story of how he turned a bleak former textile factory and warehouse at 342-348 Depot St. into a mix of artists’ studios and bustling retail spaces.

The artist/developer said he thinks of the whole undertaking as a creative experiment. “I painted the building much like I would a canvas,” he explained, adding that the project evolved organically without any kind of master plan.

“People used to ask if it’s safe here,” noted Shull. Now, about two-and-a-half years later, “They ask, ‘Where do I park?’ I feel most proud of creating a community of people coming to this place.”

Creative placemaking, he added, is “not always planned out, not always ‘You know what it’s going to be’ all the time.”


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About Jake Frankel
Jake Frankel is an award-winning journalist who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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