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WNC Business

Maintaining WNC’s creative economy

Apr 17, 2024 11:04AM ● By Randee Brown

While the WNC community has a tendency to support local, the arts and creative economy is highly dependent on support from tourism. According to ArtsAVL Executive Director Katie Cornell, a variety of creative aspects draw tourists to the region.

Collective art districts such as Asheville’s River Arts District become a destination for tourists. These districts allow visitors to see a variety of working artists in their open studios in one small, walkable area. RAD specifically grew a reputation for featuring contemporary regional crafts, and arts enthusiasts are regularly drawn here for that.

A plethora of WNC’s art-focused events and festivals create popular visitation times for tourists. Festivals feature varieties of art including paintings, pottery, handmade clothes, candles, and woodworkings, along with craft food and beverage vendors often set against a backdrop of live music. These events not only attract tourists, they increase visibility and act as an incubator for the makers and small businesses in the area.

The arts and creative sector was one of the most impacted by the pandemic, according to Cornell, but the number of people employed in that sector has now surpassed the number prior to COVID. Instead of losing jobs because of businesses closing, the number of businesses remained similar through recent years but employment shrank as they were not able to support the same number of staff. Many of these businesses continue to seek grant funding to continue operations; however, sponsorships by local businesses are down because of the uncertain season in the country’s economy.

“The arts are very much affected by fluctuations in tourism and tourists’ behaviors,” Cornell said. “Artists’ retail sales will decline when the amount of tourism declines. This is not unique to Asheville or Western North Carolina, but other places are not quite as reliant on tourism. Our creative reputation and locals supporting locals helps some, but we still have tourism dependence.”

A 2023 study completed by ArtsAVL provided data demonstrating the economic impact of local nonprofit arts and culture organizations in Buncombe County. In this county alone, it was determined this sector was responsible for $51 million in economic activity which supported more than 1,200 jobs and nearly $13 million in tax revenue in 2022.

Historic sites are considered a portion of the creative economy, and represented $260 million in sales in 2022, according to ArtsAVL’s 2023 study. Historic sites are cultural resources, and many people visit the area for the “whole package of arts and history,” according to Cornell. 

“Since the beginning of tourism to the Asheville area, there has been a large influence of the arts,” Cornell said. “As people traveled here for the healing properties of the area, the Mecca of an arts town became just as renowned. When the Vanderbilts came, they brought a lot of artists and creatives with them. Music, pottery, and weaving have always been here, but with people and influence like Thomas Wolfe, it started its own revolution.”

The area’s museums of the arts create an additional hub for art-focused visitors. Places like the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, the Moogseum, and the Asheville Art Museum are all popular in Asheville. Performance arts venues continue to draw increasingly large crowds, and video production is also on the rise in the area.

With the arts drawing tourists to the area, there are industry concerns regarding the artists themselves and their ability to continue to afford to live here. ArtsAVL offered Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson, and Madison Counties a Creative Spaces Survey from February to March 2024 in order to identify sustainable solutions to issues regarding local creative and living spaces impacting artists’ growth and development. 

The survey will compile information including a cost of living assessment, determine median earnings for creatives, highlight potential solutions, and explore potential partnership opportunities. Survey participants will also share the impacts of these challenges on their ability to produce art in WNC. Results are expected to be shared in May 2024.

“We need to understand what initiatives need to be put in place to keep creatives in the Asheville MSA,” Cornell said. “We are working with candidates to ensure they understand arts-related issues and, conversely, ensure artists understand where candidates stand. The arts industry is so heavily impacted by the cost of living, and we’ve got to find a way to keep our artists here.”