An overflow crowd of more than 150 people packed the Flood Gallery in Asheville’s River Arts District on Tuesday evening, October 9, to talk with candidates for the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners about the subject all around them — the arts.
Surrounded by the dramatic paintings of Juie Rattley III, the audience and the candidates grappled with issues affecting the arts as an economic engine for the city and county.
All of the commission candidates were invited to attend, but only five were present for the dialogue: J.B. Howard, Republican candidate for commission chair; Terry Van Duyn, Democrat, District 3; Holly Jones, Democrat, District 1; David King, Republican, District 3; and Brownie Newman, Democrat, District 1.
Jolene Mechanic, co-owner of the Phil Mechanic Studios where the Flood Gallery is located, organized the forum because of a report released in July by the Americans for the Arts (see “The Art of Politics in Buncombe County, Oct. 7 Xpress) . For the first time, Mechanic said, the real economic impact that the arts sector has on Buncombe County and Asheville has been quantified. “I thought it was important to make those numbers public to everyone. The numbers are huge — $43-plus million per year.”
Mechanic calls the study a valuable tool that can be used by artists, political leaders, the Chamber of Commerce and others who promote the area. “It is an indisputable fact that a majority of visitors come here because of the arts, and whether or not they buy the art, they are buying hotel rooms, eating in restaurants, visiting local shops, coffee houses and breweries,” said Mechanic.
The political forum spotlighted that study, and moderator Charlie Flynn-McIver — another player in the arts community as artistic director of NC Stage Company — meticulously went through prepared questions regarding the county’s potential response to the economic impact figures, honing in on what the county could do to protect and encourage the artists and organizations involved.
King sympathized with the plight of many artists. “I think the arts are important [to the] health and economic well-being of the county. I understand the woes and pains of being a small business person,” he said, noting he is very receptive to people’s questions. He then encouraged the arts audience to create its own lobbying organization. “I don’t see or hear of an organization such as CIBO [Council of Independent Business Owners]. Believe me, we listen to CIBO. Maybe that’s a starting point. This gathering’s a starting point.”
Newman, whose business is renewable energy, spoke of his desire to make the county a leader for energy efficiency, and then applied that to the arts. “I’m looking to hear some ideas from the arts community,” he said to the crowd — turning the question back on them. “Asheville is really a community led by small business owners,” he noted, pointing to past governmental support for Mountain BizWorks, which helps train small business owners and provides some start-up capital. “That’s a model we can continue to build on or [we could] do something more specific.”
Jones spoke to the importance of how many people were filling the room. “This is one of the larger crowds,” she said of the season of political forums, emphasizing the obvious interest in the topic of the forum. Jones was the only candidate to bring along the requested personal and “meaningful” art piece to display to the audience — a self-portrait of her 10-year-old daughter. Jones noted she had read the arts-study findings, and was interested in learning more from other cities. “I’m wide open to those conversations,” she told the group. “I think that local policymakers should look at arts like they do other infrastructure.”
Van Duyn told the arts-district audience, “Every time I’ve come down here I am just amazed at what you’ve done — pretty much by yourself.” On the board of the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina, she recalled an application from Kitty Love — arts activist turned executive director of the Asheville Area Arts Council — to start a business incubator for the arts. “For the first time, I thought about what Asheville would be like without the arts,” Van Duyn said of that encounter. As for the current resident artists in the district, she referred to policies in place that provide special treatment for small firms, including tax incentives and historic building credits. “It would seem to me a logical extension,” she said, to offer some special benefits classification to the River Arts District. “I’d like to find out how to make that work here.”
Howard started with a quip: “I’ve been to a lot of meetings. You’re the first group I’ve seen in this county making money.” He had visited the district in the past, he said, to see what was happening and what could be done to enhance its momentum. He admitted to not having the answers, but said, “What we have is the ability to sit and listen to your problems and … together solve the problems. You need a commission that does not turn its back on you. [Art] is an integral part of not only the city of Asheville but Buncombe County.”
As the evening progressed, discussion turned to the gentrification of the district and the displacement of its artist-pioneers. “Real estate is market-driven,” said King. “You are paying a premium to live here. I’m not sure that is an issue we’re able to address or correct.” Jones offered the affordable-housing model as an idea for affordable art spaces. Newman referred to the hotel occupancy tax as a potential source of funding for arts advocacy, given the figures that identify the arts as a big driver in the local economy.
“I don’t think you folks were coming in and asking for a handout,” declared Howard. “I think what you want is [for us] to assure you that [we] will listen and will sit down at the table with your representatives and together work out a plan that is beneficial not only to you, but to the entire county.”
Asked about the $8.5 million tax incentive by the county to win the New Belgium Beer location to the district, and whether tax incentives might be targeted to the arts, Howard answered a simple, “No.” Jones, however, said, “I think absolutely you should be at the table, and I’m wide open to that conversation.”
“I really don’t know what could or couldn’t be done there,” said King, adding, “I don’t have a problem with [incentives] — I support what’s done with New Belgium.” Newman also offered support for the New Belgium incentives, but asked, “What are the rules we follow, because they need to be available to everybody. … I think the [arts] community should come forward with specific ideas [for that].”
Van Duyn mentioned a current initiative by the Community Foundation to “preserve our cultural heritage,” and the possibility of using that as a model for researching funders and grants.
Asked how they would like to see the arts bring different communities together, the candidates had strong reactions. “This is a start,” said King. “Don’t drop it here. I will always be approachable, and I don’t have all the answers. I am open.”
Newman mentioned his participation in arts education in high school, and the impression that made on his life. He sees that in the arts programs offered to the public now, and their effect on children from different communities.
Jones used the question as an occasion to make a personal plea to stop what she characterized as ” incredible devisiveness” between the city and the county that is “damaging to our fiber and to our economic prospects. … We have artists that live all over this place. We must value all of our artists and their art. Push back on that devisive language and know that we are here together.”
Van Duyn sympathized. “I, too, have spent some time trying to figure out how to take what Holly just said and turn it into a suggestion. Maybe the county could provide technical support to help us work together.” Marketing might be one area for united effort, she allowed. “What we need is to start this discussion.”
Asked after the forum what she thought the effect of the evening had been, organizer Mechanic answered, “I believe that the artists and our county leaders have successfully started a dialogue, and that both have shown an interest in working together to find ways to protect this huge source of revenue for Buncombe county.”
So what’s next?
“After the election, I am planning to bring groups from other cities that are facing — and successfully avoiding — problems that come with the inevitable gentrification issues that displace artists,” said Mechanic. “I’m hoping to pull people together that have experience, and put them with our people here, so that answers and solutions that are working in other cities can be discussed and perhaps implemented here in Asheville.”
by Nelda Holder, contributing editor
Editor’s note: In preparation for the gallery forum, Jolene Mechanic asked all the county commission candidates to respond in writing to specific questions regarding the $43.7 million impact of the arts in Buncombe County. Five responses were received (David Gantt, Democratic candidate for chair, and commission candidates Van Duyn, Jones, Newman and Christina Kelley G. Merrill, Republican from District 2.). Their responses are available here on the Flood Gallery website.