There were four full-time staff and one part-timer, when Katie Cornell took over just a year ago as executive director of the Asheville Area Arts Council.
Today, Cornell is the entire staff. The council gave up its South Slope offices, gallery and rental studios, inside the Refinery Building, and now has no physical space beyond Cornell’s home office.
“What we did is cut as many of the overhead expenses as we could in order to survive,” Cornell said. “Like most nonprofit organizations, donations, memberships are down, funding is down, so we have to be as conservative as possible.”
Most metropolitan cities have independent, nonprofit arts councils that regrant money from governments and foundations to local artists and arts organizations.
With the backing of her board, Cornell has shifted the council’s role and strategy from direct artist support—either through modest funding or exhibition opportunities—to one of broader advocacy. The council has surveyed area artists three times since the pandemic started and Cornell has used those results both to steer her work and influence policy makers.
Cornell partners with the nonprofit Arts North Carolina on messaging to state legislators and is a leading voice to city and county leaders for restoring funding and building investment in the arts. She’s on committees working to channel more money to the arts from Buncombe County’s Tourism Development Authority and ensure updated plans for Thomas Wolfe Auditorium include local performing artists.
North Carolina has received and distributed $9.4 million in CARES Act funding to counties statewide. The arts council is receiving $300,000 of that, most of which will be regranted to local arts organizations.
“Advocacy is needed more than ever now,” Cornell said. “We had been running the Refinery Creator Space on Coxe Avenue, had 10 artist studios, doing exhibitions, and what I heard is while people appreciated that, it wasn’t the role they need the arts council to fill.”