The art of Art Fryar

How did Asheville — nestled in the heart of Dixie and in one of the reddest of the 50 states — come to be the “San Francisco of the East”?

We who enjoy the luxury of living in a place where the arts flourish and diversity is celebrated should take a moment to thank the folks who have dedicated their lives and worked tirelessly to enhance these aspects of our hometown. In that spirit, I write this to honor one of Asheville’s greatest heroes: the recently retired Art Fryar.

Art’s lifetime of hard work, his shrewd business sense, his standard of excellence, his vision, his pride in our community and dedication to its betterment, his artistic talent and eye for beauty, his kindness and generosity, his sense of humor, his sometimes brutal honesty, and his utter lack of concern about pissing people off have all combined to make him a hero and an icon.

Art used his considerable gifts to maintain the Asheville Ballet, to open and run Scandals — a highly successful business that’s been a safe haven for the GLBT community for more than 25 years — and to feed the terminally ill through his favorite charity, Loving Food Resources. Those are just a few of his significant contributions to our community.

“Nothing would be happening today in the dance world without Art Fryar.” That’s the verdict of Ann Dunn, who owns the Fletcher School of Dance and is the director of the Asheville Ballet. Through the ’60s and ’70s, with Art at the helm, the nonprofit Asheville Ballet Guild focused on classical ballet, making it accessible to a wider range of individuals. Art, says Dunn, was a “wonderful teacher, choreographer and dancer” whose studio was committed to preserving, developing, nurturing, promoting and assimilating classical ballet.

In the late <#218>70s, however, Art decided it was time to redirect his attention. So he turned over the responsibility for the Asheville Ballet — along with all the costumes and props he’d acquired over the years — to Dunn and reinvented himself as a businessman.

Thanks to Art’s all-around talent, Scandals quickly became a respected local business, and it’s been the mecca for a whole generation of queers. Many of us grew up in the space Art created for us. But he was determined that the club would never become a stereotypical gay bar: rundown, dirty, drug-infested.

When I started working there nearly six years ago, I was amazed to find that at 4 in the morning, when the staff was complaining of exhaustion and ready to head home, Art would be out on the dance floor wielding a mop. He unstopped toilets; he took out the trash. And he never considered himself to be above the myriad menial tasks required to run a business like Scandals.

Art’s standard was excellence, and worse luck for you if you weren’t rinsing your mop enough. He stayed every night until the bitter end, and he was there all week long — puttering, fixing things, dreaming and planning improvements. Art poured his heart and soul into Scandals; he was determined that the GLBT community should have a safe, clean place to go every weekend.

His strict policies kept Scandals’ reputation impeccable. He instilled a sense of ownership and respect in all of us; he always expected the best from this community, and that’s exactly what he got. The fighters didn’t fight there, the users didn’t use there, and the minors didn’t drink there. Art wanted us to have the finest place possible, and he accomplished his goal.

But one of Art’s most admirable qualities is his determination to give back to the community that made him successful. He’s been a devoted supporter of Loving Food Resources, which provides food and personal-care items to the terminally ill — primarily people with AIDS — without the red tape that seems to bog down so many charities.

A lot of people simply give money and feel they’ve done their bit, but Art did the heavy work himself. Every Tuesday morning he shopped at Manna Food Bank, loading pounds and pounds of canned goods into his van, unloading them and sorting them. Every Thursday afternoon he went to buy fresh produce and eggs, and on Saturday mornings he was there to distribute the food. Art held benefits to support the nonprofit, inspiring those close to him to contribute our time as well as our money. By example, he taught us the importance and the joy of giving.

I am deeply saddened that illness has forced Art to give up the work he’s loved so much, but even now he inspires me. Throughout Art’s heartbreaking struggle with cancer, he’s maintained his dedication to our community: The proceeds from the sale of his possessions and the club (which is still thriving under new ownership) will be returned to our community, and his business wizardry and compassion will outlive him through the Art Fryar Charitable Trust Fund. Designed to sustain itself indefinitely, it will support Loving Food Resources (through Manna Food Bank) as well as the Diana Wortham Mainstage Series.

Art Fryar has been an inspiration and a gift to Asheville. His friendship and generosity have touched so many of our lives, and he’s played the role of surrogate father to me and to countless other struggling individuals. I know that what he’s given me is something far larger than my own selfish sorrow.

But words alone can never truly pay tribute to Art. So I hope you will all take a moment to recognize Art Fryar in whatever way you honor your heroes. If only a few of us tried to emulate him for even one day out of our lives, we would all wake up the next day to a more beautiful world.

[Writer/bartender/raft guide/student Joanna Knowles lives in downtown Asheville with her partner and their two dogs.]

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