Artists in Asheville aren’t unique in this sense—artists everywhere apply and compete for funding from their state and regional arts councils. They’re the custodians of the portion of your tax dollars that fund arts and culture in our communities.
But Asheville’s artists are in a particularly tough spot. First, there are many more of them in our region than is typical for communities our size. Second, Western North Carolina lacks some potential sources of funding generally available to artists in metropolitan areas: There’s no real corporate base, no nonprofit foundations dependably funding the arts and very few individuals or families known for their arts philanthropy.
That leaves the Buncombe County government as the greatest source of arts support here—that is, until this current budget, where county commissioners lined out all cultural funding except for operations at Pack Square.
That has inspired a new alliance of local arts leaders to make a case for broader, more consistent funding from county commissioners and the Tourism Development Authority, which distributes millions of dollars coming in each year through hotel occupancy taxes.
NOTE: The first in our two-part series focuses on Asheville arts leaders unifying to grow awareness and support.
This alliance will find sympathetic ears—to a point.
“I think banding together and coming up with a community-wide ask, I think that’s a great approach,” said Brownie Newman, who chairs the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners. “I think it would be great, so that we’re hearing from the community as a whole about a bigger-picture approach rather than a case-by-case, one-off perspective.
Newman was one of just two commissioners who voted against the 2018-19 budget that passed. He believed cuts in cultural funding from previous years were drastic, but conceded the arts alliance faces a difficult task lobbying officials focused on other priorities for funding. Those range early childhood education and clean energy to affordable housing, cultivating a diverse workforce and stemming the opioid crisis. Any money earmarked for culture would have to be shifted from those areas.
“To some extent, these different priorities do kind of compete with each other, and that’s just the nature of decision-making,” he said. “Investing in affordable housing isn’t specifically for the arts, but many people who work in the arts industry, they’re folks who struggle with affordability too.”
The arts alliance is particularly hopeful to increase cultural funding from the Tourism Development Authority. Since 2002, the TDA has granted $44 million to 39 building and renovation projects—among them are $1.5 million to the Asheville Art Museum, $975,000 to the Center for Craft and $800,000 to the YMI Cultural Center. Since 2015, the TDA has dedicated advertising income from the Explore Asheville website to a cultural events fund, which grants up to $5,000 for programming and small projects.
“There are not tourism bureaus who operating in these spaces,” said Stephanie Brown, executive director of the Tourism Development Authority. “It’s a big program that supports a lot of people and we do actually have engagement with a lot of artists.”
Arts leaders believe there’s some flexibility with TDA money, citing the $850,000 in 2014 that helped Highland Brewing—a for-profit business—build its Meadow concert venue. But Brown said state legislators have since tightened where the TDA board can distribute occupancy tax dollars.
“The TDA is the fiduciary of those funds and has been very successful in its allocation,” she said. “While all these decisions are made by people and there’s a certain subjectivity, we’ve been rigorous in our approach and our communication of qualifications for funding.”
Brown also pushes back at the suggestion the TDA can do more to help artists. She points to a website under the Explore Asheville umbrella dedicated to promoting the local music scene. She also notes the TDA’s marketing campaign to bring and host journalists from 10 national publications to write about Asheville’s music scene. One payoff was a recent article in Rolling Stone magazine touting Asheville as “the new must-visit music city.”
Ultimately, Brown said, the TDA’s mandate is to attract visitors, point them to an array of businesses that might interest them and support grant applications focused on tourism.
“The arts has always been a focal point of our messaging to visitors,” she said. “The TDA is not a source that’s going to solve every need in the community, but it is attracting visitors and connecting them to 1,200 local businesses, including many arts organizations and artists.”
Brown and Newman conceded any efforts to influence funding decisions should look past next year, to the budgets for 2020-21.