Protecting and promoting the arts in AshevilleApr 25, 2023 07:28AM ● By Randee Brown
River Arts District Artists is a nonprofit organization that was put in place to help local artists thrive, according to President Julie Bell.
Bell said WNC has a long history of creative industries. Noting the John C. Campbell Folk School that was established in 1925, the support that the Vanderbilts gave to local crafters, and Grove Park Industries helping to support people making a living in crafts to the Blue Ridge Heritage Foundation’s Craft Trail, she said that each of these nods to the historic importance of the region’s arts and makers.
“There are artists all over each town in Western North Carolina,” Bell said. “The River Arts District Artists are just a small chunk.”
With approximately 300 members, the organization helps to facilitate bringing visitors to the River Arts District, performs marketing projects, and is working with Arts AVL to expand the trolley service which brings people to the District from downtown Asheville while alleviating parking strains in the area.
During the second Saturday of every month, many artists in the River Arts District present openings of new exhibitions or events, according to Bell. She said visitors can see potters at their wheels, artists at their easels, and jewelry makers creating with various materials. Tourists are able to hang out and watch specific demos, and according to Bell, artists love to tell people about what they are working on.
The district houses galleries for artists of all kinds — fibers, wire, jewelry, sculptors, clay and ceramics, and an endless variety of painters, according to Bell. Many offer classes, and she said kids especially get excited to engage with art that is touchable and tangible; something that they can be a part of.
“With 26 buildings and more than 300 artists within a square mile, there is always something happening and something to see,” Bell said. “Unlike art galleries in some other areas, visitors are talking to the artists themselves instead of a gallery rep. People tell us that it is a different, unique experience, saying they have never been to an area like that before and they love to see the artists at work.”
Bell said this experience also attracts a lot of people that want to pursue art, as well as visitors from other cities and other countries wanting to learn how to start a similar district or association in their own area.
RADA is also in place for advocacy reasons, according to Bell. She said they can speak with government agencies, as well as participate in leadership groups and business associations.
“We are trying to make sure that art stays in the arts district,” Bell said. “We are all living with the gentrification that is happening. While people are coming to the Asheville area for the restaurants, breweries, and rivers, art in general is essential to a healthy society. The artists are what made this area funky in the first place, and it would be a shame to not have that.”
Bell said that RADA members are always trying to come up with innovative ideas to help convince artists to stay in the district. She said building owners don’t have to lease their space to artists. Many artists are concerned about being ‘priced out’ as leasing rates increase, according to Bell.
“The arts are valuable to tourism, bringing in millions of dollars to the local economy,” Bell said. “The thing is — most artists are not bringing in millions themselves.”