Lessons from Asheville

I recently took a trip to the Southeast, visiting with placemakers and urban designers in Asheville, Greenville, Charlotte, and Chattanooga. This is one part of a series exploring what those cities are doing right, what they are doing wrong, and what Wichita can learn from them.

By Alex Pemberton


Asheville was the shortest of my visits; in total, I spent only about five hours in the city on this trip. But Asheville is a city that doesn't take long to understand, with an identity that is immediately apparent. Asheville is an arts town.

This can be seen by its extensive public sculpture selection spread about its downtown; by the dread-locked hippies and drifters sitting on steps with guitars and cajons; and it can most clearly by seen by a visit to the River Arts District, a once-abandoned sliver of flatland along the French Broad River straddling a rail corridor below the ridge that rises east to downtown.

The RAD is one of the most extensive arts districts in the country, with more than 200 practicing artists in every imaginable medium, and a model for place-led urban redevelopment. But to understand the RAD requires an understanding of Asheville's creative culture and the history of its arts community.

Asheville is a small city, with a population under 90,000 in a metro area of less than 425,000. But it is a city that punches above its weight class in cultural cache, instantly recognizable across the country and a major tourist destination. The visual arts play a critical role in this position.

The Value of Scene-Setters

Like most cities with a renowned, unique creative culture, Asheville's arts scene can be traced back to a single institution.

Austin became the live music capital of the world from the genesis of Armadillo World Headquarters. Punk rock grew out of the Mercer Arts Center in Greenwich Village. The Muscle Shoals Sound started in a little recording house in Alabama called Fame Studios. 

Asheville had the Black Mountain College. 

Black Mountain College was started largely by former professors of the Bauhaus, a German aesthetic and design school which was shut down in 1933 under Nazi rule. Black Mountain College was experimental and non-hierarchical -- hardly a college in the traditional sense. There were no grades, degrees, or curricula. Students were involved in all decisions in the college, including when they were ready to graduate. As a result, few students ever did. 

From its founding until it closed in 1957, over 1,200 students came through the Black Mountain College. Notable faculty and students included Walter Gropius, Buckminster Fuller, Robert Rauschenberg, and Allen Ginsberg -- artists, architects, designers, poets, and creators who achieved international renown.

Many of the 1,200 students, of course, did not become world famous. Many did, however, remain in Asheville and continued to practice their art. Black Mountain College played a role similar to what cities today attempt to create with startup companies -- not only an incubator of, but a magnet for, exceptional talent. 

These "scene-setters" are impossible to create with top-down, deliberate intention. There is no playbook for creating a cultural scene, no optimal combination of capital and organizational charts that can alchemize such innovation. The only defining thread between Black Mountain College (started by German exiles), Armadillo World Headquarters (an odd amalgamation of hippies and rednecks), Mercer Arts Center (a punk rock factory led by video artists), and Fame Studios (a soul music studio run by a hillbilly) is a unique degree of openness. 

Openness to ideas, like a wild new form of music or a geodesic dome. Openness to others, like long-haired flower children and hard-line honky-tonkers standing shoulder-to-shoulder to see Willie Nelson. Openness to support such ventures when they need it, and to get out of their way when they don't. Openness to experimentation and a willingness to fail. Openness to impermanence, as none of the aforementioned scene setters still exists today. 

Apply that openness, though, and their legacies will remain.

The River Arts District

The legacy of Black Mountain College can be felt throughout Asheville, but perhaps most strongly in the River Arts District. 

Its history is much the same as most arts districts across the country. What was once an industrial area of rail lines and brick warehouses along the river had become abandoned as manufacturing moved overseas. The buildings became appealing to artists because they were cavernous and architecturally-unique -- with space to create and inspiration on offer -- but mostly because they were cheap. 

The artists moved in, sometimes with the permission of building owners and sometimes illegally, and began to create. The creative industries thrive on proximity and critical mass, leading more artists to open studios and galleries down by the French Broad River.

But where the RAD sets itself apart from most arts districts is that its creativity is just as apparent outside as in. The buildings are covered in murals, gates feature local blacksmiths' artistry, and glassblowing studios roll up their garage doors to make their kilns visible from the sidewalk. This is simple but powerful -- it invites the public in to experience the arts and the artists, in a way that eliminates the psychological barrier of opening a gallery door.

Particularly in an area, like Wichita, where most of the general public does not consider themselves knowledgeable about the arts, exposing creative talent in a truly public setting can increase comfort and accelerate feelings of creative competency. This is critical to developing a "big tent" arts scene, where interested residents who would otherwise remain on the sidelines instead become active participants -- supporting artists and galleries, and collecting works. 

Takeaways from Asheville

As Wichita continues to emphasize the arts and understand their importance in developing a unique, authentic culture and improving quality of life, it can learn lessons from Asheville.

First is to identify and welcome cultural innovators -- not just tolerate or co-exist, but truly support and co-create. This means support from the business community to invest in local artists, from the real estate community and property owners to create spaces for artists to work and thrive, and from the local government to create supportive policies -- and, sometimes, to display some intentional neglect to rules when needed -- to allow creative expression in the public realm. 

Second is to ensure that a creative district can be sustained long-term. Asheville's River Arts District is sprawling and still raw, with broken and missing sidewalks, several abandoned buildings, and empty lots -- but it is showing signs of a shift, with new streets projects, coffee shops, a large new apartments-over-retail project anchoring the south end of the district, and million-dollar homes being renovated and expanded up the hillside. The arts are perhaps the greatest placemaking tool in urban redevelopment, and almost always spur interest in living and working in proximity, thus spurring demand for investment. Wichita is experiencing a similar evolution on Commerce Street, with property values rising to the point that artists are increasingly being financially pinched. Wichita needs more property owners who recognize the cultural value of the arts, which elevate their immediate surroundings and the city as a whole, and are willing to subsidize creative spaces with the value they generate in adjacent properties. And it needs to seriously consider programs to shield working artists who own their buildings from the rising property taxes their creative endeavors spur.

Third is to bring the arts outside. While many cities have seen great success with arts in public places programs as part of the government's cultural funding -- a model Wichita should seek to implement -- Asheville demonstrates the value in simply allowing creators to create. It does not have to be a six-figure sculpture project -- even a grain bin with a cool quote from an unknown graffiti artist can turn into an icon for a district and its city. 

With the right mix of openness, intention, and transparency, Wichita could very well become a world-class arts town in its own right.