About 50 people have gathered at a gallery inside the Refinery Building in Asheville’s South Slope. It’s a whos-who among people in local dance, theater, music, the visual arts.
They’re here as a nascent arts alliance, putting new effort behind a familiar message—that city and county officials should prioritize the arts in their annual budgets.
NOTE: The second in our two-part series looks at the potential and challenges of increasing cultural funding from Buncombe County and the Tourism Development Authority.
“This last year was the first time Buncombe County had no strategic grants for the arts at all,” said Ehren Cruz, a board member of the Asheville Area Arts Council, artistic director for Leaf Community Arts and a leader behind this effort to organize.
“That was a rallying cry,” he said. “We collectively said this is a time upon which we have to state our case for why (the arts) matter.”
Cruz referred to line items in the Buncombe County budget for what are called Strategic Partnership Grants. Historically, arts and culture spending have represented a small fraction of the county’s budget. In the 2018, the county granted more than $1 million to the renovation of the Asheville Art Museum and $150,000 for accessibility improvements to the Asheville Community Theatre. This is in an overall county budget of $330 million.
Even in previous budgets, few arts organizations saw direct support from Buncombe County. But when county commissioners, who adopt each budget, dropped their support of the Asheville Area Arts Council from $20,000 in 2018 to, literally, nothing in the current budget cycle, that sent an alarm through the arts community.
“Asheville’s artistic creative sector and the beautification of Asheville are by far one of the most attractive things we do here,” Cruz said. “So being able to support it in a very tangible but practical way is where the conversation lands. We need to come to the table collectively and say we can’t do it as individuals anymore. This town is too dynamic, too loud, and only together will we have the force and gravity to start speaking about it.”
Common refrains among those urging more governmental support for the arts run along two lines: “Artists saved this town” and “There wouldn’t be tourism here if it weren’t for artists.” Some of that is true.
In 1980, city leaders were on the verge of tearing down 11 blocks of historic buildings downtown to make room for a shopping mall. Drawing inspiration from the famed conceptual public artist Christo, Asheville artist Peggy Gardner organized wrapping the endangered 11 blocks in a curtain of cloth. Her public art uniquely illustrated what would be lost if the mall plan went through and, inarguably, helped save the imperiled buildings.
Over the ensuing decades, local artists have felt helpless and somewhat forgotten as Asheville’s beer and restaurant scenes have seemingly eclipsed the arts as regional draws. In 2018, 11 million visitors spent $2 billion in Buncombe County.
This new arts alliance plans to arm itself with data showing the financial impact regionally of the arts. One of the early challenges is finding agreement among arts groups with differing priorities on the alliance’s vision, language and approaches.
“I think it’s a huge mountain,” said Katie Jones, co-artistic director of Asheville’s Magnetic Theatre. “So many different groups prioritize their own content, and that makes total sense. We’re all competing for audiences to a certain degree, and I think if we gave shout-outs to each other and physically went to each other’s programming, it would be a step in the right direction.”
“A lot of us have formed our own sort of community, and I think it’s reaching beyond that, to communities like Black Mountain and Weaverville,” said Edie Weichert is managing director of Terpsicorps Theatre of Dance. “(We need) to create a larger voice to city officials, so we become just as prevalent as the food industry and the breweries and the outdoors.”
In striking cultural funding from the current budget, county commissioners cited the opioid crisis, affordable housing and early childhood education among other strategic funding priorities. Recognizing that, arts leaders are looking at the Tourism Development Authority and the millions of hotel occupancy tax dollars that come in every year as potential resources.
“It’s very difficult coming to the city and county and saying ‘You’ve got the education gap, you’ve got issues with housing and let’s get some more for the arts in there.’ That’s going to be a conversation that’s often shelved lower, just by you’re looking at survival vs. the amenities, as what they would consider,” Cruz said. “But the arts generate a lot of revenue, and without a lot of sustainable assistance, it’s organic longevity is at risk.
And that, Cruz said, means more artists leaving Asheville—and taking an important part of the region’s appeal along with them.