How to move forward when you’re forced to move out


Photo: Zen Sutherland

I was kicked out of my studio in the Tannery, along with many other artists. There’s a better way for Asheville to treat its creatives.

Above: The Tannery before its improvement by local artists, and after. Photo by Zen Sutherland.

On July 12th I awoke to the alarming news that my studio in the Tannery at 339 Old Lyman was going to be shut down by the city and that power would be turned off in two days. I had just unpacked all of the boxes I had been storing all of my art supplies in and was ready to start working.

For me, the aspirations of an artist are fairly simple. We want a place where we are free to be creative, innovative, and expressive. We want to apply analytical thought to the processing of a medium and create something that strikes a nerve about our collective experiences. We want the work to speak to an audience with whom we hope the work resonates.

Of course, we want to be able to produce enough to support ourselves financially too. It is a commitment to one’s own vision and perception of life and an opportunity to participate in creating culture. Personally, committing to being an artist professionally is new. To allow myself to be creative, to allow myself what some consider a luxury, to be an artist.

However, being an artist is, and always will be, a struggle. To find space, to find time, to find a buyer or supporter, it is an endless fight to free oneself from the societal constraints that demand that we participate in a profession that is measurable, tax driven and profit based just to survive. However, there are pros and cons to taking that approach.

Artists are engaged in making the world amazing. They are building public spaces for us to feel connected with each other, they are painting murals that beautify and define our environment, and they are making music that we dance and sing to. They imbue life with diversity and meaning. Without art, where would we be as a society?

Yet, there is a constant battle within cities that find themselves gentrified due to the growth that the creative culture spurs. There is an undeniable need to carve out and define a space that is made specifically for artists to innovate, create, and do what they do best without being displaced as a result. There tends to be a huge gap between the artists and those that benefit from their work.

The story goes like this: artists move into an area considered undesirable, or partially abandoned. They make exciting and cool things happen there. Suddenly, wealthier populations want a piece of the action and the money begins to exchange hands. Then, the artists can’t afford to stay there anymore. They get kicked out or priced out and move to the next dilapidated building where they can work for cheap, and so on.

Next door to me at the Tannery Alex Irvine and Ian Wilkinson were working on the piece that the city had commissioned for the large public art project at 51 Biltmore, the side of the Aloft Hotel. Myself and several other artists who shared space at these studios began calling and emailing each other, I emailed Kitty Love at the Asheville Area Arts Council (AAAC) to find out what could be done to protect the massive work that Alex and Ian were already engaged in.

Lots of Facebook discussions with Asheville City Council members ensued and pleas for assistance with information, solutions, or reprieve bounced around our community. I just kept thinking to myself “this is the path that you have chosen.” You have intentionally chosen to lead the life of an artist and this is the result of such wishful thinking. I was disheartened to say the least.

Gentrification is obviously a hot issue for our city, as it is in many. Recently, city officialslooked at a study, Alternatives to Gentrification in East of the Riverway, to address some of the problems that we are dealing with currently, particularly in the River Arts District. While there is no question that gentrification is occurring, the question is how to resolve it. According to the study, “what is required to keep these neighborhoods from becoming more homogenous and exclusive is a swift intervention of targeted, long-term public/ private sector partnerships and collaborations. The most effective strategies to combat gentrification and prevent displacement are measures that local government can adopt and implement.”

The report recommended that the city pursue “inclusionary zoning” requiring affordability in exchange for development incentives. The study also suggested looking into community land trusts that partner public and private entities who buy and control land with a specific purpose and an affordability guarantee that protects that property forever and maintains its community accessibility.

From my perspective, there are a number of problems we are facing within the arts community as well as our community as a whole. Invariably, artists provide a service to the city, one for which they often receive nothing in return. We do not receive money for raising property values, we do not benefit from increasing the tax revenues. When we create a vibrant scene at no cost to the city, only to have our integral role disregarded as we’re kicked out, we have no recourse.

The crux of the problem is two-fold. First, artists largely lack an understanding or a concern for a system such as city government and/or how those systems function. Second, the city does not have a matrix for identifying artists’ needs, placing value on our contribution as an economic sector, or the staff resources to provide support to assist us in maneuvering through the aforementioned municipal cogs.

There are a lot of artists that work in defiance of said structures, but there is a point where we all must take charge of our own success. The city has provided numerous incentives to other economic sectors to encourage their investment and growth in our community, such as New Belgium. In fact, the city is currently providing a graffiti removal service to businesses at considerable cost, while leaving artists to rely on their own resources to survive.

So I do believe that the city should be accountable for providing some financial assistance and creating amenities that foster our success as a sector. We must take this opportunity for creative industry leaders to come together to devise a solution that works within the city’s parameters and ask that changes be made where the system is failing us.

In the case of Lyman Studios, not only was the city unaware of the fact that their own commissioned art work was being built in one of the studios that they shut down, but they had no way of assessing or assisting in finding a viable solution for the problem they had created by turning off the water and power to that location.

As if that wasn’t enough, the artists and lessees that have spent a number of years working to improve the spaces and work within the guidelines prescribed by the city had no support from either the property owner or the city to help bring the buildings up to code.

As a community, we can do a lot better. We should all be working together to accomplish a common goal that benefits everyone. For the property owner, the asset becomes more valuable and a viable source of income, for the city, the property value increases and they serve the needs of an industry that creates the visibility and income stream of the city and county through increased tourism and revenue, and artists have safe, reliable spaces to work and grow their businesses. Everyone wins.

With the lack of support available for artists from the local government, it can be difficult to identify the opportunities found within what feels like an abandonment of the arts. Since the city of Asheville has eliminated the position for the Superintendent of Cultural Arts as well as its largest outdoor cultural event, Bele Chere, saving $350,000 or more annually, yet, has allocated $300,000 for the “eradication” of graffiti, it would seem that the city has no real interest in investing in the cultural sector.

The only reasonable answer for this occurring seems, one would hope, to stem from the difficulty in legitimately quantifying the economic impact of creative enterprises.

While the Americans for the Arts did an extensive study showing the immense economic vitality of arts non-profits in Buncombe County (to the tune of $43.7 million income generated annually), there is currently no way to capture the financial data that represents the thousands of independent artist entrepreneurs that work in the county.

The only way to truly be represented within our city’s system would be to capture this information through a Creative Sector census for this region which means that artists would have to share their financial information in order to show how much value they actually have (i.e. sales tax revenue, income generated, etc.). That will make it easier to make the case for artists’ vital role in the city’s economic prosperity.

Of course, having this data is not enough. Collectively, arts organizations, individual artists, and arts-based business owners must utilize this information to establish best practices and define a working model for serving our constituency that can be pursued effectively through the outlined channels that all other businesses seek services from the city, the county, and the Chamber of Commerce.

While the problems are many and the issue is complicated, there are viable solutions within our grasp. First and foremost, our community needs a plan that will define cultural investment for this region and outline roles for local public entities and government, private non-profit entities such as the Arts Council, and artists in business that could provide real support for the creative industries.

I recently looked at an outline of what the city of Chattanooga, Tenn. has done to support growth in the arts in their city and discovered that they attribute their successful creation of a culturally diverse environment to:

attracting and retaining artists by providing annually supported city programs and grants, providing start-up support groups that foster incubation, acceleration, and collaboration for small businesses, utilizing inclusive creative placemaking and urban design to activate and re-purposes public spaces, encouraging young people to participate civically by appealing to them through use of city wide branding, street art, and affordable housing in upfit old buildings, focusing on technology, high speed internet, and public access to wi-fi, incorporating multi-modal transportation, having brave, bold, creative, and optimistic city leadership including young city staff and personnel.

The mayor of Chatanooga encourages ideas that present solutions that meet the needs the entire constituency and their city’s website has a tab on the home page for Arts and Recreation which shows the city’s recognition of its value. Asheville needs to identify the cultural assets it has currently, assess how it can best support and retain those assets, and invest in recruiting more talented young artists in order to maintain the city’s vibrancy and relevance.

In order to recruit and retain artists, there must be a concerted effort from public and private entities to collaboratively seek and procure national funding from major programs such as the NEA Our Town Grant, Art Place America, and The Ford Foundation. We need to leverage tools and working models such as NC Arts Council SmART initiatives and Artspace NC to better understand and secure the means necessary to allocate annual revenue specifically set aside for the creative sector to help subsidize amenities for artists.

It is common for cities to use a “percent for art” program, often a city ordinance, where a fee, usually some percentage of the project cost, is placed on large scale development projects in order to fund and install public art. Though the city of Asheville does have a 1% for the arts in place currently for public capital improvement projects, more substantial funds could be generated if the city were also to require that private developments donate to the 1% for arts which has been done successfully in cities like Arlington, Va. More funds for the arts means more ways to increase the cities ability to support and sustain the artist community.

In Richard Florida’s book, Cities & the Creative Class, he asserts that in order for a city to sustain a valid arts economy, it must have the three T’s consisting of “talent, tolerance, and technology. Within this discussion Florida argues that “the creative class is socially relevant because of its members ability to spur regional economic growth through innovation” stating that 30% of the workforce in the United States falls within the realm of creative economy. Without those three T’s, our city will stagnate over the long term.

Lastly and most importantly, there is a dire need for artists to have production space, performance and exhibition space, housing, and support systems that are accessible and affordable to help them develop their businesses successfully and sustainably.

After the exodus from the studios at 339 Old Lyman, The Tannery, Terpsicorps, Switchyard Studios, and more, the search for us all to find new places to work is a real challenge. Simultaneously efforts to provide artists with affordable production space were thwarted or stalled by often-subjective city building codes. Russell stated in an article in the Mountain Xpress recently that, he “compromised the vision to be code-compliant” as a result of the city’s requests for immediate response to the violations.

Public safety is understandable and the codes are in place for good reason, however, I think the city needs to take a proactive approach to helping problem-solve with property owners and tenants to bring old buildings up to code, consider variances based on use and relative risk, and actively seek funding to alleviate the strain of financially cumbersome projects that have essential community components necessary for the district to thrive while also maintaining its unique character and original draw.

If the city was more willing and able to work with artists and residents from the get-go, we might not be in the position of needing to backpedal our approach to avoid complete gentrification or create infill for spaces that could have been intentionally designed to incorporate arts and culture. Through establishing the community land trusts that the gentrification report recommends, property could become an intentional artist hub with public and private investment as well as federally grantable opportunities that would provide affordable artists studio spaces, production facilities, performance and exhibition space, as well as visitor amenities like restaurants and coffee shops. This type of art-based development is essential to the health of the River Arts District.

The good news is, this is the pivotal moment where we all have an opportunity to say what needs to be said. As a part of the artistic community, I am willing to contribute my time and talents for the betterment of our community through setting an intention to see that not only do we understand the system within which we must operate, but also to work toward changing the system to better serve our holistic needs. In response to the closing of the Lyman Studios, several of the affected artists were invited by The AAAC to put together a show that was representative of our collective works and bring together a visual representation of the culture created in such a place. The show, titled, “Camped Out on Greasy Grass,” will have an opening reception on Friday, August 29th from 6-9 pm at their new location in the Grove Arcade.

Kitty Love, as the Executive Director of the AAAC summarizes the opportunity best in her statement about the show: “The time has come for us, as a community, to commit our resources to provide support so that artists can do business sustainably.” After all, what we create is vital to the overall success of our city.

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